- 50 Shades of Grey
- Beauty and the Beast
These stories, as they exist in pop culture all share one characteristic: a powerful male figure who is abusive towards the principal female character. It can be argued that the male characters aren’t inherently abusive but that they are just at the mercy of their base instincts for whatever reason. In the case of Beauty and the Beast, the Beast is a literal representation of his submission to those base instincts. Those instincts are not all bad as Disney give the beast a chance to be “protective” of his chosen mate when she runs away. However all three stories line up the familiar trope of a woman who has to save a man from himself. Other notable examples of this story arc can be seen in Pretty Woman or Runaway Bride.
Unlike the Richard Greer Romantic Comedies however, in which the man is self-destructive or perhaps cynical to the point of absurdity, we are more commonly seeing men who express their base natures upon others. The Beast locks Belle up in a tower and violently intimidates her. Mr. Grey ignores Ana’s use of the safe word and violently controls her environment. These are not the acts of a loving partner with a curious kink, but rather the acts of men who are seeking to dominate their partner. These men do not have an interest in partnering with women. More disturbing is the fact that the popularization and romanticizing of these relationships has redefined the role of the woman in a romantic relationship. Rather than being a partner to a man she is now meant to be his savior.
Consider those changes. The Man is no longer the partner but the (often violent) Master. The Woman is no longer the partner but the Savior.
Ignoring the question of Art influencing culture vs Art reflecting culture it represents a trend in which people are no longer content to be equals but are eager to assert authority, dominance and ultimately control over one another. Motives are unimportant here because even should the character (male or female) have the most noble of intentions (and I think that helping someone discover their better self is a most noble intention) the characters are still striving to control the expression and behavior of their “partner.” It is a trend that is borne out in reality.
Who that is married, would NOT want to see their spouse become a better person? And those of us who desire the best for our spouse, how far would we go to “help” him or her in that endeavor?
The good news is that this is not new. The apparent ascendency of unequally yoked relationships is in fact nothing more than a variation on a very old theme: Horatio Alger. Alger, a 19th century author known for his rags to riches stories, has become synonymous with hard work, diligence, and self-reliance as core virtues. Self-reliance, while never at the forefront of his stories, has taken center stage in American culture and is at the center of power struggles between couples who are romantically involved. By definition, a person cannot be self-reliant if they are submissive to someone else (which poses an unique problem for the American Christian). So of course it makes sense for people to seek a position of dominance from which they can once again be self-reliant: Mr Grey must “control everything” while Ana has to save him and reform him.
At the end of the day, the meta narratives found in stories like 50 Shades of Grey boil down to a simple question: what makes a good relationship? How can I be lucky in love? How can I make my marriage better? 50 Shades, however does not answer the question and instead offers a look at the power struggle that so often destroys relationships. And while it would be easy for me to say “oh just get off your high horse and get on level terms with your partner” that would be a painful over simplification.
The truth is that there are NO easy answers. A relationship cannot be boiled down to a power struggle. I cannot say that relationships are better if we can only be more humble. Nor could I say that we must learn to be vulnerable with our partners as if that were some kind of silver bullet. No, the truth is that a relationship requires work. It requires humility and vulnerability sure, but those are not enough by themselves. Is it a question of commitment then? Yes and no. Of course we must commit to a relationship to make it work, but our spouse must commit as well and should our spouse fail to make that commitment then my own commitment is meaningless. Is it love then? Not the way you might think because the kind of love required for a relationship is a choice and not a feeling.
No, there are no easy answers, but I tell you from experience that seeking the answer is as rewarding as it gets.