Fifty Shades of Grey


50 Shades CoverOf all the pop culture buzz these days, pretty much the buzziest concerns “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the film version of E.L. James’ much ballyhooed 2011 “erotic romance” novel.

This is the book (first of a three-part series) that supposedly made sadomasochistic sex an acceptable subject of interest for middle-class women — or at least made fantasies about sadomasochistic sex acceptable. As such, it’s the flagship work of a literary genre designated Mommy Porn.

Well, I’m not a middle-class woman, and I suspect I’m not old enough to see this kind of stuff anyway. So the scheduled release date (Valentine’s Day, 2015) will very likely pass without my bottom ensconced in a seat at the local cineplex.

Much of the buzz is of a less-than-enthusiastic nature, as one would expect. The thought of middle-class women immersing themselves in sadomasochistic sex isn’t what you’d call edifying. And so “Fifty Shades of Grey” — in both its print and cinema versions — has stirred controversy.

The view of my Ave Maria Radio colleague, Teresa Tomeo, host of the syndicated Catholic Connection morning show, is worth noting. In a recent blog post, Teresa fretted that…

“more and more Christian women, especially Catholic women, are gobbling up this garbage and jumping through every hoop imaginable to try and justify reading this poor excuse for a book series. I actually had one listener … write to tell me that this is helping her grow in her faith as she is learning from the characters in the book.

“Learning what? How to be an abusive partner and how to get women to believe that they have to fix a man while being physically and sexually abused doing it?”

Teresa is no shrinking violet. She’s a post-Feminist career woman who made her mark in secular journalism before redirecting her considerable skills toward religious broadcasting. In other words, she’s seen a bit of life, and she’s not easily shocked.

In a similar vein, Christian blogger and erstwhile talk radio host Matt Walsh, recently issued a plea for women to ignore the big premiere and spend their time doing better things than contemplating bondage and discipline. He wasn’t hopeful his appeal would get the desired result…

“This thing will be a box office smash and we all know it,” he wrote, “…it’ll probably spawn eight sequels and 14 remakes.”

He also detects a certain whiff of hypocrisy…

“I’ve noticed that some of the women who give me a hearty ‘AMEN’ every time I write a post condemning pornography, are the same ones gushing frantically about this film. They don’t want their husbands watching porn, but they’ll not only watch and read porn themselves — they’ll advertise that fact to the entire world.”

To me this all brings a feeling of déjà vu. Back in the early 1990s, as Public Affairs Director for Hillsdale College, I was involved in organizing a string of conferences on the moral impact of popular entertainment.

Some months before, a Michigan woman named Terry Rakolta (a relative, by marriage, of Mitt Romney) had created a stir with her boycott campaign against the raunchy Fox comedy series, “Married…With Children,” prompting several sponsors to drop out, at least for awhile. Other TV shows and movies were also raising hackles just then — over sex, violence, or political bias — which made our topic very timely.

Several prominent figures with solid Hollywood credentials took part in the Hillsdale programs — including actor/director Leonard Nimoy (of “Star Trek” fame), actor/playwright Jeff Daniels (who was raised in Michigan and founded Chelsea, Michigan’s Purple Rose Theater), and commentator Michael Medved (then co-host of the PBS movie review series, “Sneak Previews”).

Medved summed up the reservations about pop culture circa 1990, speaking at one of the sessions…

“America’s long-running romance with Hollywood is over. For millions of people, the entertainment industry no longer represents a source of enchantment, of magical fantasy, of uplift, or even of harmless diversion. Popular culture is viewed now as an implacable enemy, a threat to their basic values and a menace to the raising of their children. The Hollywood dream factory has become the poison factory.”

This was two decades ago, mind you. How quaint it all seems in our day when pop culture has brought us the joys of twerking, along with a virtually endless serious of wild, gender-transcendent misadventures, blood and gore to a degree of detail and pervasiveness barely imagined in the ’90s, plus a docket of social ideals long on sensitivity but devoid of faith, marriage or other inhibiting commitments.

While Medved was right about the public’s reservations, it really can’t be said that “America’s long-running romance with Hollywood is over.”

What can be said — mumbled with a tone of bewilderment and a scratch of the head— is that no matter what Hollywood contrives to throw at us, people persist in going to the movies and squandering years of life glued to the small screen.

Not all movies and TV shows are fully detached from anything that might be called values, of course. But then, you first have to define what values are, and that’s no easy task these days.

It wasn’t easy back in the ’90s. One of our conference sessions featured a discussion between Medved and Leonard Nimoy on Nimoy’s directorial work. Medved described Nimoy’s film, “Three Men and a Baby,” as more wholesome than much recent Hollywood fare, prompting Nimoy to remark that Medved’s comment was very telling. Nimoy pointed out that the film’s comic plot was about…Medved & Nimoy at Hillsdale

“three bachelors caring for a foundling infant that turns out to be the illegitimate child of one of them, then mistakenly giving it away to drug dealers, and eventually inviting its unmarried mother to live with them in their apartment.

“Think what that says about what’s acceptable today in a movie.”

Fast-forward to 2014, and “Three Men and a Baby” sounds like “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” What are film and TV audiences willing to accept nowadays?

To quote the immortal Calvin from the iconic comic strip, “Calvin and Hobbes”…

“I think it’s a fallacy that taste bottoms out somewhere. If they could find a way to aim even lower, they’d make some real money.”

Television producer Zev Braun observed to one of the Hillsdale gatherings that…

“Whatever else entertainment may be, it is, unavoidably, ‘propaganda.’”

He described a meeting of movie and TV executives with Pope John Paul II…

“at which the Pontiff noted how that propaganda aspect makes the media ‘a force for good or evil,’ depending on how the people who run the media chose to apply their power.

“Braun called on his colleagues to respond positively to the Pope’s challenge. ‘If we make shows that do not pander to the lowest common denominator,’ he said, ‘that deal with issues that confront the world not in a vituperative way, but in ways that are both entertaining and edifying, then we can begin to restore some faith in America and our faith in ourselves.’”

Would an industry that can serve up “Fifty Shades of Grey” as mainstream entertainment even turn out for the Pope now? Well, maybe for Francis. After all, they think he’s going to make the Church start performing gay weddings.

Now, I fully expect to receive criticism for commenting on “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a film I haven’t seen and aren’t planning to catch.

Forgive me. Who am I to assume that sadomasochistic sex can’t be presented tastefully? Maybe, as Teresa Tomeo’s listener said, it would help me grow in my faith.





The quotes cited above are from a pair of articles I wrote for Hillsdale Magazine (the college’s quarterly journal), based on material derived from our pop culture conferences. Three excerpts from those essays are, I think, worth reproducing, since the points they make remain relevant even after all these years.


• We were fortunate at Hillsdale to find thoughtful entertainment professionals who actually cared enough about the moral impact of movies and TV to participate in our conferences. But study after study has shown that Hollywood folk tend to skew away from social, political and religious sentiments which the majority of Americans still embrace, to one extent or another, and toward libertine moral attitudes, leftist politics, and a high degree of acceptance for social non-conformity.

In this passage I described experiences and outlooks typical of people in the entertainment industry which tended to set them apart from the public. Allowing for the time references particular to something published in the early 1990s, I believe that the profile I sketched back then would be accurate for people working in movies and TV today…

“What Kind of people go into the business?

“In general, they are creative people who think of themselves as artists, have always identified with other creative types, were probably odd balls or social misfits in school, and became rather taken with bohemian lifestyles and faddish ‘progressive’ ideas. A few were actual ‘red diaper babies,’ children of Depression-era communists. And many reached adulthood under the sway of hip 1960s social and political notions….

“What happened to them when they got into the business?

“They starved. They scrounged in low-paying menial jobs, while they tried to hustle their movie scripts or run around to auditions, feeling rather persecuted, and becoming convinced that American society doesn’t appreciate creative talent.

“How do they live now?

“Even if they’re wildly successful and phenomenally rich (which many are), they realize that the film can bomb, the series can be cancelled, and their next job can be a long way off. They live with a high degree of anxiety, which encourages the opulent and eccentric lifestyles that are identified with Hollywood, and that insulate them from the mundane, workaday concerns most Americans face.”


• Reflecting on the protests and boycotts undertaken against various films and TV shows deemed offensive, I observed that…

“The entertainment industry is responsive — but only in ways in which it knows how to be. And whenever new limits are set in one sensitive area, writers and producers start stretching the old limits in others. So the critics are never quite satisfied, the grumbling never dies away, and there are always new protests to bemuse and frustrate the purveyors of pop culture.

“Meanwhile, as the focus shifts from complaint to complaint, as Hollywood does its political dance, twisting now this way, now that way to meet each specific objection, the long-term trend is toward more of everything people object to. Recall the concern about sex and violence back in the ’60s, and then compare the sex and violence on screen today [in the early ’90s]. Think back on how church groups of 20 years ago fretted about popular entertainment undermining traditional values, and then look at what passes for onscreen values now.”


• And finally…

“So let he media fight go on. Let the letters be written. But also, let the money be spent —spent with care, in the box offices and the supermarkets — in support of more positive, more constructive, and (dare one say it today?) more ‘wholesome’ entertainment products. Because, to paraphrase a famous observation about the quality of government, in the end people get the kind of entertainment they deserve.”



Teresa TomeoHere’s a link to Teresa Tomeo’s blog post about “Fifty Shades of Grey”…

…along with one to a longer meditation on the impact of pornography which Teresa penned for Catholic World ReportCatholic World Report Logo


And to Matt Walsh’s appeal for women to find better things to do with their time…Matt Walsh Logo


Unfortunately, archival issues of Hillsdale Magazine are not available online.



Discovered late, but well worth noting is an essay in Crisis Magazine by Anthony Esolen, literature professor at Providence College and senior editor for the Christian journal, Touchstone, who reflects on modern television’s near-total loss of grace. As an example of civil on-screen behavior we rarely see today, he offers the fondly remembered “What’s Crisis LogoMy Line?” 1950s gameshow…

“It really was a good show, with a lot of innocent fun — at least in the early years; I don’t know what became of it later. I suppose because, once in a while, there might be just the shade of something merry in the Shakespearean sense, ‘What’s My Line?’ was aired late on Sunday nights. But shows that children now watch are a hundred times viler and nastier than ‘What’s My Line?’ ever was suggestive. If the show were aired now, we’d be treated to male strippers, condom manufacturers, toilet seat testers, and cultural detritus.”

Take a couple of minutes to muse on a bygone and much more graceful TV age…



  1. John says

    If you want to attempt to understand a country’s culture, study its art and entertainment. The good old USA looks a bit sick from that perspective. Remember the Mapplethorpe photos or the blatantly anti-military “and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” movie, “Avatar”?

    On the bright side the military bashing was quieted for a few weeks after 911, and we are not trampling people to death at baseball games. Alas, disgusting, degrading books, photography and movies persist. Avoidance is recommended.

  2. Al says

    Life in America is neither entertaining nor edifying. The behavior of the present congress is morally way below the moral level of a sexually explicit book or film. And my experience has been the more you tell someone NOT to do something, the more likely they are to do it.

  3. Dana says

    I read your post on 50 Shades and was tempted to comment, but I didn’t want to risk scandalizing your readers. Of course, if they’re like the conservatives I know, they’re probably hoarding naughty stuff under their beds, in their hidden computer files, or sneaking off to stream steamy videos.

    I really hate the terms ‘Mommy Porn,’ and ‘Chick Lit,’ and ‘Bodice Ripper,’ and other derogatory names applied to one of my favorite genres – Romance. It’s what I write, and most of what I read contains romantic elements because relationships are tied to emotion, the meaning of life, and the search for fulfillment that fuels great character development, conflict, and many a great story.

    Yes, there’s sex. That’s not a bad thing. And *gasp* women enjoying sex, even. Wowzers! Who’d have thunk it?? I’m still cheering the television adaptation of ‘Outlander’ for portraying heroine Claire as a fully developed woman with a healthy appetite for sex and who isn’t afraid to initiate some pretty steamy encounters with her onscreen husband and enjoys them without the world ending. But when I’m reading a story with sex, the sex scenes had better occur between two characters I care about, drive the plot and/or tell me something about those characters, and it had better be realistic – none of that ridiculous going on for hours and hours (unless the hero is Sting in all of his tantric splendor, that just doesn’t happen), instant orgasm city for the gal (most of the time, you have to work for it), or purple prose that makes me want to laugh and/or throw up a little in my mouth.

    That’s probably the same reason why I can’t watch porn. I end up laughing at the ridiculous dialogue and plot holes rather than enjoying the contrived positions that make my back ache just looking at them. Still, I don’t have a problem with men watching porn as long as it doesn’t involve children, animals, or is non-consensual. Just as I accept the fact that my dear hubby enjoys looking at his favorite starlets on the big screen, he accepts the fact that I have several book boyfriends. Fantasy is fine. But we both agree that there ain’t nothing like the real deal we enjoy together :)

    So why is 50 Shades such a hit? I think the appeal for many women is the lure of the forbidden. It’s naughty. You’re not supposed to read if you’re a ‘good girl.’ 

    That explains the whole obsession with sex in our rather prudish society. Europe doesn’t have this problem. America, on the other hand, has had so many crusaders for the ‘moral majority’ rallying against the sinfulness of sex throughout the years, which always comes back to the theme of the wanton woman whose refusal to embody the virtuous virgin dutifully fulfilling her husband’s needs (for the sake of birthing babies, of course, not because she enjoys it). If you enjoy it, you’re obviously a slut. Who came up with that synaptic misfire??

    Well, the patriarchal religious tradition did, of course!

    50 Shades is just another ‘controversy’ in a long line of material that has given women permission to embrace their sexuality freely and without shame.

    Hope all’s well with life and writing for you. I look forward to your next post 😉

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