In the wake of Valentine’s Day 2015 and the unveiling of the much-anticipated theatrical release of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” I tried to pin down the appeal. It can’t be the prose. That seems to be one element at which all critics cringe. Nor can it be the level of explicit pornography. As the New Yorker’s review claimed, more genitalia appears in a lecture on the Renaissance.
Why, then, did this R-rated movie pull in nearly $100 million on its opening weekend, lead box offices for three weekends in a row, and become Universal’s all-time highest-grossing R-rated film? In contemplating an answer, I began to consider the German novel “Faust.” Written by Johann Goethe in the late nineteenth century, “Faust” posits a bored academic who makes a bargain with devil. In so doing, Faust follows Mephistopheles (the devil) on a stream of adventures ultimately leading to tragedy. By understanding the Faust story, I think we can recognize the appeal of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Goethe’s Faust: A Lingering Boredom with Life
Goethe introduces Faust as an old professor, bored with life. Having mastered all there is know, Faust turns to magic to understand the world. He eventually meets Mephistopheles, who proposes a bet: he will try to show Faust moments in the human experience which will satisfy his existential longing. If Faust ever finds a moment where he wants to linger, Mephistopheles gets Faust’s soul. Until then, however, Faust will have the devil as his personal servant.
The remainder of the plot involves different moments where Mephistopheles tries to tempt Faust with certain experiences. Eventually, Faust discovers love with a young woman named Gretchen. This love is the one transcendent feature in his world, and Faust is tempted to reject Mephistopheles and remain with Gretchen. Mephistopheles, however, immediately whisks Faust away to a Witches’ Sabbath. While Faust parties, Gretchen births their child and drowns the infant. She is imprisoned for infanticide, and the climax of the plot arrives when Faust uses Mephistopheles’ magic to offer Gretchen an escape from her death sentence. Gretchen refuses, instead casting herself on divine mercy, at which point Goethe informs his readers that “She is saved!”
In his interpretation of the Faust myth, Goethe changes the legend from a bored academic who makes a deal with the devil to a wager about the nature of the world. Goethe’s Faust concludes there is no cause of happiness in the world, and nothing beyond it. He is the epitome of dissatisfaction, and not even the Devil can show him lasting happiness.
Mephistopheles, as the modern image of the Adversary, is more than happy to take this wager; after all, Faust’s wager serves Mephistopheles’ bet with God that Faust will choose the Devil’s path. (This divine wager introduces the play, and serves as the primary point of the story: will Faust fall completely into the devil’s grasp, or regain his humanity by turning to God?) The remainder of the play/novel/poem consists of a whirlwind of experiences, cycles of speed and experience swirling Faust ever downward into his own depravity, with naught but the love of Gretchen crying, “Heinrich, Heinrich!” as she ascends to heaven to provide any hope of redemption by the end of part one.
Thrill-Seeking Destroys Us for Love
Mephistopheles is a clever devil. Gone are the old ways where the devil might get his prey addicted to drink, harlots, or greed. No, Mephistopheles plays a closer game by showing Faust purity (in the form of Gretchen), then leading him to corrupt it. Faust misses the actual hope of happiness in his quest for corruption. Faust is consumed with lust for Gretchen, and consummates his desire, leading to tragic consequences. In his quest for Gretchen, however, Faust discovers the one transcendent quality in his world: love. He cannot achieve that love, however, without abandoning his existential quest for proving the dissatisfaction of the world. In constantly seeking the hurly-burly of Walprugis Night, Faust fails to grasp the good in the world and instead condemns Gretchen to prison while he grinds against a naked witch in the Brocken.
Faust provides a helpful metaphor in light of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” phenomenon. After three poorly written erotic novels and a now-released film, the New York Times, Washington Post, Independent, and Guardian newspapers carried articles the week before the premier about the upcoming movie and tie-in erotic toys. Why was this such an event?
This film garnered quick attention for at least two reasons. First, and most obviously, it is the entrance of BDSM into mainstream cinema. Secondly, however, it represents the temptation and titillation of a Faustian sexuality with all the incumbent promises of true happiness and empty fulfillment.
“Fifty Shades” introduces us to stereotypical characters—the suave young businessman, the beautiful young woman looking for a relationship. Where departs from normal romance films is the Red Room, Christian’s secret. His idea of a relationship is one expressed through physical domination, played out in a mixture of pain and pleasure. The film upholds this vision of sexuality as stimulating, exciting, and ultimately fulfilling.
‘Fifty Shades’ Beckons: Take the Devil’s Bargain
This film places us (and by us I mean normal Americans, married or unmarried, to whom the idea of whipping our spouse is bizarre or unfathomable) in the role of Faust, unsatisfied with everything we know. It holds out the promise that sexual fulfillment is found in the excitement of BDSM, with the alluring glamour of these extreme traditional male and female roles of dominant and submissive. To the couple whose sexuality has become passé, this film claims to hold out the answer: take Mephistopheles’ bargain and enter the whirlwind.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” is a recent rearticulation of the Marquis de Sade’s vision of sexuality: dominance and submission, power and punishment, pain and satisfaction stewed together to produce the best experience for both participants. This vision of sexuality is exciting, and ultimately tragic. Just as Faust missed finding true happiness in the mundane, in a life wedded to Gretchen in the world, so “Fifty Shades of Grey” misses the right place of true sexuality: marriage. Men, women, and sexuality are all made in such a way that when we embrace sexual intimacy outside the confines of marriage (when Faust rushes into the orgy with Mephistopheles by his side), we gradually erode humanity. “Fifty Shades of Grey” provides a stimulating, pornographic vision of excitement while actually delivering a dehumanizing love of slavery enshrined in the closest physical human connections.
In the confines of marriage, sexuality becomes a constructive raging force. Within a lifelong commitment between spouses, sexual intimacy serves a higher calling and produces true joy. Gretchen offered this life to Faust: the life of confinement, restraint, and true joy. Faust instead chose to allow Mephistopheles to “carry him away” into the never-ending rush of constant experience.
Faced with a Faustian sexuality at the movies and perhaps in their bedrooms in coming weeks, the ticket-purchasing audience will be faced with a choice: is “Fifty Shades of Grey” a celebration of real love between two humans who are called to serve, honor, submit to, and respect one another? Or is this film a call to step onto Mephistopheles’ cloak and be whisked away to a false pleasure that creates a deceptive experience and leads to tragedy?