Sad as it is, the book 50 Shades of Gray has sold over 65 million copies around the world. For those who are unfamiliar, it is about a young, intelligent, ambitious young woman who finds herself drawn to a handsome young man who is into sado-masachism. In the book, she willingly participates in being dominated by a man and it is described in lustful detail for several pages.
Now, this is not a book review, since I have not read it. It would be wrong of me to comment on the quality of the writing, character development, plot structure, diction, etc because I am in no position to do so. Whether or not this book is grand literature or illiterate drivel is not the point I would like to make. Instead I thought I would explore why a book like this is so popular.
It is a mystery to me. Perhaps it is incredibly well written. But let us leave that theory aside for the moment. There are many well-written, unread books in the world. Particularly, this book is popular among women. And that is what I find deserves some attention. This is not a book about a woman becoming sexual aggressive and taking control of her life. It is about a woman who submits to being treated like an inferior for the pleasure of another. (Forgive me as I try to write vaguely about the details, because too much description of an erotic thing becomes an erotic thing).
So why, in this day and age when we came through the Women's Liberation movement would so many women be attracted to a relationship that was so clearly unhealthy? I think the answer lies in something missing from our culture: masculinity.
I think that it was a misunderstanding of feminism that many held masculinity to be a negative. A popular slogan of feminist icon Gloria Steinem was "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." When I was in college I took a course called Philosophy of Woman taught by a radical feminist professor. It was abundantly clear from the lecture and the texts that the problem with society was that we acknowledged any difference between the sexes.
It was argued that acknowledging and reinforcing those differences was caused by and resulted in chauvinism, which is the belief that because men and women are different, men are superior. In the chauvinist's ideal society, men have all of the power and influence and women are treated like commodities. The radical feminist believed that in order make sure that one sex is held superior over another, all gender differences should be abolished. In an ideal society for the radical feminist, you should walk into a room and based on all outward appearance including clothing, hair, makeup, muscle mass, etc, you would not be able to tell who was a man and who was a woman.
Of course the wise philosopher Dr. Peter Kreeft astutely pointed out that even though the chauvinist and the radial feminist are opposed to each other, they make the same logical mistake. They both assume that any difference is a difference in value. Air and water are different, but that does not mean that you can live without one of them. Just because men and women are different, it does not therefore necessitate that this difference should mean one is better than another.
Be that as it may, the influence of modern philosophies has led to a demasculinization of pop culture, particularly television. Look at Ray Romano's character on Everybody Loves Raymond. The patriarch of his family, he is in no way assertive or strong. He offers no real guidance or discipline to his children. He cowers to his wife and his mother.
But he is not the only offender. The most popular sitcom today is The Big Bang Theory. None of the lead males carry traditionally masculine traits besides their raging libidos. They are emotional adolescents never growing up into real men.
A real man has firmness of the will, with courage to act, and boldness in conviction. A real man does not seek a confrontation, but will not shy away from one if it is for the right. Yet I can remember through much of my college days that these traits were frowned upon as brutish, stubborn, insensitive, and violent. We were constantly taught that masculinity was simple social convention that trained boys to be bullies. As a result, I believe, we've pushed masculinity
Some may point to other areas of pop culture like hip-hop music or movies like The Hangover which show men being assertive to the point of overbearing machismo. But that is the point: this is not real masculinity. It is a parody, an ape of real masculinity. But when you starve society of an integral part of human nature, they are going to hunger for it or anything that resembles it. When you are hungry, you may it things that would normally repulse you.
It makes sense that if we make our men less and less masculine that there would be those in our society who would turn to things which should be naturally repellent. Books like 50 Shades of Gray portray a twisted, warped masculinity where boldness is dominance and strength is mere violence. And yet when starved of masculine nature, some latch onto whatever it can find that is like it.
This applies not just to women, but to men as well. Boys learn to be men by watching other men. Who are their role models? How do they see men behave and interact with others? Is the way to a woman's heart to be like Joey, Chandler, and Ross? Or should they be Lotharios like on Two and a Half Men or Game of Thrones?
To suppress masculinity from our culture is to leave a giant vacuum that invites more inadequate substitutes to try and fill the void. And that which we should naturally reject as perverse, like the treating of a woman like an object of lust and violence, becomes more mainstream. That which should be black and white as been turned into too many shades of gray.