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.
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.