E.L. James’s novel Fifty Shades of Grey is now the best selling book in British history, has sold more than 100 million copies globally, and has spawned two sequels, along with an upcoming film adaptation. This success has been surprising, in that the books are unabashedly pornographic, arising out of erotic Twilight fan fiction. Moreover, they are targeted at women, an audience often ignored in discussions on the effects of pornography.
Beyond surprise, the series’ success has generated a good deal of alarm, as the book glorifies a sado-masochistic relationship containing rape and sexual violence against women. The series’ popularity testifies to something quite at odds with the traditional Christian vision of love and sexuality. While these concerns are well-founded, there’s another dimension of the phenomenon to consider: What accounts for the series’ sudden popularity? If Fr. Smith, the titular character in the Bruce Marshall novel, is right that “the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God,” what are fans of the Fifty Shades series seeking?
One answer is that there’s a hunger that’s not being satisfied: Namely, for men who are unabashedly masculine, who aren’t afraid to take control, and to lead. That is, there’s a longing (even a lusting) for men who aren’t afraid of what’s classically been called “headship.” To this end, while Fifty Shadessubverts Christian sexual morality, it subverts the modern crusade for “genderlessness” all the more.
For the past forty years, there’s been a concerted effort to minimize or eliminate the sexual differences between men and women. The sought-after utopia is the “truly equal world” envisioned by Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, in which “women [run] half our countries and companies and men [run] half our homes.” According to this view (and contrary to the scientific data), the differences between the sexes are merely social constructs: the culture is to blame for women being feminine and men being masculine.
The proposed solution to this “problem” has been to change the culture, to eliminate femininity and (particularly) masculinity, starting with the young. After all, in the words of Marlo Thomas (creator of the 1972 Free to Be . . . You and Me children’s album and book), “boys and girls are pretty much the same except for something in their underwear.” The Swedes have carried this idea to its apparent logical limits, introducing a new genderless pronoun into nurseries in 2012 to eliminate (or obscure) all gender differences.
The boys subjected to this social experimentation have grown up unsure of their place in society. Answering her own question (“Where Have The Good Men Gone?”), Kay S. Hymowitz concludes that “husbands and fathers are now optional, and the qualities of character men once needed to play their roles—fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity—are obsolete, even a little embarrassing.” It’s not simply that these men are afraid to be men: in many cases, they’ve never learned how. In the words of Restrepo director Sebastian Junger, “this is probably the first society in history that actively discourages an intelligent conversation about what manhood should require of men,” even while “our society is asking adult males to be men.”
Nor are women getting any happier. Indeed, “women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men” over the last thirty-five years, the very years in which the gender war was being waged on their behalf. A closer examination found “virtually no evidence for the companionate model, since women are not happier in marriages marked by egalitarian practices and beliefs.”
This dissatisfaction extends to the bedroom. Spouses in gender-fluid marriages have less sex, and less satisfying sex. Researchers have found that the “more traditional the division of labor, meaning the greater the husband’s share of masculine chores compared with feminine ones, the greater his wife’s reported sexual satisfaction.” Here, it seems, 50 Shades of Grey comes into play, tantalizing readers with a world in which men aren’t afraid to lead, and women feel safe submitting.
Understood in this way, the 50 Shades series is just one part of a broader cultural pushback against the war on gender. As A. O. Scott explains, “Something profound has been happening in our television over the past decade.” From The Sopranos to Mad Men to Breaking Bad, viewers have flocked to shows featuring strong masculine leads, prematurely dubbed by Scott as “the last of the patriarchs.”
These shows are guilty pleasures: None of the protagonists are heroes, or even particularly good men. As with 50 Shades of Grey, each of these shows presents a masculinity that’s distorted, perverted in some way: a sexist, sociopathic, outlandish derivative of the real thing. Having repressed healthy masculinity, what bubbles up through the cracks is a crude distortion of the real thing, and our enjoyment of it is confined to the level of fantasy. We’re eating dog food because we’re hungry for steak.
What’s needed, then—what both men and women are longing for, in their own ways—are models of how to live out masculine virtues in the modern world. This desire is not a new one; perhaps its best exploration comes in John Ford’s classic 1962 western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, set against the backdrop of another world in flux: the frontier town of Shinbone, in the almost-tamed Wild West.
The film’s two male leads, Tom Doniphon and Ransom “Rance” Stoddard (played by John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, respectively), appear to be opposites at first glance. Tom is the archetypal John Wayne character: a gritty gunslinger, and a man of few words, while Ransom is a bookish law student who slowly rises to political prominence. In reality, the men are not so different: each is driven by the desire to do what’s needed to protect hearth, home, and Hallie (the film’s female lead, played by Vera Miles).
At the film’s outset, Shinbone is threatened by outlaws like Liberty Valance; by the end, the chief threats are corrupt politicians and railroad tycoons. As the culture changed, so does the masculine ideal, an evolution marked by Hallie leaving Tom for Rance. Fittingly, the film opens and closes on Rance and Hallie, now married, paying their last respects to Tom, whose death signals the end of the way of life he represented.
A. O. Scott predicts a similar send-off to Mad Men star Don Draper: that he will join Walter White and Tony Soprano in TV’s great beyond, a death that is required by “the internal logic of the narrative itself, but is also a product of cultural expectations.” Perhaps so. But this is all the more reason to see him replaced with a modern Rance Stoddard, and Christian Grey isn’t up to the part.
Joseph Heschmeyer is a student at the North American College, Rome.