We’re coming near to the end of the bridge, and the road is once more bathed in the neon light of the street lamps so his face is intermittently in the light and the dark. And it’s such a fitting metaphor. This man, who I once thought of as a romantic hero, a brave shining white knight—or the dark knight, as he said. He’s not a hero; he’s a man with serious, deep emotional flaws, and he’s dragging me into the dark. Can I not guide him into the light?
“I still want more,” I whisper.
“I know,” he says. “I’ll try.”
— Fifty Shades of Grey, p355
If you’ve been following this series so far, you’ll know that I’ve already posted twice about how, in a redemption story, a redeemer freely and purposefully chooses to act to save someone.
So why am I blogging about redeemer’s choice again? And why is this post a “part 1”?
The answer is that Ana’s choice in Fifty Shades and Belle’s choice in Beauty and the Beast are very different in one key respect:
Ana chooses to redeem Christian. Belle does not choose to redeem Beast.
Now, this difference isn’t a reason to disregard Fifty Shades as a redemption narrative. But it does create complications when it’s compared with Beauty and the Beast. Moreover, in this respect, the redemption narrative within Christianity appears to be closer to Fifty Shades than Beauty and the Beast. After all, Christians believe that Jesus’ choice to enter into the world and suffer and die, was a choice made for the benefit of humanity – even though it was humans who caused him to suffer and die.
This begs the question: if I think that Beauty and the Beast portrays a model of redemption that is close to Christianity’s understanding of it (and I do), how do I explain this apparent difference? And if I think that Fifty Shades is inconsistent with the Christian(ity) model, then why is that?
To answer these questions, we need to grapple even more with our understanding of choice and how it relates to redemption.
Before we begin, some blurb if you’re new to this blog:
- I’ve written separately on why I write about Fifty Shades.
- If terms like ‘BDSM’ unfamiliar, you might want to see my Dictionary page.
- This post is part of an ongoing series; in the introduction I explained why I think Redemption is beautiful love, not beastly suffering.
- I’m not here to preach, but I am a Christian and Christianity has informed our culture’s understanding of what redemption is; so I talk a little about that too.
OK, blurb over.
In some of my previous posts I’ve explored:
- Privilege: how this meant when Belle choose to stay with Beast, she was able to make a free choice; however, Ana’s lack of power compared to Christian and her lack of self-esteem meant she didn’t make a free choice;
- Motivation: how Belle was motivated by sacrificial and compassionate love, whereas Ana was motivated by fear and self-interest;
- Grooming: how Beast was transparent in his proposition to Belle, but Christian was inherently deceitful towards Ana in the first fourteen chapters of the first book.
In this post, we’ll step back a bit and look at the sweeping plot arc of the Fifty Shades trilogy. The first fourteen chapters of the first book are all about Ana (being groomed and) agreeing to the idea of BDSM, but later in the book you get a shift. Ana begins to realise that what she wants isn’t what Christian wants – and she begins to ask Christian for what she really wants. She calls this ‘more’. Christian agrees to try.
Of course, what follows is more sex, more restaurant dining, more violence, a break up, a get-back-together, more sex and more luxury. Then outside mini-threats to the relationship from the outside that evaporate as quickly and meaninglessly as they appear. Then dream house, then wedding (which I guess fall into Ana’s definition of ‘more’), followed by unpleasantness, followed by Christian having to acknowledge that Ana isn’t his submissive, followed by an unplanned pregnancy, more unpleasantness, another outside threat to the relationship, an eventual full disclosure of his childhood trauma… and ending in a happy ever after.
Throughout all of this, Ana continually chooses to stick with Christian. Her choice is understood to be a good thing because there’s a happy-ever-after at the end. (It is also reminiscent of Bella’s perpetual choice to stick with Edward.) But there are three reasons why it might not be a good thing at all.
Firstly, Ana dates Christian for his sake more than hers.
At the end of Fifty Shades of Grey Ana breaks up with Christian because she can’t be what she thinks he needs. She takes him back because he tells her she can be what he needs. Belle on the other hand, agrees to be with Beast not for his sake but her father’s.
Secondly, Christian is always revealing something new about his troubles.
Not until very late in the trilogy is Christian truly open about his issues, but he asks for Ana’s commitment long before she appreciates what he’s really after. He also uses his unrevealed secrets as excuses for his behaviour. Beast, on the other hand, has to show himself to Belle before she will agree to stay.
Thirdly, Ana compromises the most, even though Christian creates most of the problems.
Ana does win some compromises from Christian (he doesn’t hit her after the first book), but they are only minor dents in major issues (he should never have hit her when she doesn’t like it and he does other creepy stuff instead). By the end of the books, Ana has sacrificed much of her autonomy and Christian still holds the veto in their relationship. Contrast with Belle, who requires Beast to release her father before Beast can have anything from her.
Simple? Not quite.
There are three other arguments that say this is all OK
The three objections above are generally about inequality and control within the relationship. However, when you start viewing Ana’s relationship with Christian as a redemption relationship, it gets a lot harder to raise these objections. Each of the three points above has a counter-argument.
Counter-argument one: Redemption is not meant to be about your own interest
By definition, as a redeemer, Ana would have to be in the relationship for Christian’s benefit rather than her own. Otherwise it isn’t about sacrificial love.
Counter-argument two: A redeemer is never fully informed at the start; multi-stage choices are often part of how redemption goes
In The Matrix, Leo didn’t fully know what he was doing when he took the red pill. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo didn’t fully know what it would mean when he volunteered to take the Ring to Mordor. Erin Brockovich didn’t know what she was getting into when she first went to Hinkley. These might not be typical redemption stories, but they have strong redemptive qualities. What characterises all of them is choosing and choosing and choosing again. So what’s wrong with Ana doing that in her relationship with Christian?
Counter-argument three: Redemption often works from a position of weakness
At least it does in Christian(ity) thinking. Christians believe that Jesus, although he was God, entered into the weakness of human frailty in order to redeem humankind from mortality. You also see this Christian(ity) theme of the weak shaming the strong, in The Lord of the Rings, where is it a small hobbit who takes the Ring to Mordor – a strategy that is unthinkable to the Dark Lord Sauron. Even in the more secular example of Hallmark’s Aarabian Nights, Scheherazade enters a position of weakness when she marries the sultan. So why can’t Ana be redemptive as Christian’s submissive?
But redemption is bigger than consent
Make no mistake: consent is a big deal and Fifty Shades is loaded with examples of non-consent and non-consensual sex.
With sex, there’s one type of consent I advocate above all others:
- active, and
- informed, and
(I’m not saying that there is always a consent violation when one of these isn’t present, but you need strong contextual circumstances if one of these three is missing.)
Thing is, redemption isn’t sex.
When it comes to redemption, consent doesn’t have to be either active, or informed, or enthusiastic.
In fact, the idea that it would be all three is laughable. The most pointed example in Christianity is Jesus’ choice in the Garden of Gethsemane to go to the cross. No one thinks his choice was enthusiastic. And there’s a strong case for saying it wasn’t informed either. (I always got the feeling he was surprised when Judas kissed him and I don’t think that denies Jesus’ divinity or God’s omniscience.)
So where does this leave us? Can we say the non-consensual sex Christian has with Ana is OK because it’s all part of a passive, uninformed and unenthusiastic redemption arc?
No, no, no, no, no.
Fans of Fifty Shades often say that critics “just don’t get it.” I suspect one for reason for this is that consent is poorly understood. But I think it’s also because redemption stories are hard to get your head around when you focus on questions about consent.
We need to ask questions about something else instead: promise.
I cannot overstate the importance of this.
In Christian(ity) thinking, it is God’s promise – and his faithfulness to keep it – that lie at the heart of hope and redemption.
In Fifty Shades, redemption is confused because its portrayal of ‘promise’ is confused. This will become clearer if we take the three objections to the plot given above, and reframe them from a perspective that centres promise.
Objection one: Ana dates Christian for his sake more than hers.
Objection one re-framed: Redemption involves a redeemer making a promise for the sake of another, in order to bring that person to freedom. Romance (or long-term committed relationships) involves a freely made promise that is made mutually with someone else. Fifty Shades doesn’t work because it tries to mix the two and they’re incompatible.
Objection two: Christian is always revealing something new about his troubles.
Objection two re-framed: Redemption is about the redeemer making a single promise to the person needing redemption. In Fifty Shades it’s Christian who keeps making promises – and breaking them. He is always shifting the boundaries of the relationship by changing the terms of his promises.
Objection three: Ana compromises the most, though Christian creates most of the problems.
Objection three re-framed: A redeemer’s promise may be fulfilled from a position of weakness, but that promise is not determined by the person who needs redeeming. In other words, the redeemer makes a promise of faithfulness to the person being redeemed. In Fifty Shades Ana’s commitment to Christian is more like a promise of loyalty because she is bound by his terms.
With these three objections re-framed, it’s not hard to see how the counter-arguments against them fall flat. Even so, each of these is worth exploring in more depth.
The first objection (that the promise of redemption is incompatible with the promises of romance) is one that I want to deep-dive much later in this series. For now, I’ll point out that erotic desire in Beauty and the Beast only happens after Beast has his freedom and has been transformed. This is important, though perhaps why it’s important isn’t so clear in the fairy-tale setting.
If however, we take the Hallmark production of Arabian Nights, we see something similar. (For a bit of context, in this version of the story, the sultan is consumed with fear of his deceased ex-wife who cheated on him and tried to murder him. As a result, he believes all women are evil and his only hope is to execute his new bride Scheherazade before she also tries to murder him. Scheherazade however, starts to tell him stories but says she’ll only finish them the next night – if he allows her to live.) Here, desire and romance only happen after the sultan has confronted his inner demons. If he had approached Scheherazade for sex while he was still mad, then his actions would undoubtedly have been sexual violence. Like… um… what you have in Fifty Shades.
I’ll explore the second and third objections in the next couple of posts (or more if I get carried away).
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one reflection I had whilst working on this post:
Abusers are known for breaking many promises. Redeemers are known for keeping one promise.
BELLE: You have my word.
— Beauty and the Beast (1991)
 Das Sporking talks about the ‘plot-lets’ of Fifty Shades Darker beautifully.
 You really don’t need to browse this blog far to discover why I think this (you could start with ‘What’s bad about “the worst” six slaps?’) and there are plenty of other blogs that have made the point too. Such as (and these all come with content warnings!): 50 Shades is Domestic Abuse, Jenny Trout, Pervocracy, Das Sporking).
This is the eight post in a series on redemption, comparing Beauty and the Beast with Fifty Shades. You can find an index of all the posts here.