The truth is we can thank the Mormons for 50 Shades of Grey.
Stephanie Meyer’s sexually frustrated adolescent romp that saw her brooding ancient vampire hero hold onto his virtue long enough to virginally marry his teen first love seemed swoony enough to spawn a generation of (probably now embarrassed) Twihards. But it wasn’t enough for the libidinous masses.
Twilight got the juices flowing but EL James’ Twilight fan fiction threw all marginal sense of decorum out the window transforming Edward Cullen into Christian Grey, and Bella Swan into Anastasia Steele letting the handsome Christian grind, bind, whip, flog and clamp Ana in a frenzy of patriarchal possession. Now instead of circling around their desire James lets Edward and Bella loose on each others’ bodies in a dizzying, spiraling moral and literary nose dive so deep that after surfacing from the book I felt contaminated.
I’m no prude. I’m all for a good bodice ripper – but this was beyond. So tiresome and unsophisticated was the greedy, wet pawing at each other that I found myself skipping and skimming over the shagging with increasing tiredness and irritation as our hero screams over and over again into the face of the emotionally battered Ana;
“YOU. ARE. MINE.”
Its obvious that many, many women enjoyed their 50 Shades gambol – it continues to be a sensation. But as a Mormon woman I can see the motifs and themes of patriarchy, virginity, discipline, surveillance and control lodged in the narrative – right where Meyer’s put them. 50 Shades is for all intents and purposes an accidental allegory of Mormonism.
In fairness the 50 Shades plot is ubiquitous.
HE is a menacing, powerful male protagonist with an impenetrable heart, immune to the advances of floozies and flirts. He finds himself aroused by the deferent and inexperienced girl who, eyes downcast, works wordlessly and sacrificially for the greater good.
SHE is not a shrew and neither does she make demands – she’s a virgin girl; naïve and pure – and her innocence stirs him into a frenzy of feeling. He must claim her and possess her because she is the silk to his linen, she is the curve to his angles, the softness to his hardness.
HIS desire mounts – he’s caught between his wild craving to possess her and the horrifying realization that she is a person apart from him.
So he creates a world for them both wherein she thinks she is still her own person, but he gets to control that world.
And they love happily ever after.
The problem is that Christian Grey does not allow for the full exercise of Ana’s humanity. His inducements are his wealth, his looks and his willingness to relieve her of the burden of living a full life full of mistakes, dangers and growth. With him at her side she need only trust him and he will protect, preserve and provide. So she lays her authenticity and her full humanity on his altar and trades it for his sprawling estate, his fidelity and protection and of course his mussed up floppy sex hair. She thinks she has redeemed him – but in reality we know that that is the greatest fiction of all. Maleness like Christian Grey’s stay’s messed up. Similarly, Bella Swan literally trades her humanity to be Edward’s equal in bed.
So lets nuzzle this up alongside the Mormon gender story. In order to get women’s assent to Mormon connubial bliss the regimes of discipline that are deployed are insidious. He has to occupy her psychic space and make a home there. His primary occupation is to inhabit, colonize and take up residence in her head so that before she acts she gets into the habit of checking herself against his preferences. In order to make this possession complete he needs to make her fear the threat of his punishment. In Mormonism that punishment is blindingly thorough and it is always held within the question ‘am I good enough?
Anastasia Steele had to live with the reality of Christian’s 15 submissives just as Mormon women have to live with the promise of her man’s 15, 150, 15,000 virgins promised to all Mormon men in Section 132. This place of Mormon femininity is utterly, thoroughly occupied by the specter of patriarchy where we are required to perform our muted feminine dance on the stage of his largesse; his approval; his theology; his policies; his doctrine; his punishment; his boundaries; his control and his management always with the apparition of his entourage of celestial marital attachments swaying on every breeze he creates.
And all the while he croons softly, “I could never hurt you.’
Its not a great deal when you think about it hard enough.
And its not a great deal when you hear about the careful chipping away at the humanity of our girls. These last weeks in New Zealand I’ve heard numerous reports of seminary lessons held where there has been a discussion of section 132. One young woman loudly protested and was silenced by her seminary teacher for her lack of agreement with both past and future polygamous practice. I really felt for her and it bought to mind my own encounter with the hard and nasty contours of my very unappealing invitation to consider my polygamous future.
I was 17 and in love. In that delicious, beautiful way the woman inside the girl began to make herself known in my desire for this gorgeous young man who had my heart. I enjoyed his soft kisses and the way his arms came around me and I basked in his exclusive attention. He was truly lovely and we were alive with longing for each other. I’m sure we felt terribly guilty about our mutual yearning then – but I look back now with much more compassion and understanding – this was me flowering into womanhood – it was natural and healthy. We never had sex but I’m glad we enjoyed the young intimacy that we did. In the throes of my ecstasy for my love I contemplated an eternity together and announced to an older woman in the ward.
“I couldn’t live the law of polygamy. I hate the idea of sharing …with someone else.”
She responded – emphatically, “Well you’ll just have to get used to it because that’s the way it will be in the Celestial Kingdom. Why, I’m already picking out my sister wives.”
It felt like a knife had been plunged into my heart. That my greatest and most intimate yearnings could be contaminated by a religious idea that makes me little other than an eternal accouterment that orbits my future husband’s manhood. It was unbearable. I felt aggrieved, diminished and thoroughly confused.
Shortly after Nathan and I got married I was seized by the same anxiety. No matter how happy this moment of wedded delight might be I felt required to reconcile myself to an eternity with him and and me and her, and her, and her, and her. My happiness felt polluted and transitory. I thought then that perhaps my revulsion to polygamy was a simply an indication of my selfishness, or my lack of humility, or my inadequate spiritual practice. My resistance and hatred of all things polygamous seemed to be an indication of my own lack – not the principle’s failing.
Things have changed now. With age has come both wisdom, understanding and boldness. And so when I hear of young Mormon girls being told that their expression of their full emotional, physical and spiritual desire is going to be eternally regulated by the whims of men I cannot call it anything other than abuse, a cruel and reckless abuse and the effacement of her humanity. Like Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele the inducements seem pretty terrific. Living with a God – high up in the upper parts of the upper heavens as he lords it over worlds – but there’s so much of myself that I have to give up for this idea; The full, flawed and authentic expression of my humanity for starters.
So what does this mean for Anastasia Steele, Bella Swan, me and the patriarchy? It means that in an ideal narrative we say:
- ‘No’: That’s not right because its not good, its not fair, its not equitable and it diminishes me as a woman.
- ‘Stop’: You may not push me into this psychic space because it diminishes me – makes me a deficit – creates the conditions for your control of me and I’m won’t comply.
- ‘Leave her alone’: You will not manage that beautiful young woman into those spaces wherein you demand of her or cause her to question herself for some outrageous theological benefit.
- ‘That’s not enough’: There is nothing you can offer me in trade for the expression of my conscience or my humanity.
- ‘Get lost’: Your polygamy crap is a pile of 19th century theological excrement. Stick it back where the sun don’t shine.
- ‘Back off and shut up’: You men have talked for too long, too loudly, too emphatically and you have made submissives out Mormonism’s females. You have crowded, cajoled and managed us too often. We will speak to you in our own words (not yours) looking on the level into your eyes and you listen up – and don’t you dare flinch or we won’t speak to you at all.
- And I say ‘Not my Jesus’: You leave God and Jesus out of your gender ramblings. This is about you and me because the Jesus I know would have tipped your table over long ago.
And if we did that enough maybe we could rehabilitate Christian Grey and the internal world he occupies. If enough Mormon women did this instead of holding out the futile hope of the church’s incremental enlightenment perhaps the liberties that male Mormons take over our bodies’ and our minds will be bought up short. And perhaps – just perhaps no Mormon woman will ever think to foist such terrible stories on the world again.
Finally don’t be seduced by Christian Grey – the price for time in the sack with him is too high. Even Edward Cullen’s golden brown tawny eyes and his bottomless bank accounts could never create the beautiful, glorious and compelling woman who is magnificent in her own body, in her own intelligence, in her fierce spiritual authenticity, and in the full expression of her humanity.
Only she can do that for herself.