Why Don’t More Christians Like “Fifty Shades of Grey”?

Let me tell you about a film that’s garnered a lot of publicity. The story revolves around a wealthy and debonair businessman with serious control issues. His sexual tastes involve perverse fantasies, but he gets what he wants because he’s rich, powerful, and handsome. In telling this story, the movie doesn’t shy away from depictions of the sex act. The audience is inundated with sex, in fact. The debauchery is enough to make a lot of people sick, either with revulsion, pleasure, or a mixture of both.

Do you think I’m talking about Fifty Shades of Grey? Actually, I’m referring to The Wolf of Wall Street, which came out on DVD just last year.

Many prominent Christian critics loved WoWS, as I pointed out earlier. Fifty Shades of Grey, on the other hand, has been either ignored or condemned. And yet there are some glaring similarities in how both movies handle sex.

They both employ stylistic techniques that were labeled as hardcore porn just a few decades ago. These techniques involve the filming of partially and/or fully nude actors who are engaged in sexual behavior with one another.

Both films dehumanize the actors who star in them. For WoWS, this is especially true for actor Margot Robbie, who is treated like a piece of meat. For Fifty Shades, the objectification of Dakota Johnson took a toll on both of the main actors, as evidenced by several cast interviews. Consider the following snippet from Glamour:

JAMIE: There were times when Dakota was not wearing much, and I had to do stuff to her that I’d never choose to do to a woman.

DAKOTA: It’s stressful enough to be tied to a bed naked in a scene. But then they call cut, and you’re still tied to the bed, naked. Jamie would be the first one to throw a blanket over me.

JAMIE: I felt very protective and aware that it probably wasn’t easy for her to be put in those situations, and exposed. . . .

DAKOTA: Sometimes
I did walk off the set feeling a bit shell-shocked. The drive home from work always helped me snap out of it. And a big glass of wine.

Or consider this excerpt from Johnson in TIME:

It was emotionally taxing. At first I was like, “Oh my God, this is the worst thing ever,” and then I was like, “All right, let’s get on with it.”

Johnson’s psychological distress is a milder version of the sexual trauma actors experience in the world of porn.

Am I going out on a limb by comparing these films to pornography? Not in the least. Reviewers of The Wolf of Wall Street—including those who loved the film—refer to it as being sexually explicit in the extreme (something we’ve examined in detail before). When a movie is “replete with…acts of sexual depravity” and “borderline NC-17,” how can its pornographic overtones be denied?

Similarly, audiences and critics alike have associated Fifty Shades with porn. Mike McGranaghan writes, “At its core, this is a rape fantasy. . . . If you think rape is a turn-on, this is the film for you.” Movie reviewer Gary Wolcott says, “Fifty Shades of Grey is basically a beautifully filmed, expensive piece of soft core pornography. It gives you the most explicit sex, bondage and spanking you’ll see this side of an Internet porn site.”

But that’s not all. There are ways in which The Wolf of Wall Street is actually more problematic than Fifty Shades. For example, the former has more sexually explicit content than the latter. WoWS has somewhere close to 22 sex scenes, whereas Fifty Shades involves the main characters having sex less than ten times.

And what about the use of the male gaze (which influences most mainstream sex scenes)? The visual objectification of the female form plays a prominent role in WoWS. While still succumbing to the male gaze in many respects, Fifty Shades reveals several aesthetic choices that speak more to a female audience.

With these considerations, how can Christians call WoWS a “great and possibly terrific movie while rejecting Fifty Shades out of hand because “frankly, life is too short”?

There are several answers to this question, I’m sure, but the one I’ve heard most often goes something like this: the message of Fifty Shades is bad, but the message of WoWS is good. WoWS shows how carnal and corrupt the main character really is, while Fifty Shades puts a positive spin on sexual abuse and manipulation.

In response, it could be argued that the overall trajectory of the Fifty Shades trilogy is actually a story about true love. After all, the narrative acknowledges the detrimental nature of Christian Grey’s sexual excursions. His abusive ways are rooted in the abuse he himself received. His character arc involves going from a hardened cynic into a true romantic—all because of the transforming power of love.

Even if you think that explanation is hogwash, there is an even deeper problem with the Christian’s argument that WoWS is commendable and Fifty Shades is condemnable. It’s found, among other places, in a Christianity Today article on Fifty Shades. The film, it says, “has no real cogent moral or cultural point buried within.” The implicit idea here is that if we could discern a moral point (even without changing the pornographic elements of the film), the story would become worthy of our patronage.

That line of reasoning, however, is not credible. Since when does a code of Christian sexual ethics submit to the principle that the ends justify the means? We would never blatantly say all storytelling methods are fair game so long as the message of a story is a moral one.

And yet it seems as if we’re trying to smuggle a deadly principle into our Christianity—the idea that the right thing pursued through the wrong means actually isn’t that bad after all. In effect, we are saying that a filmmaker can borrow techniques from the world of porn and somehow not subvert a film’s moral message. We’d be shocked and ashamed to see religious retail stores market “Christian porn,” but we’re quick to patronize pornographic content—so long as it is labeled as mainstream and comes with a worthwhile moral/cultural point.

So, I’ll end this piece right back where it began: Why don’t more Christians like Fifty Shades of Grey?

Comments

Cap Stewart said…
Let me tell you about a film that’s garnered a lot of publicity. The story revolves around a wealthy and debonair businessman with serious control issues. His sexual tastes involve perverse fantasies, but he gets what he wants because he’s rich, powerful, and handsome. In telling this story, the movie doesn’t shy away from depictions of the sex act. The audience is inundated with sex, in fact. The debauchery is enough to make a lot of people sick, either with revulsion, pleasure, or a mixture of both.

[This obligatory comment is designed to make Facebook recognize my article’s content. Thanks for your understanding.]
Anonymous said…
Both films are complete trash. As you said. "pornography." What "Christian" says otherwise?
Cap Stewart said…
Well, I'm not comfortable questioning the legitimacy of anyone and everyone's faith who disagrees with me on this. I question the double standard, for sure, but not necessarily their right standing with God.
Josh Moore said…
I really enjoyed reading this article. I have noticed a similar issue across the board in various areas other than movie choice. Too many Christians have a double standard with their convictions and only call stuff sinful if they want to, but make exceptions for the things they like. I struggle with it as well; wanting to bend the Bible to allow the things I want, to be acceptable in my mind.
Cap Stewart said…
Thanks, Josh! I totally agree about the temptation for double standards in all areas of life. It's definitely something we all need to watch out for.