If there’s a group I never expected to agree with, it’s the bondage, domination, sadism, masochism (BDSM) community. When a franchise manages to unite communities on completely opposite ends of the spectrum, it should be an opportunity for reflection on whether the criticisms have merit.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” has managed such unity. The franchise is wildly popular in terms of book sales, and projections are that it will also be extremely popular in theaters when it opens February 14.
More biting than the critiques over style are the concerns over the incredibly unbalanced and unhealthy relationship at the center of the story. “Fifty Shades of Grey” is as bad for the BDSM community as it is for Christians. The model of relationship described is dysfunctional and actively harmful to the people involved and stands in sharp contrast to what marriage can be.
In the context of these two works, the word “submission” takes on very different meanings and plays out in opposite ways. On the one hand, the Bible lays out a pattern of submission built around a permanent relationship—a marriage—where the wife submits fully and unconditionally to her husband, who in equal turn loves his wife more than he loves himself. There is balance and selflessness.
“Fifty Shades” is built around a temporary relationship, with no promises for the future or stability. The woman in this relationship is also called to fully submit; more than honoring her partner, she is to allow him complete control over every aspect of her life and body In return, she receives a partner focused on his own gratification. Both relationships start with signing a legal contract: one a marriage license and the other a legal non-disclosure. After that, they wildly diverge.
What the Bible Says about Submission
Let’s start with what the Bible says about submission. Ephesians 5 has some of the most often discussed—and most often argued over—words on the topic of Biblical submission: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”
Submit. In everything. Now, we can have arguments all day about the historical context of these words, but it’s incredibly interesting that this passage has caused significant angst in people for being anti-woman and patriarchal in the very society that lauds the same word usage in “Fifty Shades of Grey” as sexy.
That passage above doesn’t stand alone, though, as few verses in the Bible do. Immediately following, we find this complimentary passage about the husband’s set of responsibilities. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.”
This is no small thing. Contrary to popular misunderstandings, these aren’t directions for wives to submit to the selfish and poorly thought-out desires of their husbands. Instead, this is a call for men to give their all, down to their very lives, and for wives to trust their all to their husbands.
This is the Biblical exhortation regarding submission, a mutuality focused on the safety and building up of one another, a relationship intended to span the rest of the lives of the people involved and encompassing far more than sexual desire. Each partner has a complementary role that works together to create something better and more complete than each individual person.
‘Fifty Shades’-Style Submission, Au Contraire
“Fifty Shades” also delves into submission. The two main characters enter into a contractual relationship based on the sexual desires of Christian Grey, the male lead. Anastasia Steele, an implausibly naive virgin, enters into the relationship with no real idea what she is agreeing to, and promises not to discuss the arrangement with others. Once the rules are established, Christian begins breaking them. He ignores her attempts to use her “safe word” to stop a situation. He tracks her movements, ignores her desires about her possessions, replacing her car with one he prefers, and becomes increasingly angry when she does not listen to him.
Christian holds the power in this relationship. He far outclasses Anastasia in worldly experience, money, and social capital. Anastasia should have the ability to end experiences she does not want to be part of, yet does not.
The author explains that Grey’s behavior stems from his past childhood abuse. Interestingly, Pamela Stephenson Connolly discusses this in an article posted on The Guardian.“After giving each of the 132 participants four hours of psychological tests, as well as a face-to-face interview, I found that, in fact, the group was generally not mentally unhealthy, and the instances of early abuse that had long been associated with the adult practice of BDSM were present in just a few.”
“Fifty Shades of Grey” has its origins in a fan-written story Internet story based off the equally unhealthy “Twilight.” In case you have blissfully managed to avoid the saga that is “Twilight,” allow me to sum it up. A glittering vampire stalks and falls in love with a bumbling human girl, marries her, and fathers a weird hybrid baby who ages super-fast. The baby, while a toddler, then gets betrothed to a former suitor of the mother. While some people point out that the story at least had the main characters marry before consummating their relationship, the dynamic is still inequitable and unhealthy.
Submission Versus Subjugation
The relationship in “Fifty Shades” is not unhealthy because of the sexual activities discussed in the books, but rather the unhealthy relationship makes the rest of it dysfunctional. This unhealthy relationship stems from misunderstanding submission, perverting it and transforming it into something harmful.
Submission is not about allowing your partner to boss you around or have total control of your every movement. While we may talk a lot about submission as Christians, we as a society talk less about self-sacrificial love, what that entails, and what it doesn’t. The love described in the Bible is the love of a husband willing to lay down all desires, goals, wants, and needs for his wife. It is a love willing to sacrifice all, and the wife’s submission to such a love. The “love” described in “Fifty Shades” is a love willing only to be pleased, hurting and using his partner for his own desires, wants, and needs. It is a love willing to sacrifice others, and the partner’s subsequent submission to its demands. Biblical love nourishes. “Fifty Shades” love consumes.
People are fast to reject Biblical submission. They’ve been enthusiastic in embracing the more radical and oppressive form of submission “Fifty Shades” describes. Clamoring to read about degradation and physical violence and simultaneously deciding that a wife submitting to a husband who loves and honors her is weird. It’s not reasonable.
Marriage is wonderful. A good marriage may not make for a salacious trilogy or bring people in droves to the theaters, but it provides a strong foundation for families and society. Biblical submission and love enhances us as people and makes us stronger. Two flawed people coming together to make a strong and balanced whole is good for society. Two flawed people coming together to practice pain and deviancy with the eventual hope that they will be whole people is implausible and does nothing to provide a positive model for people to aspire to.
I’m not sure why “Fifty Shades” is as popular as it is. I’m not opposed to it based on the writing style (although that is grounds all on its own) or a sense of Victorian avoidance of anything more than vague euphemisms for sex. My qualms with this story go deeper. We do not need to normalize unhealthy relationships. We need to focus on healthy, empowering relationships that help both people be the best versions of themselves. Marriage is an opportunity. It is a chance to love someone richly and fully, in a way that helps each person. “Fifty Shades” may be the unfortunate style du jour, but a healthy biblical marriage is a model that has stood the test of time. That’s not a shade of grey, it’s black and white.