50 Shades of Grey and Patriarchy: What Exactly Did We Expect?

Dalaina May


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50 Shades of Grey Slider


It is fascinating to read the numerous articles circulating about the just-released film, 50 Shades of Grey, which is based on a wildly popular book trilogy.

I am not sure there has ever been an event in which feminists, the BDSM community, and conservative Christian organizations like Focus on the Family have united their voices in mutual disgust.

The concerns of most are that:

  1. The film is “soft porn” and should not be marketed for mainstream consumption
  2. The story glamorizes what psychologists have asserted to be “consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s official definition of intimate partner violence — and… perpetuates dangerous abuse patterns.”[1]

There are many articles written by Christians trying to pick apart why it is that so many women, both in and out of the church, are flocking to see this film, after buying 70 million copies of the book (sales divided equally among professing Christians and the American adult population [2][3]). Secular and religious experts are discussing the repercussions of rape culture, feminism, the innate need for love, and the search for the divine as explanations for the popularity of the books and movie.

As I look across American culture in general, and American Christian culture in particular, I am left wondering, “What else did we expect?” 50 Shades of Grey is simply a mirror to the experiences of women. Regardless of what side of the church walls they grew up on, women both in secular society and in Christian subculture are consuming the books and film because the underlying ideology of the story is what so many are familiar with, only it has been exaggerated and sexualized in form.

Both in and out of the church, women are regularly fed the message that we are not complete without a man by our side. From the time we start ingesting Disney films, we know that life revolves around finding our prince. Tabloids and self-help books are filled with titles about how to get a man and how to manipulate him into staying. The vast majority of secular material on sexuality written for women is about how to make a man want you and how to please him in bed. Throw in the statistics about how frequently women experience assault (1 out of 5 American women have been sexually assaulted), the discrepancy in income earning (78 cents to the dollar), and the lack of women in leadership (10-20% in most fields) and you end up with a pretty clear case of misbalanced power between men and women. [4][5][6]

In conservative Christianity, the experience is hardly any better.

Women living under complementarian Christianity are told regularly that God’s intention for humanity is that men should hold exclusive power in the home and in church. They are the decision makers and the ones responsible for the well-being of the women and children under them. A Christian woman in the complementarian world is left hoping for a man like Jesus because that is exactly what it takes to guarantee gender hierarchy NOT be abusive.

Please do not understand me to be saying that all complementarians are abusive. Not at all. I know a number of wonderful, godly men who more often than not manage to live up to the Christian complementarian ideal of a Christ-like head. We can recognize that there is misbalanced power in this patriarchal system as well, even while noting that most complementarians are good-hearted people trying their best to live out their convictions and understanding of Scripture, which requires them to take power and authority from women and give it to men. I believe they do it, most often, out of true concern for women. If they are correct in their view of Scripture – that women must have the spiritual covering of men – they would be cruel and sinful to refuse to give her one.

The Christian complementarian viewpoint is, at its essence, an attempt to redeem the fallen-ness of male authority/female submission. Complementarians would say, rightly, that 50 Shades of Grey is a satanic twisting of how God intends men and women to relate to one another. The difference is that they would continue to define God’s intended relationship between men and women in terms of authority and submission. As one complementarian writer explained, “Domination is, in essence, Satan’s counterfeit of healthy submission.” [7]

The problem is that the basic ideology itself is exactly the same. In the very worst of scenarios, a culture of male-dominated authority leads to horrors like what is depicted in 50 Shades of Grey (and worse). The most perfect possibility that complementarianism can offer is a safe, life-giving relationship resting in the capable and loving authority of a man who is at all times just like Jesus.

Except even the most godly man simply is not Jesus, and does not have the unwavering selfless love or the omniscience required to lead perfectly.

Owen Strachan, the Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (a well-known complementarian organization), describes that perspective well. He explains that in the hierarchical or complementarian view of marriage, “Nothing less than perfection is the standard for masculine conduct and manly headship.[8]  If God intended to perfect the hierarchical relationship brought on by the curse of sin, it would indeed require the perfect man to make it work. Unfortunately, no such man exists.

Aside from the practical problem with Christian patriarchy – that no man has in him what it would take to make gender hierarchy work in a way that honors women – there is no biblical basis for the effort. Jesus did not come to fix the curse; he came to abolish it. He came to overcome, to make right what was made wrong, and to offer a new covenant in place of the old.

In his lifetime, Jesus repeatedly treated women as equals, despite the cultural pressure to do otherwise.

He never tried to make holy what never was. He rejected the whole sinful system of hierarchy for what was meant to be all along, when the first man and woman were told to govern the world together (Genesis 1:28). Christ broke down divisions of race, economic status, and gender, and he still requires his church to do the same (Galatians 3:28).

I wonder why we are still trying to band-aid our curse? Perhaps instead we should recognize that we have been lifted out of it to a place where brothers and sisters share together the awesome, joyful responsibility of seeing God’s kingdom move forward toward its complete fruition in our homes, in our churches, and in our world.


[1] http://articles.latimes.com/2013/aug/13/science/la-sci-sn-fifty-shades-of-grey-sexual-emotional-abuse-20130812

[2] https://www.barna.org/barna-update/culture/614-the-books-americans-are-reading

[3] http://www.forbes.com/profile/el-james/

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/15/health/nearly-1-in-5-women-in-us-survey-report-sexual-assault.html

[5] http://www.aauw.org/research/the-simple-truth-about-the-gender-pay-gap/

[6] https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/report/2014/03/07/85457/fact-sheet-the-womens-leadership-gap/

[7] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithonthecouch/2015/02/tainted-love-why-is-50-shades-of-grey-so-popular/

[8] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thoughtlife/2015/02/how-50-shades-of-grey-harms-women-jesus-saves-them/

Dalaina May

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  • “From the time we start ingesting Disney films, we know that life revolves around finding our prince.” YES. I have thought this for some time. I know that this post is about Fifty Shades of Grey, but, when I read this sentence, I couldn’t help but want to comment on it. I, like most girls, grew up on Disney princess movies. Since I became an egalitarian feminist, though, I’ve questioned the impact those movies had on me, because they taught me that I will always need a man to make me feel safe, solve my problems and make me whole–and I don’t believe that anymore! I’m almost 18 now, and whenever I babysit, girls always want to watch Disney princess movies, and I cringe a little. I don’t want them ingesting those same ideas at a young age. Great post, thank you so much!

  • Dalaina, thank you for your observations and more importantly thank you for your commitment to healing the world in Southeast Asia. I’m certain you are raising children who will be global citizens.

    Mine is a white, suburban woman with a privileged position who also the free time to read and comment on blogs.

    What has gnawed at me since this book released, is the reality that this book was written by a woman, for women. For me, something in it must be speaking to women, evidenced by the Star Wars-esque dollars made at the box office, not taking book sales into consideration at all.

    I am of a generation that has always been free to talk about sex and sexuality. If we’re in a relationship where we are not sexually satisfied, we are well versed in how to make that happen for ourselves.

    Somewhere in the muck of this there is something to say about the need for healthy models to discuss sex in the mainstream culture. Instances where women are in mutually gratifying, reciprocal relationships where they have empowered language to name their sexual desires and have a reasonable expectation they will be satisfied. The more and more ways we can do this, the patriarchal portrayals of submissive women created to satisfy the desires of men will become diluted.

    We have to do more for the next generation of women than leave Sex in the City and this book as the contexts and sources of shared language for discussing sex.

    • Great observation, Kate! I think sexuality has a great place at the table for discussion about equality between genders. I think it is interesting and sad that both in and out of the church most of what is talked about is lopsided. I know in my experience in women’s ministry in the church, when sex is discussed, it is almost exclusively about how to please your husband more by being more active and sexy. I don’t know if I have ever heard a seminar in church about enjoying sex more for myself.

  • Excellent article, one man is made superior, nicely or otherwise, things can only go downhill. But it’s all Eve’s fault, right? No way, check out The Truth About Eve by Martyn Shenstone, best Bible based book I ever read on the subject 😉

      • What an intriguing read! Maryn’s piece is eye-opening and has really caused me to think anew about Eve’s responsiveness to God as a saving grace and Adam’s complicity with the serpent in the fall. I am definitely going to have to reexamine my views of the opening chapters of Genesis. I highly recommend this article along with Joy E. Fleming’s study of Genesis 1-3, which I’m delighted to see is being reprinted by CBE.

  • I did not want to read this post because I dismiss out of hand topics whose face presents as so far out of bounds that discernment directs we don’t waste our time on them. But I’m glad I heeded the Spirit’s gentle nudge to open and read!

    I did not read the book or see the movie about the pathological mysogynist, Mr. Grey. (Never mind those who erroneously claim her pathology causes his……)

    But since the book and the movie are predictably being used to malign and lie about one half of God’s highest creation, I agree that Delaina’s dissection of the unacknowledged evil in this phenom is necessary. And I will pray for the work she and her husband do to stem human trafficking and bring its victims to saving knowledge of the grace gospel.

    Added to her post, Karen and Tim’s comments point to Jesus’ perfect model of manhood contrasted to decoys offered by those who don’t recognize their own lust for power and control, Comp doctrinaires included.

    Thank you Junia Project for contributing to our growth and maturity (2 Cor 4:6; Eph 1:17, 4:15; Phil 3:8). The Project’s posts can challenge many professing believers, both men and women, to grow up from self-absorbed babyhood advocating only milk be drunk (avoiding responsibility) to eating and digesting meat (Heb 5:12-14).

    I pray more will step into the deep and be fully liberated in all things by the power and love of Christ Jesus.

    M.J. Greene

    • MJ, like you I was hesitant for TJP to address the movie – in fact, we had pretty much decided as an editorial team that we wouldn’t post about it at all. But when Dalaina sent us her post it was just too compelling not to publish! I think her experience as someone who works to end human trafficking in Southeast Asia adds a lot to her credibility to write about the impact of patriarchy. And thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement 🙂

    • Thank you, MJ! And I love your blessing! “Into the deep” happens to be my focus this year, and I love the connection to “fully liberated in all things by the power and love of Christ Jesus.” AMEN!

  • Thank you for articulating the problem behind the problem-of-50-Shades-consumption.

    Growing up in the conservative church settings, I got the message that marriage was the end all, be all of a woman’s existence. The message grew increasingly intense at the Christian college I attended, and I ended up in an emotionally abusive relationship. (I blogged about this recently, and how my college relationship was a lower key Christianized version of the Christian-Ana dynamic in 50 Shades books.) I wasn’t his equal, in his mind. And I believed this lie. It masqueraded as love, when it was really manipulation and emotional abuse. It definitely wasn’t what God ever intended relationships to be like, but somehow it was considered “normal” by those around me.

    I’m still dealing with the fallout of those difficult college years and struggling to find my voice as a Christian woman. This site has really helped me puzzle through many of my questions and ideas. Thank you, Dalaina and all the other Junia bloggers, for bringing hope to so many people.

    • You and me both, Laura! I was raised in a complementarian culture and married a complementarian who was raised by complementarians. I always have attended a complementarian church (still do). Despite all of this, I am learning to use my voice too.

      • I was fortunate to marry a man who was raised in a very liberal denomination and who has two very strong-minded older sisters. So even though we were “complementarians” in a Baptist church when we met and still attend a complementarian church, he wasn’t raised to think women should be seen and not heard, thank God. Thank you again for the blog post!

  • I am egal and I think there is one way for the comp. marriage model to work.

    The comp. marriage model works when a decision cannot be reached by mutual discussion, the husband lays down his life like Jesus and ALWAYS decide to do what his wife wants, assuming it is it not illegal or immoral. That is, instead of insisting that the wife submit to her husband’s supposed “final decision” as long as it is not illegal or immoral (which he can NEVER know for sure was not decided based on his selfishness if he is honest) turn it around and let him show how much like Jesus he is, as such a choice is CLEARLY supported in Scripture.

    I want to see comps teach this ASAP.

    • Hahaha! I have had the exact same thought, but never figured out how to articulate it that well. Thanks for the comment, Don!

  • in my opinion, people band-aid their curse because they get something out of it–men get the ego gratification of power, and women get the (illusory) relief of not having to be responsible for their own lives

    • I think that is often the case. But I also think that there are other situations in which people ascribe to complementarian thinking because they genuinely believe it to be biblical and are trying their best to make it work. I think a complementarian relationship can work (my parents and in-laws would be good examples!), but I think those relationships work IN SPITE of complementarianism rather than because of it. (And I also think that personalities, culture, spiritual maturity all play a lot into whether or not that system has a shot at functioning without abuse. I personally could never be a complementarian wife!

  • You say, “The Christian complementarian viewpoint is, at its essence, an attempt to redeem the fallen-ness of male authority/female submission…The difference is that they would continue to define God’s intended relationship between men and women in terms of authority and submission.” I completely agree and would add that the underlying and unspoken assumption is that women are to blame for men’s failure to be perfect complementarian leaders — that women by nature because of the fall are “usurpers” of male authority and divine right, and their rebellion forces/drives/encourages/motivates men to try to dominate them in return. The solution then in complementarian theology is for women to choose “freely” to submit to men In The Hopes, and by twisting Scripture, that their submissive posture will force/drive/encourage/motivate their husband to perform at Jesus-levels of perfection. This is never, ever, ever going to happen … like ever, so that in this theology, women are completely screwed — we carry 100% of the blame for the failure of Complementarian theology no matter what the man does or doesn’t do.

    • It is ironic, isn’t it? It seems that if a complementarian home is healthy, the husband gets the credit as a good “head.” But if he is struggling with leading well, the wife’s lack of submission is pointed to as a big part (or the whole) problem.

    • Thanks, Sarah! The article I cited seems to be from a different study. It was about rape and domestic abuse, not specific to college campuses. However, I think you point still applies. That number is simply the bottom line and not a full representation of reality. Heartbreaking.

  • What a fantastic article. This is indeed an interesting issue that has brought together feminists, Christians, and the BDSM community. Thank you for speaking so eloquently on it!

  • Dear Dalina,
    Thanks for tackling 50 Shades. I mentioned the way this has hit bookstores and now the big screen in my sermon on Sunday, but I appreciated your point that sadly this is an exaggerated and sexualized version of the message of complementarianism taken to an extreme. As one critic asked, “Are women so uncomfortable with power and free will?” that we will stoop and settle for BDSM? May the Lord continue to bless your work in SE Asia.
    Happy Lunar New Year,

    • Grace, I wondered about the same question. It bothered me that nobody is actually bridging the gap between the this-is-abusive fringes (plural “fringes”, as radfems, the BDSM community and conservative Christians are certainly not one fringe) and the mainstream women who love it.

      This article I link to quotes many writers who see the problem with the books, and yet give some idea why readers appreciate it, and gets to the conclusion: “when obtuse cultural critics claim this means liberated women think freedom is a burden, the only thing they illuminate is a stunning obliviousness to the hidden realities of women’s lives. It then goes on about the many things and message that shape female sexuality, and how this probably isn’t what women will choose if their sexuality is shaped in a culture of sexual equality.


      • Thanks for the link to the article in Entertainment, which was provocative and insightful and leaves me inspired to be even more committed to teaching and promoting gender equality.

  • Dalaina, you did a great job pointing out how even the best complementarian mindset still places burdens on marriages that the Bible never requires: perfection from a husband, submission from a wife, etc.

    As you said, the idea that people would pursue this leader/follower or dominant/submissive (or whatever label it carries) and then say it is a biblical model flies in the face of what Jesus taught and what Jesus did. The people who thrive on these manipulative relationships engage in behaviors that Jesus never once exhibited.

    Well done,


    P.S. What do you get when you mix the relationship aspects of 50 Shade of Grey with manipulative spiritual practices? 50 Shades of Lent, of course. (Warning: satire ahead.)

  • I wonder why we are still trying to band-aid our curse? Wow, such a powerful last question and paragraph. Thank you for this article.

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