‘Fifty Shades’ of Feminist Misconception

Since reading Sarah Bessey’s Jesus Feminist, I’ve been hungry for more Christian feminist books. That search hasn’t been too fruitful, since “Christian feminist” is still very much a taboo term at best, and oxymoronic at worst.

I started reading Pulling Back the Shades by Juli Slattery and Dannah Gresh. It’s a short little book written in response to the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, and discusses whether BDSM-style sex can ever be healthy in a committed, loving relationship.

I was right on target with the authors for the first half. With my history of abuse, I agree that BDSM isn’t healthy (though if you strongly disagree, feel free to respectfully engage with me on this). I also agree that erotica can produce unhealthy and often unrealistic expectations for real-life sex. As for Fifty Shades, I’ve never read it, but based on the reviews I’ve read I have no desire to; I’m afraid some parts of it might be triggering for me. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around Christian women in particular praising this book, but I fully agree with the authors that it’s tough to outright condemn the consensual activities married people do in private. I may not like it, but if both parties are enthusiastic, who am I to judge?

I wanted so badly to like this book, since a therapist I deeply respect recommended it to me. But the authors lost me by page 87 with this anecdote:

After a fight with her husband on where to park the car (?), Dannah Gresh writes, “I realized that my feminist independence had only resulted in isolation and loneliness…I felt prompted to awaken my husband and do something so submissive that it could have only come from the heart of God [she proceeds to wash his feet]…My once-feminist hands finally became truly, powerfully feminine!”

No no no no no! This is not what feminism is!

If Gresh were referring only to the modern feminist stereotype that feminism is women degrading men to atone for centuries of patriarchy, I’d agree that that is definitely something to wash her hands of. If Gresh addressed mutual submission, as stated in Ephesians 5:25, “25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy,” her words would have a lot more merit.

The pitting of Submissive Female against the Modern Feminist Usurper (because apparently there’s only those options) has been reinforced in several Christian “self-help” books I’ve read over the years, from Stasi Eldredge to Nancy Leigh DeMoss to Shannon Ethridge, and more. The subtle critiquing of the feminist movement as a whole is done with slightly varying personal stories and metaphors, but the common denominator seems to be that all women want their longings satisfied in the exact same way. Do women want to be respected? Sure, that’s a common human desire. But I resent being told by an author who doesn’t know me or my personal experiences that playing the role of a damsel is the only way to be satisfied.

The more I read, the more I become convinced that “biblical womanhood” is a construct made up by evangelicals more than a list of static commandments ordered by God. There are biblical virtues that all Christians should strive for, but I have yet to read any specific requirement on one way to live those virtues. For some women, maybe that does include washing their husbands’ feet. For others, maybe that means gently suggesting there is a more ideal parking spot the husband might have missed.

I think “feminism” is more than an effort to restore human dignity in women. Can it also be a radical assumption that sometimes women have unique ideas, and it’s not wrong to politely vocalize them? Or a profound realization that men can learn from women, and the roles they choose to play in their marriages are decided on with equal parts compromise and respect?

As much as I believe that words are arbitrary – that definitions and contexts are always in flux – I’m not ready to let “feminist” go to the dogs yet.

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6 thoughts on “‘Fifty Shades’ of Feminist Misconception

  1. Crystal says:

    Ironically, Christian Grey endorsed conservative traditional gender roles, more than once. For instance he wanted Anastasia Steele “barefoot and pregnant” in the kitchen, and I could list out a few more if I took the time to think through them all.

    In fact the whole book reeks of anti-feminist belief. Christian Grey is a misogynist plain and simple. He wanted Anastasia’s complete submission. So, in light of this book being written, I have to say that they sound more like Christian Grey than they realise when they speak of women’s roles because, while condemning the abuse they have condoned the abuse dynamic. That is my personal opinion, and anyone can feel free to disagree if they wish.

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  2. Natacha Guyot says:

    Thank you for this post! I am tired of people thinking of all feminist as these men haters. I don’t see why refusing to be submissive makes me a lesser Christian or a lesser woman. On the contrary, I believe that by standing your own ground, be respectful, tolerant, compassionate, you are able to be a better person for yourself, for the others and for God. We’ll never be perfect but by owning our actions and decisions, we are able to be God’s children.

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    • Beth Caplin says:

      I don’t think it’s wrong or degrading to be submissive (not referring to the BDSM kind). It’s when only one partner is expected to submit that my gears start grinding.

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  3. Rachel Heston-Davis says:

    I feel that the author you speak of did not actually know what feminism was (her blithe broad-brushing of it is definitely a stereotype but not at all an accurate picture of the many feminists I know). I think that many Christian women authors use that term loosely to describe their “past” rebellious selves, when actually they never truly identified with feminism at all…and they do it just because they imagine that feminism is an enemy like that, and needs to be defeated, and the quickest way to defeat it is to claim that it didn’t work in your own personal experience.

    If they were fighting about parking spaces, it sounds like there was just some plain old tension in their marriage at the time. Happens to the best of us, but having tension in your marriage, and being stubborn, don’t really have anything to do with being feminist or not.

    I find it kind of funny that she uses foot-washing as the illustration of how wives are uniquely submissive. Jesus was not a wife, and the Bible instructs husbands to metaphorically “wash” their wives, so…..definitely not seeing how that’s a uniquely female act.

    And finally, I, too, get irked when these women claim that you can’t have your emotional longings met as a female unless you become the submissive partner. It’s really, really easy to turn around and find other couples for whom the exact opposite was true.

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    • Beth Caplin says:

      Seems like many Christian authors (and Christians in general) don’t have an accurate view of what feminism is…or what it’s supposed to be. On some level I can’t blame them, because I bought into the stereotypes once myself and refused to call myself a feminist up until a few years ago. If they see feminism as women trying to take on God-given “male roles” of course they will oppose it. Made a small handful of enemies in college for that!

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