The Silver Lining: Fifty Shades Against Gender Neutrality

I’m thrilled to announce that First Things is carrying an article that I wrote on the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, now the best-selling book in British history. Here’s a teaser:

If Fr. Smith, the titular character in the Bruce Marshall novel, is right that “the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God,” what are fans of the Fifty Shades series seeking?

One answer is that there’s a hunger that’s not being satisfied: Namely, for men who are unabashedly masculine, who aren’t afraid to take control, and to lead. That is, there’s a longing (even a lusting) for men who aren’t afraid of what’s classically been called “headship.” To this end, while Fifty Shades subverts Christian sexual morality, it subverts the modern crusade for “genderlessness” all the more. [….]

Understood in this way, the 50 Shades series is just one part of a broader cultural pushback against the war on gender. As A. O. Scott explains, “Something profound has been happening in our television over the past decade.” From The Sopranos to Mad Men to Breaking Bad, viewers have flocked to shows featuring strong masculine leads, prematurely dubbed by Scott as “the last of the patriarchs.”

These shows are guilty pleasures: None of the protagonists are heroes, or even particularly good men. As with 50 Shades of Grey, each of these shows presents a masculinity that’s distorted, perverted in some way: a sexist, sociopathic, outlandish derivative of the real thing. Having repressed healthy masculinity, what bubbles up through the cracks is a crude distortion of the real thing, and our enjoyment of it is confined to the level of fantasy. We’re eating dog food because we’re hungry for steak.

What’s needed, then—what both men and women are longing for, in their own ways—are models of how to live out masculine virtues in the modern world.

Read the whole thing here. 

On a personal note, one reason that I’m so excited about being able to contribute something to First Things is that it – and more specifically, its founder, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus – played a pivotal role in my coming to take the Catholic faith seriously.

Back in high school and college, I used to work as a records clerk at a law firm in Kansas City that was located near a Barnes & Noble Bookstore. During my lunch hour, I would frequently grab a quick bite and head over to the bookstore, or just eat lunch in their cafe, so that I would have time to read before going back to work. Frequently, I’d pick up a random book to look through while I ate my lunch: the Bhagavad Gita, a book of Leonard Cohen’s poetry … and Fr. Neuhaus’ Catholic Matters.

I don’t remember how I found the book (I doubt that I was seeking it out) and I honestly don’t remember very much about it, but I do remember being captivated by it, and having the sense that this priest gets it.” The effect on me way profound: that book, discovering Catholic Worker newspaper and attending Mass for the first time in the Diocese of Arlington were the three factors that kindled within me a real fire for the Catholic faith.


  1. Joe, I think you over thunk this one. In my simple world the phenom that is ’50 shades’ is just smut made good. heck they call it ‘mommy porn’. What can be wrong with mommy? (When we get bored with Facebook this is what we go to.)

    1. R. Pilgrim, what I mean is that the graphic porn in the book (movies, magazines, t.v. series, etc.) has become in short order, acceptable, guilt free, worthy of a mother handing it off to her daughter. There seems to be a ‘goodness’ in numbers and the numbers are huge.

  2. Anyone interested in understanding to what extremes examples of ‘Gender neutrality’ have been exhibited in ancient cultures and nations, just google: Ancient Sparta homosexuality. But, be prepared to find historical accounts that should probably be considered to be more accurately described something such as ‘fifty shades of black’…instead of ‘fifty shades of grey.’ Reading such history should make you very happy that you’re a Christian!

    And, according to the Book of Machabees, the Spartans were actually descendants of Abraham:

    “It is found in writing concerning the Spartans, and the Jews, that they are brethren, and that they are of the stock of Abraham.” 1 Machabbees 12:21

  3. Congratulations on getting published at First Things! I’ve been checking in over here since I learned of your page from Leila Miller’s Little Catholic Bubble, and I’ve always appreciated your thoughtful approach and the courtesy you give to those who disagree with you. First Things is a great journal, and I’m not at all surprised they wanted your writing.

    I want to point out, though, that the research you use to suggest that “gender-fluid marriages have less sex” is out of date (the data was collected in 1987 and 1992), and more recent research suggests the opposite: couples in egalitarian marriages have more frequent and more satisfying sex than those with a traditional division of labor.


  4. I can go for this explanation, partly. But it leaves me still wondering if there isn’t a corresponding lack of understanding on the opposite end of the pendulum. Have we created a false dichotomy when we isolate qualities into male and female, thereby causing such confusion as Bruce Jenner has wrestled with, when men experience emotions, impulses and tendencies that we promote as entirely feminine? Things such as compassion, a desire to be nurturing, gentleness.

    Aren’t all these desirable qualities in a “real” man just as strength, courage, and determination are desirable in a woman?

    1. Sarah,

      First of all, my apologies for my tardiness in responding to you. Your question was far-reaching, and I wanted to give it the time and attention it deserved…. and then I got busy. I agree with a lot of what you’ve said here. Part of the problem that’s given rise to “transgender” men and women is that we’ve created hard-to-attain ideals of masculinity and femininity (or conversely, made one or the other look like an awful thing that nobody would want to attain). So then anyone who either doesn’t fit into the box, or doesn’t want to fit into the box, considers themselves not-their-biological-sex.

      But it doesn’t follow that there aren’t still distinctively-masculine and distinctively-feminine ways of cultivating and practicing the virtues. St. Edith Stein has a great discussion on the sameness, and differences, of men and women:

      “God has given each human being a threefold destiny: to grow into the likeness of God through the development of his faculties, to procreate descendants, and to hold dominion over the earth. In addition, it is promised that a life of faith and personal union with the Redeemer will be rewarded by eternal contemplation of God. These destinies, natural and supernatural, are identical for both man and woman. But in the realm of duties, differences determined by sex exist. Lordship over the earth is the primary occupation of man: for this, the woman is placed at his side as helpmate. The primary calling of woman is the procreation and raising of children; for this, the man is given to her as protector. Thus it is suitable that the same gifts occur in both, but in different proportions and relation. In the case of the man, gifts for struggle, conquest, and dominion are especially necessary: bodily force for taking possession of that exterior to him, intellect for a cognitive type of penetration of the world, the powers of will and action for works of creative nature. With the woman there are capabilities of caring, protecting, and promoting that which is becoming and growing. She has the gift thereby to live in an intimately bound physical compass and to collect her forces in silence; on the other hand, she is created to endure pain, to adapt and abnegate herself. She is psychically directed to the concrete, the individual, and the personal: she has the ability to grasp the concrete in its individuality and to adapt herself to it, and she has the longing to help this peculiarity to its development. An equipment equal to the man’s is included in the adaptive ability, as well as the possibility of performing the same work as he does, either in common with him or in his place.”

      Now, that’s not a full answer, but it’s a start.

      1. No problem. Since the post i watched an ecxellent youtube series on gender and Catholic thought by Dale O Leary.

        It dissuaded me from serious consideration of a true “spectrum” of gender, for one. And the whole deal w the gal at the NAACP puts another twist on it too. My history is with uber patriarchal protestant types and the whole headship issue makes me itchy. I’m sure I’ll get straight in my thinking one day…

  5. ^^^And if so, as i presume you agree, what are we really talking about when we say gender fluid, and we really asserting that there is not a spectrum of gender, and where are we to look for examples of “real woman ” or “real man “, and isn’t it better to view people as individuals instead of representatives of some ideal of gender?

    Hoping that doesn’t sound hostile, I’ll admit I’m a little frustrated though!

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