A Feminist Gets “Old Fashioned” for Valentine’s Day

The movie poster for the film Old Fashioned, used with the kind permission of director Rik Swartzwelder

Next Valentine’s Day, I plan to check out a romantic movie that has generated buzz in the romance community and on the pop culture scene. That movie is Old Fashioned, a Christian romance that revolves around the concepts of chivalry, kindness and mutual respect.

Those who know me as an erotic romance author are probably pausing at this point in their reading experience, checking the prescription on their eyeglasses, or wondering if they drank a bit too much bubbly before reading this here essay. Yet you read it right. I will not be seeing Fifty Shades of Grey, the much anticipated film also set to make its debut on V-Day.

When the literary version of Fifty Shades swept the nation, I was at first thrilled that a provocative erotic romance was scoring huge sales and generating mass discussions about women’s sexuality. Then I made a big ol’ mistake—-I read passages of the book and essays that described its content. I began to see words like “pain,” “control,” and “submission.” I read descriptions of a novel about a woman who experiments with BDSM not because she wants to, which would be fine, but because an attractive, successful man has hijacked her life and sexuality, telling her what to eat, how to dress, what kind of car to drive.

This dangerous relationship model extends into the bedroom, where her lover ignores her safe words (those phrases ensuring that BDSM submissives maintain control over their bodies, minds and overall safety) and causes her actual physical pain. This is not a real reflection of how BDSM relationships function in real life. What’s portrayed in Fifty Shades, much like its Twilight roots, is stalking and control disguised as romance.

Suddenly I started to feel very tired. I began to wonder where we as women lost our way on the road to sexual liberation. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, we were reading Lady Boss, The Bitch and The Stud by Jackie Collins and Women on Top by Nancy Friday. That is, we turned to those books when we weren’t checking out the occasional copy of Playgirl magazine. We were going to see the Chippendales and La Bare, watching Candida Royalle couples porn and having fun with our sexuality, while also reminding men that we deserved respect, equality and tenderness, in and out of the bedroom.

Jackie Collins book cover courtesy of Amazon, for review purposes only
Women on Top book cover, courtesy of Amazon, for review purposes only

I have no problem with the BDSM community per se. In my mind, however, it is vital to depict the consensual and fun-loving nature of any sexual relationship without blurring the lines of consent and individualism. This is what greatly concerns me about the Fifty Shades phenomenon.

I can say that Fifty Shades has cast a very dark shade over the romance and erotic industry. As an erotica author, I’ve begun to get offers to write books that depict — not only rough sex — but kidnapping and gang rape. I refuse them all. Yet I continue to see countless female friends falling under the spell of this book series and who ask one another with baited breath, “What would you do if a Christian Grey came into your life?”

My answer: “I’d get a restraining order and change the locks on my door.”

My concern intensified when I learned that the film version of Fifty Shades would debut on Valentine’s Day, which in my mind has taken on a greater significance with the celebration of V-Day, which is Eve Ensler’s global protest against violence towards women and girls. Hey, I love Jamie Dornan and director Sam Taylor-Johnson as much as the next gal but not as much as I love the spirited, empowering V-Day celebrations I’ve attended the past few years.

Last V-Day, I covered a high school event in which a bright, kind 17-year-old girl got on a loud speaker and told her entire school about the sexual molestation she suffered as a child. Her voice was unwavering and her spirit strong as she delivered a speech that she hoped would help and inspire other young girls to come forward, to get the help that they need, to empower themselves. This V-Day, I swore that I would not dishonor this young lady — and the millions like her around the world — by seeing a film that romanticized abuse and control. I planned to spend the day at a V-Day celebration, while staying clear away from the movie theater in the evening.

One day while surfing the web, I came across a film called Old Fashioned. It’s a Christian romance also set to debut this Valentine’s Day. Indie director Rik Swartzwelder sees his film as a “David figure,” going up against the Goliath known as Fifty Shades of Grey. The story of a free-spirited young woman who engages in an old-fashioned (hence the title) romance with a kind, respectful man, this film boasts the taglines “Chivalry makes a comeback,” and “Love is patient…love is kind,” as a nod to the lines from Corinthians you often hear at marriage ceremonies.

Rik Swartzwelder and Elizabeth Roberts play Clay and Amber in the movie Old Fashioned

Sure, we could argue all day about organized religion and its oppression of women, and, given some of my early life experiences with various sects, I won’t argue with you at all.

Yet what it comes down to is this, when I see the trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey, I see a blindfolded Dakota Johnson with an unreadable, blank-faced expression — is she afraid? Nervous? Does she even know what to think at this point? When I see the trailer for Old Fashioned, I see a logo of a man on bended knee, giving his heart to a woman. I see images of a couple having deep conversations, talking and laughing together as friends. And I hear lines of dialogue that include, “When did women being treated with respect become the joke?”

When, indeed?

Perhaps you might not prefer either vision. In that case, I strongly suggest that we as feminists write our own books, make our own films, tell our own stories, and, in the meantime, I personally prefer to see a movie that brings some light into our lives.

Clay and Amber share a tender moment in Old Fashioned.

Instead of all that grey.

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