“You’re a good man, Christian, a really good man. Don’t ever doubt that.”
— Ana, Fifty Shades Darker, p195
The moment when things went bad
Redemption stories tend to start with something very bad happening. After all, people don’t need saving from good things. I like to refer to this event as ‘The Fall’ – not because Jamie Dornan, the actor for Christian Grey, starred in a TV series with that name – but because that’s the phrase generally used to refer to the very bad event described near the beginning of the book of Genesis.
(Content note: This post makes general references to parts of the plot of Fifty Shades of Grey, including sexual violence and childhood trauma. I’ve written separately on why I write about Fifty Shades.)
I’m not here to preach, but Christianity has informed our culture’s understanding of what redemption is and it’s relevant to these stories. In Genesis, Adam and Eve were not meant to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – but they did anyway. Cue: curses and death. I’ll write more on this in my next post ‘The Curse.’ For now, I want to point out something important: the bad event only happens because of a bad choice made by the person who then needs redeeming.
Yes, stories can start with a very bad event that was not in any way the choice of the person concerned. Yes, that bad event may indeed trap a person into a state of living death – in which case the story may have strong parallels with the redemption story arc. (Take, for example, Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption who is wrongly jailed for the murder of his wife. Or the residents of Hinkley in Erin Brockovich who are poisoned by hexavalent chromium in their water supply.)
But the classic redemption story starts with the blame of the bad event falling on the shoulders of the person who chose it. (Take, for example, Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding in The Shawshank Redemption who is jailed for a murder he did commit. Or indeed Jean Valjean in Les Miserables who is jailed for stealing bread.) That doesn’t mean the curse of the bad event is proportionate (more on that in the next post) – but it does mean the curse wouldn’t have happened without the person’s initial and wrong choice.
Beast, a young prince with a whole castle at his disposal, refuses to offer shelter to an old woman on a dark stormy night. Twice. Because she’s ugly.
He was needlessly selfish, plain and simple. Because of that, he gets cursed. There is absolutely no doubt about Beast’s guilt.
What works particularly well in Disney’s adaptation is that Beast’s transgression of selfishness is simple yet profound. A child can understand not wanting to share their toys. An adult can appreciate how greed, indifference towards others and a sense of entitlement cause the most grievous actions against humanity.
I know he’s broken … I understand why. An unloved child; a hideously abusive environment; a mother who couldn’t protect him, whom he couldn’t protect, and who died in front of him.
— Fifty Shades Darker, p265
So… Christian’s father abandoned his mother and she was abused by her pimp. At a young age Christian sat with her body for a matter of days before he was found. He was later adopted by caring (and wealthy) parents.
Even so, he was unruly until the age of 15. At which point he was brought to the BDSM lifestyle by a woman dubbed Mrs Robinson. (Unfamiliar with the term ‘BDSM’? Might want to browse the dictionary page and why I write about BDSM.) For the record, Christian was under the age of consent and Mrs Robinson’s actions were illegal. (And yes, her nickname is a reference to The Graduate.)
Then suddenly Christian got his life back in order and became a successful businessman. Except that, despite all his success and wealth, he’s still ‘cursed’ by his BDSM desires.
Hmmm… so what exactly is Christian’s fall?
Christian can’t be blamed for his early life experiences.
Christian can’t be blamed for being groomed by an older woman while he was unstable and underage.
But can Christian be blamed for embracing sadism as a means of handling his childhood trauma?
Some people (including Ana) hold that because Christian is a sadist he needs the BDSM (FSD p329).
Others hold that there are many far better ways of dealing with childhood abuse. They will also point out that most people in real life who have comparable childhood traumas do not have the privileges that Christian had whilst growing up. In other words, if they have found ways of dealing with their trauma without coercing, harming and raping women, why couldn’t Christian?
Questions about accountability
By removing a clear choice through which Christian enables his own state of living-death to be brought upon himself, Fifty Shades gives credence to the idea that Christian can’t be held to account for his behaviour. He never fell, so he has nothing to repent of. He only has hurt to be healed from.
Now, Christian’s terrible childhood and his subsequent wretchedness might be grounds for compassion towards him – but they do not remove the fact that he bears responsibility for his adult choices. And, I’ll say it, his choices are not good.
In other words, Christian’s childhood trauma does not make him entitled to bad behaviour.
In Beauty and the Beast, we see this clearly. By the time Belle arrives, Beast has had his body taken from him for 10 years; he has lived in a monstrous form, he has been isolated and faced with a doom which is nigh on impossible for him to avoid. He has had no parents, no tutors and no friends. He has had no one to encourage him to study or learn. (In the special edition, Beast reads the word ‘Two’ as ‘t-w-oh’.) He has had nothing to aspire for. But he is still held to account for the fact that he loses his temper.
For redemption, shame and guilt must go hand in hand
It’s never asked whether Beast’s bad temper is justifiable because Beast’s guilt is so firmly established. He lives in shame because he knows he was guilty; he is incapable of being free of either of these on his own.
In Fifty Shades however, Christian’s shame comes mainly from the fact that BDSM is an unconventional form of sex. Once he tones it down into something more palatable and enjoyable by both him and Ana (and they’re married with a kid) the shame evaporates into a happy, kinky love-life.
Yes, there are redemption stories where the sense of culpability is established in a more complicated way than Beast’s guilt is established. In these, you don’t know when the fall happened just that, by a certain point, it has happened. (The Devil Wears Prada springs to mind.) I’m not saying Fifty Shades fails at being a redemption story just because the relevant plot points are more complex. I’m saying:
Fifty Shades fails to be a redemption story because it fails to clearly establish Christian’s culpability. In doing so, its sense of shame is misplaced and its happy-ever-after is contrived.
Fifty Shades doesn’t recognise that it’s Christian’s controlling nature and coercive tactics which are what truly shame him and show him to be a guilty and fallen man. At the end of the trilogy, these are still very much as they were at the start. This is why critics hold that Christian doesn’t fundamentally change. He might be less conflicted within himself, but that doesn’t mean he’s more healthy or more moral.
Beast, on the other hand, is yearning to change the whole time. He just doesn’t know how.
At least to begin with.
BEAST: She’ll never see me as anything… but a monster. It’s hopeless.
— Beauty and the Beast (1991)