The recent release of the movie Magic Mike and the growing popularity of the book Fifty Shades of Grey have rightly prompted some serious reflection by Christians on the nature of the sexual revolution as it attempts to legitimize all forms of sexual expression. What makes such reflection even more necessary is that youth pastors and even pastors, in some cases, are touting these latest expressions of the sexual revolution as relatively harmless. In many ways, both the book and the movie are mere expressions of the sexual revolution, and yet they also contribute to its ongoing impact on the larger culture, an impact that is ultimately destructive to men, women, their sexual relations, and especially the children who result from such relations.
Let me explain what I mean.
First, it may be helpful to use Mary Elberstadt’s definition of the sexual revolution in Adam and Eve After the Pill. She defines it as “the ongoing de-stigmatization of all varieties of non-marital sexual activity, accompanied by a sharp rise in such activity, in diverse societies around the world.”
As the most recent proponents of the sexual revolution, Magic Mike and Fifty Shades of Grey reinforce values that turn men and women into consumer products, mere objects to be paid for and enjoyed by the highest bidder. In short, they objectify both men and women, and in the process, they turn children into inconveniences, the unfortunate consequences who prevent personal fulfillment. Finally, they destroy the joys of sex in marriage because when you employ alternative fantasies to bring about sexual fulfillment, you eventually only need the fantasy, not your spouse.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a postmodern fairytale that treats women as slaves who only live to serve their mates.
It has been described by media as “mommy porn” and classified as erotica, a sub-genre in modern fictional writing. It has also been panned by numerous critics. Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post says that the book puts the “rot” in erotica, calling its author, E.L. James (whose real name is Erika Leonard) “a precocious 14-year-old girl writing during fevered frenzies of self-abuse.”
Feminists are up in arms as well, because the book, astonishingly written by a woman, degrades women to the point that they have no identifiable self and become mere objects to be used over and over again by their male partners. It is purple prose at its worst, a phrase that refers to the use of extravagant language in the form of cliche after cliche (pulsing lips, throbbing manhood–you get the picture). Evidently, there has even been a parody of the book, Fifty Shames of Earl Grey written by Andrew Shaffer in just 10 days.
The main character, Christian Grey, is only interested in a dominant/submissive relationship with Anastasia Steele, whose desire for Grey compels her to sacrifice all forms of integrity and essentially enter into a kind of indentured servitude in which Steele plays sexual toy to all of Grey’s appetites. She is whipped with a leather riding crop, slapped, and stalked, among other things.
As one reviewer put it, “it is a sex book, it is not a book with sex in it.” In other words, the classification of erotica underscores that the entire plot revolves around sadomasochist sexual acts played out in a fantasy-type atmosphere that belies the truth. The “positive” side of the book–the Cinderella empowered side(!)–is that Steele’s complete surrender of self leads Christian Grey to “true” intimacy by putting away his handcuffs and engaging in less violent sex acts. Yeah, that’s normally how sex addicts recover, right!?
Although at a more sophisticated level, Magic Mike offers another postmodern tale that hides objectification behind lots of eye candy
Director Stephen Soderbergh, who also directed Traffic and Sex, Lies, and Videotape, likes to put his audiences into hardcore issues that have little resolution. He is the creative counter to Erika Leonard’s stale cliches. As some critics have noted, the movie has an ambiguity to it, moving between fantasy and reality with a clear preference for the fantastical as it attempts to normalize (a constant postmodern move) behaviors that anywhere else would be viewed as self-destructive. Soderbergh can keep up the fantasy by setting up the stripper club as a high energy club with show-stopping entertainment and putting it in Tampa Bay, Florida, which has a relaxed atmosphere with lots of beautiful bays. The scenario is gorgeous, the club is tantalizing–you get the picture.
The basic storyline follows Mike (Channing Tatum) as he strips at a Tampa nightclub on his way to fulfilling a dream of becoming a builder of custom furniture. On the way, Mike meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a 19-yr old whom he recruits to strip. Adam’s sister, Brooke (Cody Horn) is there to warn Mike to keep Adam from falling, although this does not happen. Instead, the young Adam crashes and burns in the hedonistic world with its free sex and drugs.
Brooke also becomes a potential love interest of Mike, the point of which is to force Mike to begin to consider whether the stripper road is the best path to his dream (why is it that women always have to bear the burden of savior?). At one point, Mike says of his stripping, “it is what I do, but it’s not who I am,” as though actions don’t shape character. Like Anastasia Steele’s “inner goddess” Mike’s internal self remains pure and untouched by what he does and how he lives, or so he claims. At the end of the day, the morality tale part of the movie that portrays the life of a stripper as a dead-end road gets lost in the glitz and glam.
So, what do these postmodern fairytales communicate to us?
- They reinforce a common myth taken on by women that they can “save” their men or be saved by them through sacrificing themselves (Shades of Grey is more beauty and the postmodern, sexually deviant beast than Cinderella and her prince charming)
- They place sexuality and sexual expression in a context where children are not even considered. In this sense, they reinforce a view that the sexual act has nothing to do with bearing children and hence nothing really to do with marriage itself. This ultimately hurts children.
- They reinforce objectification of human beings by turning them into toys to be used for the pleasure of the other.
- They reinforce a view of life that reduces personal fulfillment to material wants (sexual gratification, accumulation of wealth, celebrity status)
- They reinforce the falsehood that humans have an inner self that remains uncorrupted despite actions that corrupt
With a growing body of evidence that suggests a class distinction in marriage between the college educated and those without a college education, one can begin to see how these movies impact the larger culture. Recently, The Washington Post reported that the educated are getting married later and staying married longer. According to the National Marriage Project, marriage leads to higher levels of happiness in part because of the economic advantages of a two-person income per household and the fulfillment that raising children in an intact marriage brings. Those who do not have a college education are having more children outside of marriage and have a much higher divorce rate. Children in single-parent households also fare much worse overall in moving up the social and economic ladder than their peers from intact families.
On top of this, as Mary Elberstadt and Kay Hymnowitz have both argued, the sexual revolution is actually having an adverse impact on women, which is the opposite of what was originally claimed. The increased pornography has led to a longer period of adolescence for many men as well as actually reducing sex in the context of marriage. In other words, reading pornographic material may function as a temporary stimulus to sex, but it’s long-term impact actually destroys the joys of sex. It functions like a drug that initially stimulates and then finally destroys the capacity to be stimulated.
When you put these trends together, you can begin to see the damage. And here, I have intentionally avoided appeals to scripture in part because I want my readers to understand that the Bible’s endorsement and definition of marriage is not an outdated mode from some unenlightened culture. The adverse impact of the sexual revolution on American society leads us back again to the wisdom of scripture. So, tell your youth pastors and pastors that you’ll have none of this foisted upon your sons and daughters in the name of “cultural relevance.”