Theology of the Body vs. Fifty Shades of Grey

As Valentine’s Day approaches, thoughts of red roses, romantic dinners, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and cards with sweet sentiments, comes to mind.  However, this year, Fifty Shades of Grey – “The Movie,” seems predominant as the “thing to do” this Valentine’s weekend.

The film is based on the first volume of E.L James’ Fifty Shades book trilogy. The production features scenes of bondage, domination, and sadism.  Set to open on Valentine’s weekend, industry insiders are already predicting the film will generate profits of more than 60 million in the first four days of opening.

E. L. James is the pen name for Erika Leonard James, a 52 year-old wife and mother of two sons, who formerly worked as a television studio manager. She initially wrote her “Twilight” style fiction under the pen name “Snowqueen’s Icedragon”. The author claims to be more surprised than anyone by the runaway success of her books stating that the story was based on, “my midlife crisis, writ large. All my fantasies in there, and that’s it.”  She also has been known to describe her book as an “old fashioned love story.”

However, from the perspective of many others, this bestseller’s glamorization of sexual violence makes it the antithesis of an old-fashioned love story. It is something else entirely. It is extremely troubling to realize that a book which is more accurately categorized as erotica/porn, inspired by the author’s “mid-life fantasies” has sold more than 100 million copies and has been translated into 51 languages.  It is also troubling to recognize that its fan-base is comprised of teenagers and college students as well as single and married women over 30.  Furthermore, there is serious reason for concern about the ongoing impact of this critically panned book series. The book’s popularity has given birth to the media sound bite, “Mommy Porn”.  It is an innocuous cutesy catch-phrase now being widely used to promote and elevate x-rated material as pop-culture and something to be accepted among a largely untapped market of female readers.

The profit potential is another seduction. Marketers are taking the opportunity to capitalize on the books and the film’s release to promote a myriad of spin-off products. Many of these products have already invaded the mainstream marketplace including items such as Fifty Shades of Grey bedding, make-up, candles, wine, stationary, and nail polish, along with items that, prior to this “Pandora’s Box” being opened, would only have been found in your local “adult store”.  Products like Fifty Shades of Grey lingerie, bondage inspired jewelry as well as more “adult store” type items.  Target, the popular, neighborhood retail store, has also joined the Fifty Shades frenzy by selling adult sex toys in their “adult health” section.  Even Newsweek has published an entire “Special Edition” about the book series and film titled, Fifty Shades Phenomenon: Exploring a Sexual Revolution. Reuters News also recently reported that the Damson Dene Hotel in England’s Lake District has recently gone so far as to replace its nightstand Gideon Bible with copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey“. The hotel’s owner, Jonathan Denby, told Reuters that the hotel wanted to provide “something that people actually want to read”

Considering the pornographic, perverse, violent and abusive nature of the material itself, what does the popularity of Fifty Shades say about our society? What does it say to have a hotel owner replace the Bible with copies of the bestseller in the nightstands of his hotel? What does it say that the book and its consequent film’s sexual violence and manipulation as a representation of love, has become so widely accepted and has gained such popularity? And what exactly is the “sexual revolution” inspired by Fifty Shades of Grey, that will soon be at movie theatres everywhere?

Briefly, the storyline in Fifty Shades of Grey traces the relationship between the virginal and naive college senior, Anastasia Steele, and the young, handsome, single, and most importantly, extremely wealthy, business magnate, Christian Grey. It is significant to consider that there would be no glamorization of this relationship without the “extremely wealthy” aspect of this tale.  As they get to know each other, Anastasia comes to realize that, while intriguing, Christian is not “a hearts and flowers kind of guy.” That turns out to be an understatement for sure, considering that the perverse seduction of Anastasia is nothing more than a premeditated manipulation by Christian Grey – a manipulation designed to get what he wants, regardless of Anastasia’s well-being.  He is attracted to her because of the innocence he seeks to decimate as he draws her deeper and deeper into his sadomasochistic lifestyle. A lifestyle where she is not loved or cherished, but on the contrary – is used, abused, confused and humiliated by the antagonist.

I also wonder how many mommies, (or daddies for that matter) who are fans of the book, would want their little girls to have an experience like Anastasia’s? Unfortunately, the positive participation in the promotion of this book, in any way, will be part of what creates the cultural climate their daughters will contend with.

Beyond this, since when did an abusive, emotionally impaired control freak who actually finds pleasure in physically demeaning, abusing and emotionally manipulating an innocent and inexperienced college girl become a literary hero for so many women?   It is profoundly worrying to witness the meteoric popularity of a book series which features a lead character, called Christian, representing the antithesis of God’s Design for sexual love.  God’s Design for sexual love is meant to be a sacred expression of love so physically intimate and deeply bonding, that it consummates and expresses in an outward way, the promises that are made in a committed marital union.  These are the promises that require deep love, respect and concern for the well-being of the beloved as well as promises to place beyond your self, the welfare of your husband or wife – be it spiritual, physical or emotional.  It is so powerful an expression of love that it can be life-giving, just as God is Life-Giving.

As ubiquitous as Fifty Shades of Grey is these days, I cannot help but think of the vast spiritual, moral, mental and emotional strides women could make, not only for themselves, but also for our culture as a whole, if they took a leap of faith and read Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOTB) instead and really came to understand how it is all about the value and worth of not only ourselves as women, but also the inherent value and dignity of humanity as a whole.  The work known as Theology of the Body is a series of 129 addresses that this great and holy man gave during his Wednesday Catechetical talks in Rome from 1979 until 1984.  Theology of the Body was among the first major teachings of John Paul II’s Pontificate and is an extended Catechesis on the truth of God’s original design for human sexuality and the dignity of the human person.  As part of TOTB, Pope John Paul emphasizes how the dignity of the human person can be distorted through sins such as pornography.  TOTB additionally focuses on Catholic teachings about the sacramental nature of marital union, chastity and virginity, the definition and impact of adultery, the resurrection of the body, the value of Life and the Church’s stand on contraception.  The central theme of TOTB is that “the body” is a sign of the Invisible Mystery of God.  In this sense, the body can be viewed as a kind of Sacrament – with the mystery of God being revealed through it. Therefore, the body used in a holy purpose, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the Spiritual and Divine.

However, in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, the complete opposite of personal and individual human dignity is represented.  Instead, a twisted and false notion of love which reduces the human being to nothing more than an object is depicted as something glamorous and dazzling.  In reality, Anastasia ceases to be a person of intrinsic worth, when her only value is as a mere object of fantasy to be used for sexual pleasure and to experience the rush that some feel when they have power and dominance over another.  Beyond this, the book’s success appears deeply contrary to the modern women’s movement that challenges women to no longer be victims.  While women may say that the book is a harmless form of entertainment, Fifty Shades of Grey actually deceives the reader in telling a tale of deception that leads its character, Anastasia, into a dark and confusing parallel world while taking its readers along with her.

The storyline belittles God’s gift of personhood and the gift of the body as the Temple of the Holy Spirit and we ultimately degrade and harm ourselves by reading it. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price.” (I Cor. 6:19-20).

Because of His Love for us, Christ wants to teach us how to love each other. He wants to remove distorted notions regarding the human body and the sexual relationship, so our sexuality is approached with purity of heart.  Thus, true union comes in discovering the intrinsic value of the beloved as a sacred soul. That is romance…that is what a real love story is all about.  How can a love story be about lust, sex, and conquest? How can it be for the purpose of self-gratification achieved through Machiavellian manipulation at the expense of another person’s well-being and orchestrated acquiescence? Consequently, Fifty Shades of Grey could best be described as the opposite of a true love story.

Saint John Paul II’s TOTB is not about being prudish – nor do I want to sound like the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live. Rather, it is about accepting the love that God  intended for a committed and real relationship – the type of love God created since the beginning of the world which He calls “good” (Genesis 1:31).

Unfortunately, in Fifty Shades of Grey, millions of women throughout the world are buying into Fifty Shades of deeply defective and distorted versions of what constitutes real and lasting love. In his reflections on Theology of the Body, Catholic apologist and founder of Totus Tuus Ministries, Jim Seghers, notes, “such twisted notions of love disconnects the body from personhood and becomes exploitive, selfish and violent, ultimately cheapening and belittling the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit.”

Therefore, when we accept the lie about what love is and what sex should be, according to Fifty Shades of Grey, as well as all other forms of pornography, we are ultimately left unhappy, disillusioned, confused and denigrated.  Why? Because we are seeking something that has been designed to prey upon our human weakness and values our own self-gratification and pleasure for pleasure’s sake, which inevitably takes us away from God.  Consequently, it becomes harder for us to recognize ourselves as Children of God and Temples of the Holy Spirit, and we will seek to fill that emptiness through escalating futile means.  Without that recognition of our value and the value of others, we can easily be deceived and misled, just like Anastasia and those who have elevated Fifty Shades of Grey to the pop culture phenomenon it has become.  There is a real danger that with the release of the film version on Valentine’s Day weekend, its status will be assured as an acceptable expression of love by the culture we live in.

Saint John Paul II gave the world a great gift with his teachings on Theology of the Body which points the way out of the gray and leads us into the light of God’s Loving Plan for humanity. Theology of the Body is about recognizing, even amid a culture saturated in distorted versions of love, JPII’s personal invitation to all men and women, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to freely embrace our true dignity as God Wills it.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to truth, justice, goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women.” If women would only take the time to understand what the Church and God hope for them and recognize their great value and worth in the eyes of God, I wonder if a book series like Fifty Shades of Grey would still be as popular.

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Judy Keane is a Catholic writer and a communications/marketing executive who resides in Washington, D.C. She holds an MBA in International Business and is the author of Single and Catholic, published by Sophia Institute Press.

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