Fairy-tale vs Erotica: Brides, wives and eternities

Books of the Fifty Shades trilogy with a DVD of Beauty and the Beast

Life is never going to be boring with Christian, and I’m in this for the long haul. I love this man: my husband, my lover, father of my child, my sometimes Dominant… my Fifty Shades.
Fifty Shades Freed, p531

There is something about hope that is both now and not yet.

We see hope when people are healed and reconciled, and even when they’re comforted in times of distress. At the same time though, these are but foretastes of something more, something that will only be found fully in the beyond.

Stories of redemption are, by definition, stories of hope. Their happy endings are happy beginnings that look forward in anticipation. The questions to ask are ‘What do they say about the now?’ and ‘What do they say about the not yet?’

Princess bride

In true Disney fashion, Beauty and the Beast ends with the beginning of the happy life Prince and Belle are to enjoy together. Though we don’t see any bells or priests, this is a wedding image.

The power of this image lies in how it resonates with the high value Western society places on romantic relationships, and its associations with harmony, riches and celebration – both at an individual and collective level. Ending with this image is particularly strong for a redemption narrative, because it contrasts with the state of ‘living death’ out of which the redeemed person has come.

The ending of Fifty Shades is a bit different. The new beginnings of Ana’s and Christian’s relationship, which Christian keeps calling ‘firsts’, have already happened. They’ve slept together in the same bed, they’ve married, and Christian has even been able to sing in front of his family. Moreover, Ana has had not only her first taste of sex, but a wide variety of different ways to have sex, each of which was a first for her. The book ends with Ana and Christian settled in their relationship, waiting for baby Blip to be born. There’s also an epilogue where they’re waiting for Blip #2.

In other words, where Belle is a bride, Ana is a wife.

Now, you could argue that both of these are romance images. But here’s the thing: just because you’re using an image, that doesn’t mean you’re speaking about that image.

Redeemed for all time

Beauty and the Beast uses images to present ideas. For example, royalty, literature and France convey the ideas of riches, independence of thought, and haute cuisine. But none of these images are used on their own to convey these concepts and, more to the point, the film is not trying to speak about royalty, or literature, or the French.

So when Beauty and the Beast uses images of romance – particularly the ballroom scene and the kiss after Beast’s transformation – we need to stop and ask ourselves how much the film is actually trying to speak about romance.

The ballroom scene does a good job of capturing the modern nervousness of going on a first date, as well as the formalities of classic courtship. However, even as a child, I always understood Belle’s confession of love to be the love of friendship. She’s utterly astonished when he transforms into a prince and it would be very strange if she loved a beast in any other way.

Yes, the enchantment said Beast had to win “her” love in return for his, but this is not about Beast needing erotic desire to be redeemed. Rather, this particular framing of the enchantment sets up the possibility of both Beast coming into freedom, and Prince being glorified. As such, his kiss with Belle is not so much a statement about romance, but an image that speaks about redemption.

Married ever after

As for Fifty Shades, it’s trying to be subversive fan-fiction based on The Twilight Saga.

For those less familiar, Twilight is a series of supernatural teen romance novels about the young Bella Swann who falls in love with handsome vampire Edward. Being a vampire, he thirsts after her blood until she becomes a vampire like him.

Like Fifty Shades, Twilight makes extensive use of the images and tropes of romance, but the most pronounced image is Bella and Edward’s married life. And Twilight isn’t just using the image of marriage – it’s speaking about it too.

Not only is Bella is abstinent outside of her marriage with Edward, but their union is a never-ending one. Unless I am very much mistaken, this is a thinly veiled reflection of the author’s beliefs in (a) what is often called ‘sexual purity’ and (b) the Mormon doctrine of eternal marriage. The moral of the story is clear: a good woman makes her choice of husband and sticks with it.

I have problems with this.

Firstly, I am convinced that so-called ‘purity culture’ is a form of gender violence that seeks to control women’s sexuality. Secondly, mainstream denominations of Christianity hold that marriage is not eternal (Matthew 22:30), nor do they believe marriage is necessary for a person to attain the highest level of redemption. Thirdly, many women have chosen husbands in good faith, only to be shackled into loveless marriages – whether by abuse or circumstance.

None of these issues is explored in The Twilight Saga, but still the series still holds up Bella and Edward as sexual role models and their relationship as a basis for the reader’s expectations in marriage.

Fifty Shades is no better. In fact, the wedding vows are telling in how they describe Ana and Christian’s long-term relationship. Ana doesn’t vow to obey Christian, but when you read between the lines they are far from equals. Ana has hopes, Christian has goals. Ana supports and honours Christian, Christian protects and safeguards Ana. Ana’s love is unconditional, Christian’s love is faithful.

This is not about saying men and women are different. This is about proscribing gendered roles and expectations. Tired, toxic, conservative roles and expectations, where the wife promises loyalty and the husband promises authoritative leadership. I don’t buy it.

What’s worse is that where Twilight is in a fantasy setting, Fifty Shades isn’t.

Genre

I grant you, erotica doesn’t have to be realistic. But Fifty Shades is trying so very hard to be. It rationalises why Christian is the way he is, claims to show consensual negotiation, and at times discusses female biology and how that affects orgasms. Problem is these are presented in all seriousness with huge departures from realism. (You can read more in other posts on Christian’s past, the failure of how consent is presented, and Ana’s implausible libido.)

Beauty and the Beast, on the other hand is a fairy tale. It is not trying to be a well-rounded work of sub-creation that stands up when examined from every angle; if we expect it to be, that’s possibly because we’ve been spoiled by Tolkien. Whereas I do consider this film to be a masterpiece, I’m not going to try and say it’s perfect. I don’t think it propagates purity rhetoric, but it does use classic and high imagery, particularly of womanhood and beauty. In this, the film doesn’t inoculate against harmful stereotypes.

That said, Beauty and the Beast speaks truthfully about what it takes to build a relationship, whether sexual or not. For example, it holds up accepting correction, offering and receiving both apologies and thanks, having fun together, supporting each other’s dreams, and valuing each other’s relationships with other people.

Visions of hope

The closing image used in Fifty Shades is one of Ana on her knees outside the Red Room, waiting for her dominant to call her in. Were it not for the fact that Christian doesn’t understand consent, that could have been a good anticipatory climax to end a piece of erotica. However, what Ana looks forward to is the “long haul” of her marriage. Whether intentional or not, this has strong resonances with the Mormon-informed ending of Twilight.

The closing image of Beauty in the Beast is of Belle and Prince dancing happily together, surrounded by a crowd of friends and family, in a magnificent castle, in a beautiful valley. Then, as this image becomes a stained glass window, we see the rose over both of them.

Having asked at the start of this post how these stories speak about the now and the not yet, I can now give my answer:

Beauty and the Beast uses the image of romance to speak about friendship in the present and redemption in eternity.

Fifty Shades however, uses the image of BDSM to speak about sex in the present and marriage in eternity.

I have a problem with that.

It’s not just that the sex in Fifty Shades is non-consensual and the marriage is founded on control. My problem is also that the books hold up marriage as the greatest object of hope – with sex as its foretaste.

I’m not saying that I don’t believe there will be any sex in eternity. Rather, my problem is that if you frame romance as the thing to hope for, it puts an unhealthy burden on any relationship that tries to form. Moreover, sexual and marital relationships are temporary. A person’s hope and identity need to be strong enough to stand up whether they are single, divorced or bereaved.

I therefore find it more meaningful to have a story that shows how people grow in affection, compassion and humility. For it is through these that we are able to foretaste redemption.

The redemptive climax of Beauty and the Beast has a wealth of imagery. There is Beast’s resurrection and transformation, as well as his dance with Belle in the ballroom. In this, the film is essentially using wedding imagery to symbolise glorification and anticipation.

It is not that these ancient images are perfect, but they are some of the best we have. If we can be wise enough not to take them too literally, but childlike enough to allow their enchantment work within us, then we will see our future reality unmasked.

Tale as old as time,
Song as old as rhyme,
Beauty and the Beast.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)


This is the eighteenth and final post in a series on redemption, comparing Beauty and the Beast with Fifty Shades. You can find an index of all the posts here.

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