This Valentine’s Day, two films will battle for the hearts and minds of the American public. One of them is Fifty Shades of Grey, the popular culture juggernaut that has earned millions of dollars worldwide. The other is a Christian-produced independent film, Old Fashioned, which bills itself as the scrubbed-up, evangelical alternative.
Having faith-based responses to secular media (and saying Fifty Shades of Grey is secular is a little like saying the Grand Canyon is big) is more than appropriate. It’s necessary. Otherwise we risk ignoring the vital words of Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Christians and non-believers alike should be regularly exposed to art that causes them to question the world around them.
Sadly, Old Fashioned is not the movie to fit that bill. Both it and Fifty Shades of Grey present dangerously unrealistic portraits of relationships — one just does it without the sex.
The film version of Fifty Shades of Grey, based on the books by E.L. James, tells the story of virginal college senior Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who embarks on a relationship with business mogul Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a man with a mysterious past and a penchant for bondage. Grey’s rules for the relationship — in the form of a literal, legal contract — are demanding to say the least (not to mention sexually explicit). But Anastasia’s attraction to Christian, and her unfailing belief that she can change him, keeps her around.
Fifty Shades of Grey is self-aware in its cheesiness and laughability — director Sam Taylor-Johnson appears to understand that this movie is never going to be anything other than what it is, and for the first hour or so, before things take a seriously dark turn, it’s guilty, ironic entertainment.
But beyond whatever feelings an audience may have about sex onscreen, this is not a healthy relationship. Not only is Christian possessive, he has no respect for boundaries. He buys Anastasia wildly expensive gifts she’s uncomfortable with, makes choices about her lifestyle without consulting her, and even appears in her apartment uninvited. And Anastasia falls into the dangerous trap of a woman whose partner frequently does unacceptable things, but who she stays with because she believes her virtue will tame him.
Old Fashioned is the story of Clay (writer-producer-director-star Rik Swartzwelder) and Amber (Elizabeth Ann Roberts). Clay is a former frat boy who has spent his years since college atoning for his wayward youth. He does that by running an antique shop and sharing his radical theories on dating. Amber is a free-spirited gal who rents the apartment above Clay’s shop, and is determined to love him, despite the walls he puts up.
Even though it doesn’t feature a sex dungeon, Old Fashioned presents us with a relationship that’s just as unhealthy as the one in Fifty Shades of Grey. Swartzwelder’s Clay is still creepy, and his behavior unbelievable.
Instead of kinky sex, Clay’s approach to relationships is to keep women at as far a distance as possible by setting ridiculous standards for a relationship — though, it should be noted, he still desires marriage and children. Some examples:
- Refusing to be alone in a room with any woman he isn’t married to (which involves a scene where he requires Roberts’ Amber to stand outside in the cold while he fixes her garbage disposal);
- Initiating a relationship by picking up a marriage handbook from a pastor, and proceeding to go through the book with Amber on each successive date;
- After several dates, responding to Amber’s request to define his feelings for her by rejecting her.
Granted, Clay also has some admirable ideals (respecting a woman’s mind as well as her body, for example). We also aren’t meant to accept him as the perfect measure of a man, since he does have problems to overcome. Yet by the film’s end, all he has to do to redeem himself is acknowledge that those problems exist. His behavior doesn’t actually have to change, nor does it.
Where Old Fashioned really falls short isn’t just its dull, plodding plot or paper-thin characters (though these are glaringly apparent). It’s in misunderstanding what makes Fifty Shades of Grey dangerous in the first place. The explicit sex isn’t the biggest problem here. The true threat is that the Fifty Shades books (and now the film) promote a kind of “romance” that is, frankly, abusive. The popularity of the books also risks giving men the impression that women do want relationships like Christian and Anastasia’s, which is both untrue and frightening. Old Fashioned’s male writer, director and star seems to think his vision is what women want, but his attempt at squeaky-clean alternative isn’t just boring, it’s flat-out undesirable.
Watch the trailer for Old Fashioned here.
Abby Olcese is the Advertising Assistant for Sojourners.