50 Shades of Decay: On the Scandal of Love



If Christian Grey were poor and ugly then 50 Shades of Grey would be about an abusive and controlling man. But since his abuse is wrapped in a nice suit, wealth, and good looks, it’s “sexy” and “erotic.” Beyond the erotic bondage that both the book and the movie celebrates, we see a man that does all he can to control another woman. Within 50 Shades the nightmare that millions of women endure on a daily basis is morphed into some romanticized version of torture.

If we remove the glitz and glamor, remove the good looks, remove the wealth, remove the style, then is Christian Grey still a romantic figure with a dark past who needs fixing? The story plays on the ultimate trope, which is women love jerks because they believe they can fix them. Such an approach doesn’t dignify women nor does it liberate their sexuality, rather it treats them as objects, as curing pills to a psychological diagnosis. Without all those toys, Christian Grey is no longer a fantasy character, but a person appearing on a day time talk show or the guy in the back of a police car for a domestic violence dispute. He’s a stalker, but with money and good looks he’s “romantic.”

Our culture is in many ways pornographic, and I don’t mean that in the typical sense. Porn creates a false reality and sets false expectations; what is upsetting or disturbing in real life is normal in porn. Porn, then, distorts reality in favor of a fantasy, which means porn doesn’t have to be that overtly sexual video. Fox News (or MSNBC if you prefer) is a type of porn, creating a false image of what America and the world ought to be. Reality TV is a type of porn, creating a false reality, but acting as though it is real. In the same way, 50 Shades is pornographic, not just for the explicit sexuality, but because it creates a fantasy of love without facing reality.

The books and movie creates this image of the “ultimate alpha male,” the guy that every guy wants to be like and every woman wants to be with. But such a man is a fantasy and doesn’t exist. Such an image leaves guys attempting to act like the alpha male (which is nothing more than a glorified ass) and it leaves women searching for this elusive alpha male. Of course they’ll find someone who is similar, but he’s attempting to live up to a false presentation of reality, meaning the charade will eventually collapse and the woman will end up trying to find another man, or living a life of disappointment. Society questions where all the real mean have gone; but if you pursue a fantasy and make it your ideal, don’t be shocked when you can’t find it in reality. Men and women are trained to follow roles, not to become humans; they are given a cookie-cutter image of what the ideal man looks like, or the ideal woman looks like, and we then find ourselves shocked when people can’t live up to these fake and false images.

True love, the real thing, is scary and hard to find. We live in a culture obsessed with power, where even love is treated as an old mythology and relegated to the classics. We chastise the classics as being anti-female and treating men as gods. We are too quick to condemn the classics though, for though they treated women as lesser than men, they at least acknowledge women as human. In the modern age we’ve sought liberation and equality and have only succeeded in treating women a little higher than animals and objects. No, while the ancients were wrong about a lot of things, they were at least correct in their pursuit of love. To put it another way, today we “pick up” women, whereas at one point we “wooed” women: To “pick up” applies to an object (e.g. I pick up trash, I pick up food, I am the actor imposing my will upon an object). To woo means to gain, to acknowledge that you are dealing with another free will being who is capable of thought and choice. You pick up an object, but you woo a human.

While we seek after power – being the dominant male, a woman using her sexuality to gain an advantage over a man, sharing “authority” in a relationship, refusing to give up individualism even in the face of marriage – we’ve long forgotten about love. The idea of there being rules to love, of it occurring within a marriage, of it existing solely between man and wife (at least in a sensual way) was at one point ridiculed for being “Victorian” and outdated. Now such a viewpoint is hardly considered and even its whisper elicits scandal. One can almost imagine that in a few decades the real rush for teenagers wanting to go against the flow of society’s mores will involve them refusing to have sex with each other or anyone else and waiting until marriage, and then remaining faithful thereafter.

We are a pragmatic culture, which is to say we like things to come easily to us. Why grow vegetables in my backyard when I can purchase them at the store? Why walk when I can drive? Why cook when I can go through the drive through? In some ways our pragmatism and demand for ease has made our lives better, but in other ways it’s harmed us. Most notably, our desire for ease has forced us to reject the hard, but worthy things in life while seeking out a fantasy. Believing in the fantasy is easier. Watching 50 Shades and hoping for a guy like that is much easier than facing the reality that love is very difficult, but worthwhile.

True love is not a fantasy, but it not easily procured. The difficulty of love leaves some embracing the simulacrum of Hollywood fantasy, but love is there. A difficult truth is that one does not “fall in love” and that one can very much help whom one loves. Love is a work, it is something that requires effort and dedication, but most importantly love requires sacrifice. Love requires giving into the other; love is not meant to fulfill some emptiness within you, it is not meant for your own gratification, but rather is meant for the gratification of another. Your pleasure comes from that other person’s pleasure.

A true romance, or a truly romantic man, is not a guy abusing a woman and having her sign a contract to become his sexual property. It is not a guy who’s “good in the sack.” It’s not even a guy who writes you poems and brings you flowers. A truly romantic man is the one who puts your needs first and is considerate of who you are as a human being. True romance is found at 2 in the morning when he’s willing to walk around with the baby while you sleep. True romance exists in doing service to one another, not in gaining favors from one another. If you look to Christian Grey you’ll find nothing than a shell of a paramour, but look past the veneer of modern society and you will discover the deep and difficult reality of love.