Well, y’all, I finally bit the bullet and watched/read Fifty Shades. In fact, for you dear readers, I actually read the entire trilogy. Lest you think I’m the slowest reader on the round earth, I didn’t actually receive the books until after the 1st of April. Originally, I wanted to borrow them, not buy them, but alas that wasn’t meant to be. Now that I’m done, I’d like to share some of the thoughts I had while I read them. Expect an op ed piece below:
My Kingdom for a Better Editor!
For the love of Pete, could this poor woman have had a better editor? Please? Someone needed to tell her that it isn’t wise to write the exact same scene over and over across three books. I feel that much of the well deserved technical criticism of these books could have been avoided if they had only had a better editor. There are some moments here that are actually well written…even some moments that are actually authentically arousing. If only…if only…
I stand by some of my original assessment of the story. There is a deep and dark presence of the imagery connected to Hades and Persephone in these books. We know that this was Twilight fan fiction originally, which means that Hades and Persephone were always destined to be there. Note* if you don’t remember Hades and Persephone, google or read my other blog about Fifty Shades.
The images are everywhere: Seattle as a place–the rain, the grey…so much of the time. The solitude of Christian’s apartment. The lack of color in the decor. The way Christian whisks her away there without really telling her what is going on. The thresholding of the entrance to his apartment in the depths of his garage. His broody-ness. His despair. His loneliness. His self-loathing. His unexpected outbursts. His attempt to control his environment. The fact that he, in essence, takes Anastasia (thought I’ll not argue she is raped in the traditional sense…although one could argue whether or not our contemporary definition of rape is really what the myth points to either). Anastasia is an archetypal image of innocence, virginity, and purity who willingly steps deep into the dark. What Anastasia is NOT, however is Bella Swan. She is NOT the archetype of submission. That is the point of the entire story. Every. Single. Time. Christian tries to drag her down to his underworld of pain. And Every. Single. Time. she remerges. Christian loves her for that. He is drawn to her for it. And frankly, she is just as drawn to him. She chooses to work through his pain with him. That’s Hades and Persephone. The dark descent into the underworld–transformation–and the reemergence into the renewal of spring.
Now, where I was WRONG in my original assessment is where I suggested that this is ONLY a Hades and Persephone story. I actually began to doubt my thoughts on that score almost immediately sitting in the movie theater. Now having seen and read it I must admit that there is plenty of the authentically erotic in it. Archetypes of love (Aphrodite/Eros) and the soul (Psyche) run rampant over the entire series. Despite the darkness in this story, there is much of color, lightness, sweetness, and joy. Keep in mind though, that a lot of it is what Jungians call shadow aspects of these things. So much of this series is about the pain of becoming. Everything in this series is about beginning to learn about the unknown and the kind of mess that comes from that. It’s about the healing that comes through delving into the ickiness. Yeah, it ain’t pretty, but life ain’t always pretty. No relationship is pretty all the time–which leads into my next point.
Christian Grey: Millennial Man
After chewing and chewing on this for a long time, it finally occurred to me that the archetypal energy behind the piece…that archetype that has so many people riled up, is of the masculine, not the feminine. Anastasia may be girlish, kind of naive, and insecure, but she knows who she is. She is strong and stubborn, as well as loving and determined. Christian, on the other hand, is broken. And he has been broken by a system that preys on the disenfranchised–sexually, financially, and socially. As the child of a drug addicted prostitute with no father figure in his early life other than his mother’s violent pimps and as a teen who is sexually abused by his mother’s friend, he is essentially a traumatized man-child. He IS the archetypal masculine that has been damaged by the patriarchy. He represents the messiness that happens when a man–a character seen as a tool of the patriarchy–who has been victimized tries to balance compensatory measures against the need for love without shame or guilt.
Many have suggested that Christian is an abuser. I don’t believe that it is helpful to classify him in that way. Abusers are generally narcissistic, often sociopathic characters. Christian is not. It is the depth of his empathy that causes him to shut down in the first place. He feels too much. And he has no way to process what he feels. Much like his archetypal precursors–Mr. Darcy, the Beast, Edward Lewis–his bad behavior is connected to childhood wounding, not to the essential nature of his character. I’m not excusing his bad behavior (believe me, I am exceedingly supportive of abuse victims. Not only are my mother and my sister survivors of abuse, but I myself have been in two relationships that stepped over the line of abuse. On the flip side, my brother-in-law was also the victim of horrific abuse from his first wife. I have dear friends that I love deeply who have been empowered to escape abusive situations. There is no excuse for it, nor should there be. Everyone has a right to freedom, love, and safety, and we must fight to support them all.), but what I am suggesting is my feminist friends-in-arms might consider for a second that our archetypal images of masculinity might just be that darn broken. What should we do with these broken images? Should we throw them all out? How are we to heal if we give up on them? How can we expect them to be something other than what they are, because these images speak to the reality of what we are truly feeling and experiencing.
We don’t need to tolerate abusive behavior, but if we truly love and accept others we should certainly seek to understand how the behavior originates. In my opinion, Anastasia shows us that our images of the maiden are doing just fine. Childlike though she may be, this maiden has grit. She will grow to be a powerful woman. But the masculine, the hero, he is the one in peril. Beyond the fact that he doesn’t even know who he is and how much privilege he has, he is disconnected emotionally, so out of touch with his heart that he doesn’t even have the ability to access his pain. Of course, that is, until Anastasia leaves him. It is at that point that he recognizes that if he should be lucky enough to see her return to him, he has to learn to open up to his wounds, even if he is terrified that the pain has the potential to unravel him.
Over and over again in the series, Christian steps forward to receive love from Ana. And each time he comes forward, eyes wide, head down awaiting the blow of rejection. I see this all around me; men who are starving for love, no sense of how to be and how to love. I am convinced that this makes Christian Grey an archetypal image of a millennial age male. These are the guys who came of age in the era of Fight Club, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Columbine at the tail end of gen x and the beginning of gen y (the generation often first associated as millennials, as they reached legal voting/drinking age at the cusp of the millennium). Look around at the 30-ish year old men you know. How are they doing? Christian is frozen, transfixed and trapped in the realm of the dead, ruling a quasi-patriarchal emotional underworld that they neither understand, nor feel a connection to.
The most interesting thing about Christian Grey is that he senses his need for the healing that a union with the feminine can provide. And he is driven to seek it out, but when he manages to find it, he is terrified by even the slightest possibility that he might lose it. So he does what the mythic masculine has often have done to compensate this fear, both in myth and in life. He attempts to control everything. And as we are still in the messiness of the shadow of patriarchy, he seems to pull it off. His wealth, his lifestyle, and his privilege make it seem from the outside as though he is in control. A close read, however, reveals the opposite. Underneath all the opulence, Christian is still the scared little boy left orphaned and clinging to his mother’s lifeless body. That is what is unconscious in our archetypal masculine. In a culture often dominated by Don Draper-esque the anti-hero and the literal Donald Trump false leader, I look around and ask the question: who is building positive images of men? Where do they go for healing? Where are the positive heroes? As singer Paula Cole once crooned, “where have all the cowboys gone?” Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps men are asking themselves a similar question. I do see some work happening out there, particularly with groups like my myth colleague Kwame Scruggs’ organization Alchemy, Inc. There is some great work being done to rebuild images of the archetypal masculine, but the mytho-cultural impact of Fifty Shades proves to me that so much more needs to be done.
Ultimately, I’m not suggesting that we feminist women should step down and baby these broken men. What I am suggesting is that we stand up even higher and offer them a hand up with us, as only the divine feminine can–in compassion, kindness, and with a swift kick in the ass.
Oh, and one more thing: if you want to read an amazing dissertation on this topic, keep your eyes peeled for work by my friend Art Deilbert–Toward New Masculine Identities. His work analyzes Arthurian tradition, suggesting that men can find healing in the character of Perceval as what he calls a lunar hero (in contrast to the common solar hero)–a lunar hero being a man in touch with the messy, emotional underworld of nighttime consciousness. Just read it, if you can. It is genius…and he is so right.