Philosopher and ethicist Martha C. Nussbaum explains that there is one form of anger––”Transition-Anger”––that is appropriate; it’s an anger that declares, in no uncertain terms, “How outrageous! Something should be done about this.”
The #MeToo movement, infused with Hollywood clout, took the world by storm last year, and rightly so! For too long women have been objectified, abused, and used by powerful men to quench whatever perverse sexual desire that arises. The stories that have flooded social media and news outlets alike have illuminated the ubiquitous nature of the problem––stories ranging from horrendous, violent sexual acts to more “ordinary” types like inappropriate propositions and subtle groping.
How outrageous! Something should be done about this.
During the 2018 Oscars, something was done: Hollywood actors stood united against sexual abusers like Harvey Weinstein. May the Spirit of freedom empower more people to stand against such atrocities.
Yet within that same space, the hallowed hall where Oscar resides, was ethical ambivalence. My “expertise” wanes significantly here, since I have not seen or read the 50 Shades of Grey series nor Call Me by Your Name. If you want to critique me on that account, I certainly understand.
Nevertheless, next to and in locked arms with #MeToo during the Oscars were two films valorizing the very act #MeToo is condemning: powerful people, in both cases men, using their position to exploit younger, more vulnerable people for their sexual enjoyment.
Very briefly, 50 Shades of Grey is about a billionaire who coaxes a young female college student into a sexual relationship. The movie’s IMDb page describes the plot with these key words:
- Christian, the billionaire: brilliant, beautiful, and intimidating
- Ana, the college student: innocent and naive
- The parameters of their sexual encounter: Christian wants Ana, but on his own terms; he’s consumed by his need to control things.
Similarly, Call Me by Your Name is about a 17-year-old teenager who falls for a 24-year-old doctoral student. In short, a sexual relationship develops. But unlike 50 Shades, Call Me by Your Name was nominated for best picture.
So how do these two disparate ideas, #MeToo and these movies, share the same stage?
Well, for many in the media, they hold together quite easily. Variety celebrates 50 Shades as “an ode to the idea of consent.” In other words, the movie champions the #MeToo movement. Christian, after all, required Ana to sign a consent form, which outlined the things he was going to do. To Variety, that is consent––a powerful man making a binding contract with a younger woman that enables him to do whatever he wants to her. Consent.
Not to be outdone, Slate questions the ethics of Call Me by Your Name and concludes that art should not be restrained by arbitrary things like laws. In fact, Slate highlights the fact that age-of-consent laws are different in Italy, where the movie is set. In Italy, a teenager only needs to reach 16 to avoid criminal charges. Further, they point out that in 1983, the movie’s context, the age-of-consent was only 14. Thus, it is fine.
In the words of Nussbaum, “How outrageous!”
Turning the phrase a bit, how outrageous? Well, Hollywood’s hypocrisy concerning 50 Shades caught the ire of Bill Maher. Yes, Bill. Maher. As Maher notes, 50 Shades has been described as, “a woman on a leash.”
And Slate, well, they somehow want it both ways. In their article, they cite another Slate article about how Kevin Spacey sexually assaulted a 16-year-old in 1986. At the time Spacey was 26 (this age range seems familiar to me…) and he used his powerful position, both socially and physically, to try to satisfy his sexual desire.
Slate ends the article by saying how irresponsible it was for E! to feature an alleged sexual abuser (in this case, Ryan Seacrest) during the #MeToo era. Indeed, Slate. Indeed.
Power and sexuality
I’d be interested to hear if the writers at Variety and Slate would praise these acts as “an ode to consent” and “art” if it involved their son or daughter. I’d also like to hear “outrageous” anger in Hollywood about all sexual abuses rather than shower a few versions with awards and accolades.
Because here’s how ethics actually work. Instead of approaching a topic with predetermined objectives (i.e., justifying Hollywood’s sexual exploitation), ethicists first adopt a value system––like no one should be exploited––that is then applied to the situation, which is the opposite of what Variety and Slate have done. They accepted the situation and then constructed values to support themselves.
To start: 50 Shades. Power. It exists, and it is pervasive. Psychotherapist Lin Yonack says that sexual abuse is actually more about power than sex, and it “stems from the perpetrator’s need for dominance and control.” Where have I heard a description like that? She adds, “Far and away, most sexual assaults and sexual violence are perpetrated by men, and typically arise within asymmetrical power dynamics, where the perpetrator occupies a more powerful or dominant position in relation to the victim.”
That same power dynamic is present in Call Me by Your Name as well. There is an asymmetrical relationship that’s related to power and coercion, regardless if the 17-year old “consented” or if it is technically legal. According to pesky research, “[A] teen’s prefrontal cortex – the piece of brain right behind the forehead that is involved in complex decision making – is not capable of the kind of reasoning that allows most grown-ups to make rational decisions.” And, “More 17-year-olds commit crimes than any other age group,” which attests to their decision-making (in)ability. Thus, age-of-consent laws.
Ethics around sexuality are challenging. There are enormous issues with creating strict, rigid rules against sex. Even Joshua Harris admits that his influential book “I Kissed Dating Good Bye” was overly simplistic and ultimately damaging. By harshly condemning sexuality, particularly when tied to faith, people are disjointed, rejecting a vital aspect of who we are––who God created us to be.
Though complex, sexual ethics must continue to be investigated, particularly when we are fed divergent messages by Hollywood. Holistic sexuality, where each person commits to and fully accepts the other (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually), is the goal, designed not to restrict but rather enhance the experience. Otherwise, sex is a disconnected act (that is, it does not include the full humanity of those involved) that can be exploitative, utilizing unjust power dynamics that disproportionately hurt the more vulnerable participant.
This is a reflection and entry point to a much larger conversation, thus there is no final point. Rather, it’s an invitation for further meditation, because our current discourse is outrageous and we shouldn’t consent to it.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.