In May 2013, the then Vice-President of the United States, Joe Biden, praised the leaders of American media, television and Hollywood for the crucial role they played in bringing about so-called ‘marriage equality’ in the United States. Biden went on to make the point that such revolutions in culture and morality depend far more on film and television and other instruments of popular culture than they do on the work of politicians and legislators. “It wasn’t anything we legislatively did. It was Will and Grace, it was the social media. Literally. That’s what changed peoples’ attitudes. That’s why I was so certain that the vast majority of people would embrace and rapidly embrace [gay marriage]”.
Will and Grace, for younger readers of this column who might not know, was a ‘noughties’ sit-com created by Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, which focused on the intersecting lives of Will, a homosexual lawyer, and his flat-mate, Grace (played by Debra Messing). It sought to sanitise the homosexual lifestyle and was a trailblazer for later shows with the same agenda, such as David Metzier’s Queer Eye. Hollywood also played a major role in this respect, through films such as Philadelphia (1993), Sweet Home Alabama (2002), Brokeback Mountain (2005) and, most recently, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016) and the latest Disney hit, Beauty and the Beast (2017), a film aimed at a children’s audience no less.
Leaving aside the fact that the vast majority of Americans did not at all ‘embrace’ so-called ‘marriage equality’ prior to its legislation, it is important to acknowledge the basic truth of Mr Biden’s claim. Without film and television, gay ‘marriage’ would be unimaginable and so would the normalisation of numerous other vices. Turn on a contemporary American sitcom, drama or film on most days of the week at most hours of the day and you will likely encounter a program that glamorises – even as it trivialises – pre-marital sex or other sexual vices: Chuck Lore’s Big Bang Theory does this routinely as does Darren Star’s Sex in the City; Jenji Kohan’s (sister of David) Orange is the New Black mainstreams lesbianism while her other drama, Weeds, shockingly makes light of a son’s incestuous fantasies about his own mother. Jill Soloway’s Transparent, meanwhile, is an overt attempt to normalise Transgenderism. Big Love, which ran from 2006-2011, was the creation of the openly homosexual Mark Olsen and his lover, Will Schaeffer. It sought to celebrate the world of polygamous marriage and was surely preparing the American soul for the decriminalisation of the same. Indeed, this is already being promoted by elite legal theorists such as Mark Goldfeder, whose latest book, Legalising Plural Marriage (2017) argues that polygamy is the next battle ground in marriage law, made possible by gay ‘marriage’. In the modern age, the law never goes where Prime-Time television and Hollywood blockbusters have not first been.
Although the subversion of sexual morality is often the leitmotif of many popular shows, this is only the most obvious dimension of TV’s and Hollywood’s attack on Christian culture. Basic goodness and decency are also routinely mocked. Consider for a moment the faithful husband, father and earnest Church-goer, Ned Flanders, who, along with his Bible-reading family, is the subject of regular ridicule in Matt Groening’s The Simpsons; or the walk-on Christian characters in the hugely influential Seinfeld (a priest, a pro-life campaigner and a Christian music enthusiast among them) who are the subject not only of incomprehension but the butt of cruel and sometimes blasphemous jokes. Indeed, beyond the rather obvious mockery of Christians and Christianity, popular TV shows frequently descend to explicit blasphemy for supposedly humorous purposes. Seinfeld co-creator Larry David’s urination on an image of Christ on his hit-show Curb Your Enthusiasm and David Duchovny’s character’s sexual ‘dalliance’ with a nun in a church (in the execrable Californication) are notorious, recent examples of a growing trend.
Whatever the virtues of such programs might be (there is something to be said for the early seasons of The Simpsons and Seinfeld; little or nothing to be said for the rest of the dross mentioned above) beneath the surface of much recent American television and film is an abiding and pervasive animus towards mainstream – or what until recently were mainstream – American, British and European values, which are historically Christian values, and which extend to Canada, New Zealand and Australia and other outposts of formerly Christian nations.
If this sounds like an exaggeration, keep in mind that it was the noted Hollywood actor and pro-life activist, Ben Stein, who noticed this trend as early as 1976. In an important essay ‘Whatever Happened to Smalltown America?’, Stein expressed befuddlement at how one “national culture” (as he described the dominant forces behind Prime-Time TV and Hollywood), which happened to be his own, was attacking the larger American culture that housed it, by “making war upon a way of life that is still powerfully attractive and widely practiced”. It did this by promoting the message to mainstream Americans “that their culture is at root sick, violent and depraved”. This, of course, represented an absolute inversion of the reality: for it was actually the culture of Hollywood and prime time television, and not mainstream American culture, that was sick, violent and depraved. The purpose of this, according to Stein, was cultural subversion, to teach Americans “to feel ashamed of their country and to believe that if their society is in decline, it deserves to be”. More than 40 years later, the effects of the phenomenon Stein so incisively identified are everywhere present and on a much larger scale.
Once they become aware of the agenda behind so much popular TV and film, how should Catholics respond? For those disinclined or incapable of throwing out their televisions and computers, modern developments in technology offer a way out of the culturally subversive matrix (you’ll have to see the Matrix before you throw out your television if you are to understand the reference!). We are far more able now than ever before to select, carefully and deliberately, the types of shows we allow into our homes, and where and when we watch them. There are good Hollywood films (usually made before 1965, although the films directed by Mel Gibson from Braveheart on are a must, as are some of the films of Terrence Malick), and there are good TV programs to be sure (usually British programs, such as Yes Minister, made prior to 1990). Beyond our electronic devices, however, there is something infinitely superior: a good book, read aloud, with the family gathered around.
Read something decent and noble. If you have teenage children, and especially if you have older teenage boys, start with Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902), a truly great Western deserving of far more attention than most of the so-called classics of the 20th century combined. It will inspire you to pursue the virtues it enacts: courage, fidelity, compassion and realism. Read it and learn what inspired the closing stages of a truly great film, Stanley Kramer’s High Noon (1952). Then read Book 6 of Homer’s Iliad and discover the story of the tragic parting of the brave Hector from his wife and son. Both Wister and Kramer certainly had this Homeric episode in mind when writing the closing scenes of their respective works, in which a man must choose honour (to go into battle) over his woman (who does not want him to go into battle) but for her sake and for the sake of their future together. That is the kind of self-sacrifice a Catholic can honour, admire and, if necessary (and perhaps it will be one day, for some of us) imitate.
Once you find the true Homer, you won’t look back to Homer Simpson – except in anger at all the time you wasted watching him when you could have been reading his namesake, or playing with your children, or holding your spouse, or walking through God’s first book, nature, and communing with Him, as Adam did, in the cool of the day.
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