Another Valentine’s Day weekend, and another Fifty Shades blockbuster.
In the franchise’s third installment, Fifty Shades Freed, the series’s anti-hero Christian Grey has finally married Anastasia, but it would be a mistake to suggest he has changed his ways.
For all his billions of dollars and good looks, he’s still the same old playboy pursuing violent sexual fantasy.
It is plain that Grey’s sadistic thrills are misguided. Even E. L. James, the novelist behind the series, sensed the need to provide a backstory to explain Grey’s behavior, attributing it to the regular sexual abuse he experienced as a teenage boy from a close family friend. With that explanation, viewers understand that this is the cause of his present sadistic desires, which are often unleashed on Anastasia in graphic detail. As a billionaire, he uses his wealth to craft an entire dungeon in order to pursue his desires.
But sympathetic backstories are no basis for building a sexual ethic. In sexual ethics, when all things are permitted, women lose every time. This truth is acutely relevant: If the last several months of headlines have demonstrated anything, it is that women don’t desire to be the playthings of the rich and powerful.
Wendell Berry gets to the heart of our contemporary predicament:
In sex, as in other things, we have liberated fantasy but killed imagination, and so have sealed ourselves in selfishness and loneliness. Fantasy is of the solitary self, and it cannot lead us away from ourselves. It is by imagination that we cross over the differences between ourselves and other beings and thus learn compassion, forbearance, mercy, forgiveness, sympathy, and love—the virtues without which neither we nor the world can live.
So it turns out that fantasy is a dead-end street. But good romance isn’t about realizing your fantasies. It’s about learning how to love selflessly—compassion in the hard times, forgiveness when you’ve been wronged—in short, giving yourself away for someone else.
And even in a world where the beauty of selfless love lies buried beneath the rubble, not all is lost. To use Berry’s language, imagination is the stuff of the greatest love stories, and it’s those love stories that captivate us every time.
In 50 years, Fifty Shades will be long forgotten, but Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice will still be read by millions of women (and men!) everywhere.
Austen’s vessel for teaching us imagination is the handsome, haughty Mr. Darcy. The headstrong protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, notices that Darcy is unwilling to dance with her and her friends at the ball. He criticizes her looks, and he thinks her family’s country-folk sensibilities are beneath him. Nonetheless, over time, Darcy develops a romantic admiration for Elizabeth. After she rebuffs him, Darcy must learn what it means to love.
Through a kind act of great generosity, Darcy rescues Elizabeth’s younger sister, Lydia, from a foolish decision to elope with a fraudulent lover who had no intentions of marrying her. As a matter of discretion and propriety, Darcy’s actions are strictly behind the scenes; he does not disclose his gift to Elizabeth’s family. It takes Elizabeth’s snooping to learn of Darcy’s intervention. When she finally puts all the puzzle pieces together, she is filled with thanksgiving, tinged with remorse.
Elizabeth reflects that Darcy “had done all this for a girl whom he could neither regard nor esteem. Her heart did whisper, that he had done it for her . . . They owed the restoration of Lydia, her character, every thing to him. Oh! how heartily did she grieve over every saucy speech she had ever directed towards him. For herself she was humbled; but she was proud of him. Proud that in a cause of compassion and honour, he had been able to get the better of himself.”
As Berry would say, Darcy crossed over the difference between himself and Elizabeth. She is left smitten, reminding us that true love still exists, even in a world of imposters.