“Hell, Ana, I just showed you . . .” he groans. “May God forgive me. Have you ever been kissed, apart from by me?”
— Fifty Shades of Grey, p109
Shame is a weird word.
It gets used a lot, but in very different ways. And far less often do you hear someone give a definition for it. But I want to blog about shame so here’s my definition:
Shame is knowledge you have about yourself – knowledge that says you are unworthy.
Shame involves a moral judgement: you are unworthy because you are bad. It also involves exclusion: you are unworthy therefore you must be separated from worthy people. But perhaps most importantly, shame is about identity: you are unworthy.
Unsurprisingly, shame often goes hand in hand with guilt: you are unworthy because your actions were unworthy. It goes the other way round too: your actions are unworthy because you are unworthy. In this, the pairing of guilt and shame reflects the truth that who we are affects what we do, and what we do affects who we are.
But of course, sometimes shame is misplaced.
It is not uncommon for survivors of abuse and sexual assault to carry shame as a result of their experiences – even though what happened to them was the fault of their abuser/attacker. They may believe one of the most common myths in existence: that bad things only happen to people who deserve it.
But there’s more to it than just this false belief: unlike, for example, an unfortunate accident, abuse is an active form of communication from one person to another. It sends a message to a person that they are unworthy. And it does this so powerfully that the abused person comes to believe it.
In other words, abuse inflicts shame.
The phrase “inflicting shame” is often used of a context where someone is humiliated. Humiliation is itself a form of public exclusion – it is a means of separating an “unworthy” person (or group of people) from the “worthy” ones. Like abuse, humiliation is itself a form of communication. It pronounces a judgement. We often hear it paraphrased: “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
The problem is, we often associate such pronouncements as being false.
In other posts in this series, I’ve explored how Christian’s unfounded sense of self-righteousness is his true vice. It therefore comes as no surprise that he frequently tells Ana that she should be ashamed of herself and sees it as his place to inflict his judgement (and punishment) on her. Far from being a righteous moral judgement, this is a form of abuse.
And here we see the problem: on the one hand Christian is wrong to make Ana believe she is unworthy, and yet on the other hand, Christian needs knowledge about himself that he is unworthy. So is carrying shame a bad thing, or can it be a good thing?
Nearly all the times that I hear someone label an action, a person, or a group of people as shameful, it strikes me that the person doing the labelling is in error. Perhaps they believe that telling a person they are bad will induce morally right choices. I find this doubtful. Such action is far more likely to damage and induce fear, even if it comes with a garnish of conforming behaviour. (But no, the end does not justify the means.)
That said, I am not someone who believes that all of humanity is inherently good and there is no one and nothing shameful in the world.
At the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, the enchantress pronounces a judgement on Beast: he has no love in his heart. She then punishes him in an act that humiliates and excludes him, turning him into a beast. This is certainly a severe action to inflict on an 11 year old boy and it’s only tolerable because of the highly-visual fairy-tale setting in which the story is set. (Parents, don’t try this at home!)
The thing is, although Beast is ashamed of his appearance, destroying paintings of his human self and shouting at Maurice “You’ve come to stare at the Beast, have you?”, the enchantress’ words and curse are not what brings Beast into true knowledge about himself.
Belle does that.
Perhaps we need another word instead of “shame.” We need a word that describes a genuine realisation a person has about themselves, that gives them knowledge of their need to change.
What’s important to realise is that this feeling doesn’t come about when a person is named as shameful. It comes about when a person witnesses virtue.
Both Christian and Beast have such moments.
With Christian it’s in chapter seven of Fifty Shades of Grey. He has got Ana to sign a non-disclosure agreement, he’s taken her to his apartment and shown her his Red Room (with all his unusual sex stuff in it). He then asks her what she enjoys during sex. She answers:
“Well… I haven’t had sex before, so I don’t know.” My voice is small. I peek up at him, and he’s gaping at me, frozen, and pale—really pale.
“Never?” he whispers. I shake my head.
— Fifty Shades of Grey, p108
For now, I’ll gloss over the false association of virginity with virtue (I wrote more on that here). The point is: knowing that Ana is a virgin is what instils shame in Christian.
Similarly with Beast, it’s Belle’s virtue of selflessness that shames him.
BEAST: There’s nothing you can do. He’s my prisoner.
BELLE: Oh, there must be some way I can… wait! Take me, instead!
BEAST: You! You would take his place?
— Beauty and the Beast (1991)
It’s in the tone of his voice when he asks, “You would take his place?” Belle’s selflessness isn’t even directed towards Beast, but still he’s astounded.
But once you get past the immediate breathlessness of Christian and Beast, their reactions couldn’t be more different.
Christian is angry with himself but he takes it out on Ana. He glares at her, growling “Why the f*** didn’t you tell me?” and saying “a virgin!” like it’s a dirty word. He then describes her as a situation to be “rectified” before having sex with her. But because Ana hugely enjoys the experience (in a scene that departs from all realism) the world is a happy place.
In other words, the one time that Christian feels a genuine sense that maybe there’s more to life than sex, he turns it all onto Ana. And because she accepts it, he feels no need to change.
And this is a problem.
As I’ve argued elsewhere in this series, although Christian Grey carries a sense of shame within himself, he ties this mainly to his childhood trauma. On its own, I could understand that as a legitimate plot point. The problem comes because there is no shame attached to his coercive and controlling behaviour. What this means is that Christian’s redemption arc is not about him changing. Rather, it’s about him realising his sense of shame from his childhood is unfounded. And that would have been fine as plots go, were it not for the fact that Christian is such an unpleasant person in his own right.
Christian actually does need to be redeemed. He does need to change. Instead he gets told that nothing is his fault and he’s a good person really.
Beast on the other hand, accepts Belle’s offer, fulfils his side of the deal and genuinely tries to take steps to make her feel a little more at home. He fails, but let’s face it, he was never going to succeed. She’d just lost her father and her freedom.
Meanwhile, Beast rightly focuses on himself and his need to change:
BEAST: It’s no use. She’s so beautiful, and I’m so…well, look at me!
Beast is talking about his appearance, but really, he means his lack of virtue. He could have said: “She’s so selfless, and I’m so… well, look at me! I only look like this because I was selfish and bad tempered!” He could have said that, but then it wouldn’t have been nearly as accessible to children and it would have slipped into “telling” the audience what was happening, instead of “showing” them. The scriptwriters had better sense.
Instead, they make it absolutely clear about how Beast needs to change inwardly if he is ever to change outwardly:
MRS. POTTS: Oh, you must help her to see past all that.
BEAST: I don’t know how.
MRS. POTTS: Well, you can start by making yourself more presentable. Straighten up, try to act like a gentleman.
LUMIERE: Ah yes, when she comes in, give her a dashing, debonair smile. Come, come. Show me the smile.
MRS. POTTS: But don’t frighten the poor girl.
LUMIERE: Impress her with your rapier wit.
MRS. POTTS: But be gentle.
LUMIERE: Shower her with compliments.
MRS. POTTS: But be sincere
LUMIERE: And above all…
BOTH: You must control your temper!
— Beauty and the Beast (1991)
This is the thirteenth post in a series on redemption, comparing Beauty and the Beast with Fifty Shades. (Though it probably should have been the twelfth.) You can find an index of all the posts here.