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Sunday Night Journal — April 1, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey

This is depressing: it seems that there is a pornographic novel called Fifty Shades of Grey which is extremely popular among women, and that its plot involves a young woman who gives herself as a masochistic sex slave to a billionaire. Here is one of several commentaries on it which I’ve run across recently. I wouldn’t be surprised at such a book coming from a man, and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that it came from a woman, because I have long since accepted, though very unwillingly, that money and power are extremely attractive to at least some large proportion of the female sex. In my younger and more conventionally liberal days, quick to defend woman as an oppressed minority—and, more fundamentally, naturally chivalrous and a bit idealistic about God’s most beautiful creation—I objected to this. Observation proved me wrong.

It’s not the novel itself but its popularity that depresses. Every man who reads a news story like this must  surely wonder, at least for a moment, if his own wife or girlfriend would drop him in an instant for the first billionaire who expressed an interest in tying her up. And reportedly it is especially popular among married women. 

Also depressing, though simultaneously amusing, is the view of the two women who wrote the commentary linked to above. With that grim and superficial ideological blindness typical of academic feminism, they deplore the novel’s “reactionary gender politics,” though not of course the fact that it’s pornographic. They think its appeal stems from the fact that women have not attained the imagined level of socio-economic power which would make them indifferent to the promise of attaining it by association with a rich and powerful man. What a silly delusion. If there’s another thing I’ve learned, it’s that there is something elemental in desires of this sort, something that can’t be  explained away with socio-economic arguments (even if they’re plausible, which I don’t think these are). Even at its best feminism was never more than a very incomplete account of what women really think and, as Freud wondered, what they really want.

Is it arrogant of me, as a man, to say that? Too bad; I am only proceeding according to the common-sense maxim watch what they do, not what they say. If nothing else has emerged clearly from the gender debates of the past forty years, it is that the presence of “reactionary gender politics” does not in the least deter most women from liking some piece of art or entertainment that otherwise appeals to them. The career of Madonna alone is proof of that (no matter how such sexual exhibitionism is dressed up as “empowerment”).

I suspect, and hope, that women having good relationships with men and a grounding in faith are less susceptible to the likes of this novel. It’s almost an axiom in many intellectual circles—and nowadays not only there, but in decidedly non-intellectual circles, as a result of ideas being propagated into fashion and popular culture—that religion is frequently the expression of a repressed sexual impulse. But I think it’s more often the other way around, that erotic obsessions and perversions are frequently misplaced religious longings. The desire to surrender oneself to a sadist is a perversion of the desire to surrender oneself to God. And, on the earthly level, no matter how reactionary it is to say so, it seems pretty clear that most women want their husbands to be, in a sense, and most certainly a non-abusive sense, in some degree of authority over them—this is only another way of describing the oft-stated preference of women for men who are “confident,” “in command,” etc.

In fact—and this is pure speculation—I wouldn’t be surprised if women who, as a matter of principle and perhaps as an effect of anger, are in the habit of pushing aggressively against the men in their lives are more susceptible to the pornography of submission than those who are at ease do I say this without using words that carrying implications I don’t intend? some fundamental psychological way looking up to their husbands? Nature will have the penultimate, though not the last, word in these things.

Smart Kids in Small Towns

I found this post by Pentimento an interesting twist on a phenomenon I’ve noticed more than once, first of all in myself. She describes her reaction to moving from the life of an artist and intellectual in New York (City) to the life of a wife and mother in a much smaller city in the same state:

I felt that I was in a dull, dreary place that was a poor match for my ...specialness, the specialness I'd long believed to be my birthright.

This is exactly what I and no doubt millions of others have felt while growing up in places like the one to which Pentimento has moved. If you’re one of the bright kids, interested in art and ideas and other things which are not generally high on the list of concerns for most people in such places, you almost inevitably start thinking of yourself as special, by which of course you mean superior.

The usual or classic pattern is that this smart kid escapes from the country or the small town to the metropolis (or perhaps only to the university) and there suffers the humiliating passage from big fish in small pond to very ordinary fish in big pond. This may, but doesn’t necessarily, lead to some degree of humility. I would expect that to go in the opposite direction—from the intellectual life of the metropolis to the dullness of the provinces—would provoke a strong impulse to hold oneself forever above the natives, and it speaks well of Pentimento that she wants to choose otherwise.

Sometimes, whether or not he leaves the small town behind, the smart kid’s sense of superiority hardens into lasting contempt. I think of an Alabama native who used to write for a newspaper here and who, on leaving to take a job in the northeast, bade farewell to the state with a sneer that he was happy to be leaving a place he’d never liked anyway and which was notable only for football and racism. I wonder how he fared in his new place. If he found appreciation there for the abilities that went under-praised at home, it has not achieved enough notice to reach us here.

That person was very proud of being a liberal in this heavily right-wing state. The path of the smart kid often leads to conventional liberalism. The provinces tend to be conservative in an instinctive and unreflective way. The smart kid looks beyond that, criticizes the simplistic and conventional views he encounters all around him, reads books and magazines that present him with other and more well-thought-out opinions, and decides that if his townspeople are conservatives, then he must be a liberal. And that’s perfectly understandable. But if he escapes to the metropolis (perhaps only in his mind—with modern communications one may mentally escape while remaining physically in place), he may find himself again among people who all think alike; only now he may not recognize the force of convention and fashion in maintaining the prevailing opinions, and so become as locked in to a set of received ideas as the people back home.

As one of those smart kids, the thing I had to learn, first, was that I was  not special in the way that I thought I was. Later, I learned that everyone else is special, that those people I thought were dumbbells are every bit as complex and interesting as I thought I was, and often also smarter in some ways than me and my intellectual heroes and friends. And then I could come back around to seeing myself as special, but this time without pride: special not because I am superior to others but because I’m just like them: unique and important in God’s eyes, a fact in which everyone’s sense of being special originates and is objectively justified.

April Fool’s Day

I was planning what I thought would be an amusing April Fool’s Day post, but when I realized that April 1 would fall on Palm Sunday decided it would be inappropriate. Check back next year.

Speaking of Palm Sunday, I’ve always been a little puzzled by the fact that we have a Passion narrative on this day. It seems out of place. Shouldn’t we celebrate the entry into Jerusalem today, the better to acknowledge our perfidy on Thursday?


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I'm fairly certain that my husband doesn't worry much about that.

I've never heard of that book before, but when I was in my early 20s, a woman at work lent me a book that she said was great. It was about a woman in the late 1900s who somehow fell into the power of a man who abused her in every possibly way and then in the end they fell in love. Sure. The book was so racy that I was too embarrassed to read it in the same room as my husband. I'm not sure why I read the whole thing, but I think had the effect of a snake charmer on me--not that I thought it was in any way charming, but it was so unimaginable to me that I kept thinking, "What could possibly happen next?" I can't really remember how pornographic it was. I tend to think that it didn't go into much detail and that by today's standards it might be rather tame. I don't remember returning the book either, but I must have had a hard time looking that woman in the face and we sure didn't become friends after that.

That was the first of several books that I came across where the woman ended up marrying a man who had raped her. I don't get it. These weren't trashy books, just your typical Library Guild book-of-the-month.

As for the smart/superior phenomenon, I always knew that I was much smarter than most people in that academic sort of way. When I was in my 20s, however, it was really born in on my how non-superior that makes me. It's just a thing you're born with like blue eyes or buck teeth. Well, I guess not many people are born with buck teeth. Anyway, I found that what really made people superior was if they were good and good was something I had a hard time being any good at.


Boy, that's a long comment.


There seems to be an element of Beauty and the Beast in a lot of romances and romance-y novels. Florence King apparently wrote a number of them, and she described the formula once. I think it included a powerful and maybe dangerous man, and a plucky heroine who stands up to him and wins his respect and love. I guess Jane Eyre is somewhat of a prototype. The marry-your-rapist thing would be kind of an extreme of that, maybe.

"These weren't trashy books, just your typical Library Guild book-of-the-month."

Says a lot about what "trashy" means and doesn't mean now.

Goodness is one of the few aspects of ourselves concerning which we actually have a pretty high degree of freedom and responsbility. Easier to look at something else.:-)

A friend of mine talked on her blog today about being unique. I think that works much better than special. For one thing, of course, "special" is so over-worked, but it also implies some kind of ranking. If everyone is special; no one is special. But, everyone IS unique, created by God to be different than anyone else who ever lived.


Agreed--I only used "special" because P did, and I think she meant for it to carry a hint of tongue-in-cheek.

Oh, I know, but when I came across Virginia post, it just struck me. It never occurred to me that there was a good way to say what people mean when they say "special."

BTW, I think Fifty Shades of Grey is a good name for a book like that--very depressing.

AND, did you ever notice that in the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, she doesn't fall in love with him until he's more or less emasculated--standing there in the snow with birds all over him. And, of course, the really masculine guy is portrayed as a jerk.


I suspect that the Passion narrative is on Palm Sunday for the benefit of all those whose next visit to church will be Easter (Maundy Thursday and Good Friday not being days of obligation).

Hadn't thought of that. Makes all too much sense.

"fifty shades of grey" as a phrase doesn't strike me as depressing at all, much as I like black-and-white photography.

I haven't seen the Disney B&B but gosh, that sounds pretty dismal. And pretty significant.

Oh, well I like it too, but I just get this image of the fog that envelopes me when I'm feeling depressed.


It's like Procol Harum, a greyer shade of gray.

I would greatly prefer it if they didn't have the whole gospel from entrance to resurrection on Palm Sunday. I see Paul's point entirely, but the problem is that the length of the reading means people tune out after about 5 minutes, ie half way through the Passion narrative. So it defeats its purpose. I read the entrance stories from the Synoptics with a class last year, and they were intrigued by them, as if they'd never heard them before.

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