Among those who are looking for a romantic movie this Valentine’s Day weekend there are bound to be those who object to 50 Shades of Grey not just because of its objectionable portrayal of an abusive relationship, not just because it involves kinky sex, but because it involves sex at all. Evangelical Christians spend so much time bemoaning the coarsening and downfall of modern culture that it’s almost surprising that it’s taken until 2014 for us to get one of their clunky, didactic movies about how relationships are supposed to work, the Old Fashioned way.
The departure from “tradition” that writer/director/star Rik Swartzwelder castigates here isn’t even that bugbear of “traditional marriage”, homosexuality. God forbid one of those perverts be sighted in the same county as the sleepy Ohio college town where he sets his story. No, Swartzwelder seeks a return to “chivalry” in relationships.
By this he means exclusively marriage-minded and utterly chaste dating; never mind that the peak of literary chivalry was an act of adultery. In fact, “dating” is kind of the wrong word; his hero, Clay (Swartzwelder himself), rejects “dates” entirely, claiming that a job interview for delivering pizzas yields more knowledge of another person than a date does. As far as he’s concerned, “dating” consists of meaningless and empty hookups. That may even be true for his friend Brad (Tyler Hollinger), who leaves for Los Angeles when his shock-jock radio show gets picked up for nationwide syndication; proof of just how degraded the national culture has become. But his other friend, David (LeJon Woods), is in a nine-year relationship that does lead to marriage, and it somehow never occurs to Clay that David is living proof that not all dating is like that.
Maybe Clay’s perspective is understandable, though. Back in college, before he found Jesus or “more like He found me”, he and Brad produced a series of Girls Gone Wild videos. In fact, there are hints around about something terrible happening above and beyond Clay cheating on a girlfriend who wanted to wait until marriage, but we never really find out what it was.
And so ten years later, when Amber (Elizabeth Ann Roberts) arrives in town and wants to rent the apartment above the shop where Clay restores and sells antiques, he won’t even go in alone with her to show the place. This goes far beyond chastity within relationships; willing to be alone with a male friend but not a woman means that Clay believes he cannot actually be friends with a woman without sex getting in the way. Far from banishing sex from his relationships, it’s still the single dominant concern in Clay’s life. It’s just that now he runs away from instead of towards it.
If anything, this attitude has more in common with Sharia law demanding that women cover themselves lest men lose control. It positions women as the gatekeepers of sexuality, rather than equal partners with men, and God forbid they enjoy it too. It speaks to a domineering, if not abusive pattern. Amber shows up with a cast on her wrist where her last boyfriend broke her hand for wearing nail polish. When she says — rightly — that such a ban sounds like something Clay would come up with, he says “it depends on the color”, as if that were a joke instead of a horrifyingly creepy threat. This is 50 Shades‘ romanticized domination played off as female empowerment all over again, only applied to literally every woman in the world outside of Clay’s own family.
None of this is to say that there’s nothing wrong with modern relationship culture. Swartzwelder is right that empty, meaningless sexuality is a problem, but I doubt it’s quite as big as he makes it out to be. The vaunted “hook-up culture” at colleges is more parental scare-mongering than anything else; the vast majority of students aren’t really participating to the extent that clickbait articles would have us believe. Even Girls Gone Wild was as staged as reality television, and it’s kind of odd that Swartzwelder really doesn’t seem to understand this.
I think there’s a valuable story buried under all the usual heavy-handed “y’all need Jesus” delivery. Clay is a profoundly broken figure — true to his name — who once participated in something awful. Rather than dealing with and processing that trauma, he’s repressed it and latched on to a puritanical ideology that doesn’t really make him any happier. In order to progress, he needs to learn to deal with his past honestly. But telling that story would mean dealing honestly with sexuality and intimacy, not reducing it to showy gestures, isolating pedestals, and compatibility checklists.
There’s a huge middle ground between abusive, exploitative, rape-culture hookups and this ahistorical brand of “old-fashioned” courtship. On some level I think Swartzwelder knows this; it leaks out time and again, even despite his efforts to set up as many straw men as possible. But presenting Clay as basically right, and his approach as the only real road to a foundation of intimacy, advocates for a form of emotional bondage just as destructive as anything Christian Grey comes up with.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: close, but fail.