“50 Shades” on Valentine’s Day

It follows, as the night the day that, just as savvy movie studios release Christmas movies around Christmas time, for Valentine’s Day they will choose to release . . . Fifty Shades of Grey.

And yet of course it doesn’t follow, it shouldn’t follow. This weekend of all weekends, no matter what goes on behind closed doors after flowers and chocolates have been received and candlelit dinners consumed, is dedicated to romance rather than randiness or (in the case of 50 Shades) the wedding of the chick flick with pornography.

For this book-turned-movie is no romance. In standard examples of the genre, the hero may, like the “hero” of 50 Shades, begin by describing himself as not “a hearts and flowers kind of guy.” But that changes as you turn the pages. (Note: I rely on Wikipedia and online movie sources for the plot and movie release information.)

For those of you who, understandably, have mentally zoned out whenever the topic of 50 Shades has been raised in your presence, the book is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too prurient dance around the world of bondage and dominance/sadomasochism. Anna, the heroine, meets and is strongly attracted to what at first sight may seem the standard pulp romance hero: handsome, rich, mysterious.

The mysterious part becomes clearer when she learns about his sexual preferences, but their differing tastes create a barrier, whose limits Anna eventually chooses to test. After which she realizes that their relationship isn’t going to work. From what I can tell from discussions of the book, the effect seems to be something like Danielle Steel superimposed on the Marquis de Sade.

Given the deep degradation of our culture, this kind of thing might not raise unusual alarm bells. After all, much more perverse novels have been written and movies produced. In addition, we are all aware that online porn seduces and enslaves millions of users in the United States alone.

The point, however, is not that 50 Shades blazes a new trail in the frontier of hardcore pornography, but that it constructs a nice, seemingly safe superhighway for comfortably motoring through this lurid landscape. It marks the mainstreaming-through-prettification of sick and sinful heterosexual relationships (as we have seen, less graphically, the mainstreaming-through-prettification of sick and objectively sinful homosexual relationships in the major media for a number of years now).

And by mainstreaming this particular kind of deviance, it also marks another low point (haven’t we reached the bottom of this particular Stairway to Hell yet?) in our society’s attack on childhood innocence.

“The Proposal” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1872 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
“The Proposal” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1872 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

On the one hand, it is hard now not to feel that maybe new lows don’t matter anymore – not because our children’s right to innocence does not matter, but because the words and images that are broadcast and streamed around and about them are already so graphic, so exploitative, so self-idolizing, so tolerant of the perverse, and so deadening to the natural human desire for lifelong, vow-enclosed, fruitful, and self-giving love – in short, so sick – that it is hard to see how an ad for Fifty Shades can make things worse.

Still, it makes me shudder even to contemplate a conversation that might begin with the query, “Mommy, what is 50 Shades of Grey about?”

General exposure to deepening levels of sexually explicit and perverse material has also been tracking with increasing tolerance for another category of explicit and conscience-numbing material: the depiction of violence in action movies, TV shows, and video games. Of particular concern are the increasingly gory depictions of torture, often defended in the name of “realism.” They share similarities with pornography in the need to keep amping up the voltage for the same effect.

I recall St. Augustine’s story of his friend in the late Roman Empire, addicted to the bloodlust aroused by watching the gladiatorial contests. In its time, that too was a “respectable” addiction one could enjoy in public beside crowds of fellow spectators. Respectability, however, did not prevent the Coliseum games from debasing the spectators and dehumanizing those in the arena.

Formulating an effective response, to any or all examples of the very polluted tide that threatens eventually to submerge us, can seem impossible. Moral and religious outliers in our culture are already regarded as dinosaurs to be ignored or figures of mockery to be laughed into irrelevance.

How do we even begin to conjure up a saner and less sick world for young people to contemplate, a world in which men and women are strongly attracted to one another, yes, but also willing to respect one another and themselves, acknowledge God’s purposes, honor lifelong commitments, veil off the realm of the intimate and the private, rejoice in the fruitfulness of the human body?

One avenue for conveying this vision is Anthony Esolen’s recent book Defending Marriage, which vividly portrays the objective reality of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in marriage and family life.

50 Shades of Grey? Actually, when it comes to the ways in which challenges to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful come at us nowadays, “their name is Legion.” Lent comes not a moment too soon this year: Time for a little sackcloth and ashes on behalf of our mortally sinful and muddleheaded culture.

Ellen Wilson Fielding is Senior Editor of the Human Life Review and lives in Maryland.