Thursday, January 17, 2008

Is Hollywood Prejudiced Against Christians or are Christians Prejudiced Against Hollywood?

Okay, I don't normally do this, but I'm going to link here to a conversation or thread on another blog. Over at Looking Closer, my friend Jeffrey Overstreet asked for "Hollywood movies made since the turn of the millennium that present Christianity in a positive light" to supplement a list made by another critic/friend of his.

Normally, I would just post a comment at his blog, but since I have a few choice words about the question and since my response could be qualified as a "rant," I'd rather not stir things up needlessly on someone else's turf when he or she is trying to sincerely address or answer a question that I think is both loaded and stupid.

Anyway, here are some of my thoughts about biases and who really has them:


One problem with the request (not the list) is that few good movies portray *anything* in an unequivocally, unambiguously, consistently good light.

Laying aside momentarily the qualification of since 2000 and just focusing on the criteria for inclusion on the list…

By Christianity do we mean Christians (or those who profess to be) or the religion of Christianity? To what extent is the religion of Christianity conflated with the institutions that include its adherents? Do films such as "Honeydripper," "A Man For All Seasons," or "Becket" that depict individuals of faith and contrasts them with other, negative characters of faith qualify as positive portrayals? How do we treat or think of films that show people in the process of faith development--characters who may not be entirely positive or negative in their
behavior but are growing (or seeking to grow) in their understanding of what it means to be Christian? (I'm thinking of characters such as Sarah Miles in "The End of the Affair" or Frankie Dunn in "Million Dollar Baby.")

Do the characters that are portrayed favorably in "Amazing Grace" and are Christian offset or trump the characters in the same film that are portrayed negatively and are Christian? (Does "The Sopranos" portray Italian-Americans in a positive or negative light? It might depend on if you look at Melfi or Tony.)

Are characters such as Clarice Starling in "Silence of the Lambs" or John Anderton in "Minority Report" ever or sufficiently associated with Christianity to the extent that the moral choices they make cast their* faith* in a good light, or must a film make an explicit, overt (and heavy-handed) connection between a character's faith and his/her moral choices in order to qualify as a positive portrayal of religion? Must the character announce before every good deed, "I am doing this because I am a Christian; were I not, I would make a different, more evil and selfish choice instead"?

In my experience, those who ask for such lists are seldom satisfied with implicit or implied positive representations and will often quibble or outright disagree as to whether or not a portrayal is "positive." Is Christianity portrayed positively in "Mississippi Burning"? In "Ragtime"? In "Ordet"? In "The Dekalog"? We're talking about art, not propaganda for heaven's sake; the answer when applying the question to any half-way decent work of art is almost always going to be "yes and no."

In other words, the phrases "portray," "Christianity," and "in a positive light," are all hopelessly subjective and (I would argue) hopelessly ambiguous. (Not to mention people at Jeff's blog are already parsing what "Hollywood" funded? studio distributed? made independently by people who live in or are from Hollywood area?)

Try substituting just about any abstract or group noun for "Christianity" and ask for the same list. Please name me 20 Hollywood films that portray "Hispanics" or "women" or "Authority figures" or "democracy" or "capitalism" or "liberals" or "conservatives" or "muslims," or "atheists" or “librarians” or “salesmen” or “people who practice any form of birth control” in a "positive light”...remembering examples seems to me to be about equally difficult, which suggests to me that the difficulty in deriving such a lists says more about the poor way the question is framed than about some ideological hegemony in Hollywood.

The request also depends on the fact that we tend to remember anecdotal examples that confirm our hypotheses more readily and easily than those that don't. Compare the following three requests...

1) Off the top of your head, without running off to Google or IMDB, name 20 Hollywood films since 2000 that have a car chase.
2) Off the top of your head, without running off to Google or IMDB, name 20 Hollywood films that depict successful and meaningful inter-racial friendships.
3) Off the top of your head, without running off to Google or IMDB, name 20 Hollywood films since 2000.

My point here is that the ease or difficulty in formulating any of these lists has as much to do with what makes something memorable as it does with how frequent the thing is. If I immediately provided you with 20 examples of #1 and #2, would that really convince you that #1 and #2 were equally prevalent in the movies, or would you walk away still convinced of your opinion that Hollywood is “pro car chase” and “anti inter-racial friendship”?

I refuse to play this game (defend Hollywood from claims of anti-Christian bias by pointing to anecdotal examples), not because the odds are stacked against me but because the rules and Pharisaical judges are. The way the question is formulated and presented makes it appear to me that it is not a serious request for a reasoned argument but a statement of opinion in the rhetorical form of a question--an opinion (that Hollywood is biased against Christians) that is fraught with its own assumptions and prejudices, and those of the type that are seldom, in my experience, assuaged or deterred by reasoning or contrary data.

None of this means, of course, that this particular stereotype (that Hollywood has, on the whole, a negative attitude towards Christianity) isn’t, in fact true.

Stereotypes sometimes have a seed of truth in them or an origin in fact (before they become distorted or exaggerated). But the same could be said of anti-Christian stereotypes.

Are we so confident, I wonder, in how virtuous we are and how virtuously we act in and towards the rest of the world, that the only possible explanation for a negative reputation is an irrational and unfair prejudice? Could it be—I’m just asking—that one reason so many Christians are portrayed as jerks in contemporary media is that a lot of Christians act like jerks in contemporary society?

Just a thought.


ericpaddon said...

***Try substituting just about any abstract or group noun for "Christianity" and ask for the same list.***

I have a better idea. Try substituting "Secular atheist" or "Traditional Muslim" or "Liberal Environmental Activist" for "Christianity" (and in particular, conservative oriented Christians, be they Protestant or Catholic) and then ask yourself if scales really even things out. Using subsitutes like "women" etc. really amounts to a giant smokescreen of the issue.

It strikes me amusing how two brilliant non-Christian authors, Don Feder and Michael Medved, show much greater insight on this issue of Hollywood bias and animosity toward traditional Christianity than I often see from self-described Christian evaluators of popular culture.

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

I dunno, seems to me the majority of the environmental activists in "Battle in Seattle" are portrayed as eco-terrorists or cynical hypocrites. Muslims in "The War Within" and "Perspeolis" are portrayed as both good and bad, and Richard Dawkins gets skewered in South Park every bit as zealously as Tom Cruise.

But yeah, Feder and Medved see much to which I am blind.

Greg & Jenn Wright said...

Could it be that one reason so many Christians are portrayed as jerks in contemporary media is that a lot of Christians act like jerks in contemporary society?

Absolutely, yes. As I commented at Arts and Faith, the situation would be so different if Christians -- actual, real people of faith -- had contact with the angry, motivated, artistically productive people who live and work in Hollywood and treated them well (rather than, say, picketing and protesting).

Then Christian characters in the films and stories they write and make might start looking a little different.

As it is, they tend to look like actual Christians (you and) I know.

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

Good point, Greg.

Nice to chat with you again; it's been awhile. Hope things are well at PTP.

The Cubicle Reverend said...

The only one I can think of is The Big Kahuna. Though admittedly when I first saw the movie I thought it was very negative. But after a second watch I saw that was not the case.

ericpaddon said...

I'd sure as heck like to know how this kind of depiction in "Cold Case" is the result of any "jerk" behavior on the part of Christians, especially since in the real world, the only religious group that would ever engage in stoning of someone for a sexual sin would be those who belong to the "religion of peace."

Christians will only get depicted positively in Hollywood by the usual suspects if they first do two things (1) Make it clear they do not hold to conservative theological interpretations of any kind and (2) are champions of secular left-wing political causes.

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

I haven't seen The Big Kahuna, but I very much agree with what I think you are saying...sometimes our own faith development might cause us to change (or at least mitigate) what we think of as being a positive or negative portrayal. Films such as "Mass Appeal," "Henry V," or "Matewan" are examples of ones that I tended to view as negative portrayals of Christianity when I first saw them but which now strike me as more nuanced or even positive. Thanks for sharing.

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

Well, I did say "one reason" (suggesting there might be others), so I'm certainly not claiming that every negative portrait is warranted or grounded in fact.

But, point taken; sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a prejudice is just a prejudice.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that Christianity in a very general sense is usually represented in film by the clerical collar. The collar, which is actually only worn by a segment of the clergy, is an easy shorthand for hollywood to insert the faith component.
Of cousre this is painting with a very broad brush, but without thinking too long or hard on it, the images of insipid, morally corrupt or blatantly evil clergy characters quickly come to the surface. I've been pleased with characters like that of Mel Gibson in Signs or the priest in Raising Helen, but my strong sense is that there are far more of the other image making it to the screen.
That image is quantifiable if someone chooses to do the work. The task is beyond my undertaking, but probably not hard for someone to research if one so desires.
Let's ask a different question by contrast. How many films today portray the gay charcter of the film in a negative light? Admittedly, they are often the "harless mascots", which could be resented, but I rarely see a portrayal of a gay person as the corrupt, hypocritical villain. I'm sure there are some exceptions, but doubt that an unbiased survey would prove otherwise.