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Fifty Shades in the Age of #MeToo

He is powerful, manipulative, and controlling. He uses his position to take sexual advantage of young women looking to make a mark in their profession. And he’s not above stalking….

He is powerful, manipulative, and controlling. He uses his position to take sexual advantage of young women looking to make a mark in their profession. And he’s not above stalking.

You may think I’m referring to Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer who is accused of sexual harassment and abuse going back decades. Or perhaps other men of power who have lost their positions in the dramatic wave of harassment allegations over the last several months. But actually I’m describing Christian Grey, the debonair male lead character from the blockbuster Fifty Shades movie and book franchise.

The third and final installment in the film trilogy is set to open in theaters on Valentine’s weekend. Over their previous two Valentine’s Day releases, Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker have brought in hundreds of millions of dollars, mainly due to the huge popularity of the books.

But this year feels different. In the wake of the #MeToo outcry against sexual mistreatment of women, will Fifty Shades Freed receive the same kind of reception?

Sexual exploitation

The books and films have sparked debate for years about the mainstreaming of content that many would consider pornographic. It begins with a college student, Anastasia Steele, landing an interview for her college newspaper with a young, rich, handsome business tycoon. His confidence attracts her, and he sets out to woo her—not for a romantic relationship but for violent sex involving bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism.

As the series progresses, Christian fears losing Ana and proposes to her. Ultimately, she accepts and the two are married and eventually have children. Fans of the series claim that the “fairy tale” ending redeems the relationship. Never mind that in the third movie, Christian is still controlling, and becomes angry when he finds out Ana is pregnant because she’s stopped taking the birth control he’s demanded of her since their relationship began. Never mind that he’s still using her for rough and bizarre sex. After all, all’s well that ends well, right?

Will the latest film release sit well with the recent movement of women who refuse to be sexualized by predatory men? A few organizations are speaking out, but not many so far.

For years the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) has actively been calling attention to sex trafficking, sexual objectification, and the harmful effects of pornography. One of its latest projects is facing down Fifty Shades Freed.

In the numerous memes they have created for social media sharing, NCOSE points out that the central theme of the movie series runs counter to the focus of the #MeToo movement—calling out abusive men and empowering women. NCOSE features ads painting Christian Grey as a classic sexual abuser and Anastasia Steele as a classic victim.

It is also calling for a boycott of the film. One advertisement reads, “Put your money where women like Anastasia end up. Give to domestic violence shelters instead of going to the movies.” 

Katherine Blakeman, director of communications for NCOSE, writes, “It is incredibly socially irresponsible to uphold Fifty Shades as mainstream entertainment, while at the same time we express our outrage at Harvey Weinstein and his ilk, and while we work to eradicate sexual harassment and assault…”

Liberated

Another film that recently debuted on Netflix in early February presents another take on our culture. Liberated is a video project that documents real-life events and practices that are traps for teens and young adults today, including the infamous spring break week in Panama City, Florida. According to the project’s website, the film’s main goal is to reveal the dangers of a society where sex sells, where women are expected to conform to an idealized sexual image, and where men are socialized to use women for sex.

Among the point people for this film is Brooke Axtell, who was sexually trafficked at age 7. As an adult, she began a relationship with a man that turned violent. She stayed in the relationship because she thought she could heal him. But unlike Anastasia Steele, she got out and got help after he threatened to kill her.

And in 2015, she told her personal story at the Grammy Awards ceremony and challenged women not to accept abuse in hope that romance might be just around the corner:

Authentic love does not devalue another human being. Authentic love does not silence, shame, or abuse. If you are in a relationship with someone who does not honor and respect you, I want you to know that you are worthy of love. Please reach out for help. Your voice will save you. Let it extend into the night. Let it part the darkness. Let it set you free to know who you truly are—valuable, beautiful, loved.

The makers of Liberated hope to bring attention to the alarming sexual exploitation that students expose themselves to in a hookup culture that normalizes violation.

“We believe Liberated will spark a national conversation about toxic sexual norms in our society, particularly among college students,” the filmmakers say.

It’s a conversation that needs to happen soon.

Sex as a consumer commodity

Brent McCracken, senior editor at The Gospel Coalition, points out that one of the greatest shapers of our culture—the entertainment industry—has long recognized that sex sells and has encouraged sexual voyeurism and sold sex as a consumer commodity. He points out that since the 1960s “the sexualization of Hollywood has led to one taboo after another being broken.” Two of the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar this year are The Shape of Water, which includes a sex scene between a woman and an amphibious beast, and Call Me by My Name, about a romance between a man and a 17-year-old boy.

McCracken points out that there is already some talk in Hollywood of a major shift about sex in movies as a result of the recent outcry over sexual harassment. But he wonders whether it will really happen.  “While it is certainly a good thing that systemic harassment and predatory sexual behavior are being called out and exposed, the reality is Hollywood has always been one of the chief purveyors of sex as commodity,” he writes.

In the first chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, he shows how rejecting God’s design, especially for sexuality, leads to increasingly demeaning acts (Romans 1:24-32). Looks a lot like what’s happening in our culture today. The promise of unbridled sexual freedom has failed to fulfill our souls. It’s showing itself to be an illusion. 

As Christians, we know that God created sex and created us as social creatures with a desire to connect with others. He designed sex to be within the bonds of marriage and as a means for joint intimacy, not to fulfill selfish desire. And He’s created each of us in His image, and He instructs us to treat each other as an equally valuable creation.

Owen Strachan is a theology professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and coauthor of The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them. In a recent article he writes:

Supposedly our “sex positive” age means happiness for all. But this is not how things are working out. Men are using women; women seem less liberated than ever before. Thankfully, people all around us are waking up in the wreckage of the sexual revolution. They are seeing that our sexualized culture has not made good on its promises.

As more people speak out against this sexual license and point out its negative effects, perhaps our culture will begin to look for a return to sanity, to simplicity, to purity.

Coming up in this series on sexual harassment: We’ll look at how we can begin to reclaim some of the ground we’ve ceded to the culture in the area of sexual conduct and interaction. And we’ll examine how we can model for our children, and the culture, behavior that reflects not hypocrisy but integrity, not abuse but honor. If you missed the first article in this series, read it here.