In her book I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies, film historian Jeanine Basinger describes a trend that has marked movies for the past 40 years: the lack of interest in married life. Incapable of imagining a dramatically interesting marriage, she explains:
Hollywood kept only the ritual, making movie after movie about weddings. Since no one felt the need for marriage—you could have sex, children, and cohabitation without it—films elevated the event and made it the main point: the Big Wedding in which you could have the decorations, the food, the booze, and the outfits without having to be bored by marriage problems.
According to a former editor of Marvel Comics, one reason why the graphic novel has nearly universally eschewed marriage is that it “kills a good story.” Whatever could be exciting about Clark Kent if he were to remain married to Lois Lane? Not much, apparently, because DC Comics erased the 1996 marriage from history, returning Superman to bachelorhood, the preferred state of our superheroes.
Exceptions exist, of course. Amour, The Incredibles, and In America, along with many Tyler Perry films, focus on and celebrate marriage. Recent movies, such as Drinking Buddies, also trace the relation between friendship and romance, and even between friendship and marriage, explored, for example, throughout the Harry Potter franchise.
One marvelous exception is the critically acclaimed television series Friday Night Lights (FNL), which aired from 2006 to 2011. It tells the story of ordinary people in a small Texas town and their impassioned love of football. But, as Basinger notes, FNL is not so much a show about football as it is “a show about how marriage works when it actually does work.” For critics and fans alike, there has arguably never been a more honest marriage portrayed on the screen than that of coach Eric and Tami Taylor.
Theirs, unfortunately, remains the exception. More common on the small and large screen is the sense that marriage, particularly traditional marriage, is dull and irrelevant as storytelling material. More usual is the view that, “as in the days of the judges,” each one does with marriage what seems right in his or her eyes, whether in “open,” “free,” or “transgressive” style.
It is my contention that, while movies and television cannot be blamed exclusively for our society’s rejection of theologically conservative ideas about marriage, they have certainly made it easier for our neighbors to imagine that such a marriage, especially its exclusive status, is impossible or undesirable. I also contend that we have not fully reckoned with the power of the artistic imagination.
And therein lies a task for us.
In a 2012 interview with NPR, communications professor Edward Schiappa discussed the results of his research on the effect of television to decrease prejudice against gay persons. “These attitude changes are not huge,” he said. “They don’t change bigots into saints. But they can snowball.”
Whether watching Will & Grace or Glee, more Americans, “from the safety of their armchair,” can “learn a bit about gay people who they might not otherwise have learned from in real life,” he said. It has been a vicarious, and rather effective, lesson for a fifth of Americans who, according to an Ipsos MediaCT survey, said that television has inspired them to embrace same-sex marriage.
Shows like Modern Family (which prominently features a gay couple) achieve what Schiappa calls “category work.” The show takes a categorical stereotype (like the flamboyantly fickle gay man) and complicates it by showing other possibilities (in this case, the trustworthy gay man).
Modern Family performs an additional function: By presenting empathetic gay characters, it helps the viewer exchange an anxious feeling about gay people with a likeable feeling and, as the case may be, it enables the viewer to imagine him- or herself in friendship with a gay person. What was once fundamentally questionable, especially for many younger viewers, becomes in due time a new normal.
Star Trek performed a similar function for a previous generation. In 1966, it became
the first primetime show to favorably depict an African American woman, Nichelle Nichols. Nichols almost didn’t return after the first season of playing Lt. Nyota Uhura. As she explained years later, the turning point came at a fundraiser for Martin Luther King, Jr., the self-proclaimed “biggest Trekkie on the planet.”
King told her, “You are changing the minds of people across the world, because for the first time, through you, we see ourselves and what can be.” NASA astronaut Mae C. Jemison, the first black woman to travel into space, was one of those people inspired by Nichols. Jemison said simply: “Images show us possibilities.”
What fictional narratives like Modern Family or the menagerie of Star Trek tales foster, then, is a sympathetic sense that “this is the way things could be and in fact should be.” And like all good works of art, movies and television can summon the imagination not simply to conceive the improbable, for black people or gay people or others, but also to desire it as good.
Imagination in Action
In June 2013, the Supreme Court ruled against the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. One Christian commentator remarked that if Americans couldn’t handle complex verbal arguments, then they ought to be given something easier, by which he meant an appeal to the artistic imagination.
This is a view common among Christians who regard the imagination as a distraction at worst, and a form of persuasion suited to the “unsophisticated” mind at best. Against this somewhat naive view, I suggest that the artistic imagination performs important work, in the following three ways.
1. By inviting us to imagine an alternative world, the artistic imagination brings us into vicarious experiences. This is a dynamic that Jesus himself uses while speaking with a certain lawyer (Luke 10). Instead of telling the young man “just the facts,” Jesus tells him a story. The story, in turn, pulls the lawyer vicariously as well as affectively into a role he might never have imagined for himself: the “bad guy” instead of the “good guy.” With Jesus, as with a movie like Brokeback Mountain or Milk, the unimaginable becomes imaginable because we have experienced it vicariously, “from the inside.”
2. The artistic imagination enables us to live beyond the givens of the world. In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus encourages his listeners to reimagine an ethnic given: the “no-good neighbor” Samaritan. In a movie like The Kids Are All Right, director Lisa Cholodenko invites the viewer to reimagine a marital given: the supposed impossibility of a happy lesbian marriage. In this case, one given (the wrongness of such a marriage) is replaced by another given (the rightness of it), and a once incredible reality eventually becomes an assumed reality.
3. The artistic imagination shapes our desires. As Paul the apostle well knew, we come to desire what we repeatedly imagine. In this vein, the common slogan “Love = Love,” emblazoned on T-shirts worn on college campuses across the country, encourages us to imagine love as the right to be “true to oneself” and to love whomever one wishes, regardless of sexual or marital preference. For many, to see this idea played out on the small or large screen is to begin feeling the desire to see it realized.
"Leading the conversation. Shaping the media narrative. Changing the culture." While this might sound like the slogan of a zealously conservative group, it is actually the stated mission of GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). And it reminds us that we are all in the same business: word-smithing, story-telling, culture-shaping, ultimately heart-forming. GLBT Americans have long understood that in order to effect permanent change in this country, they must capture our imaginations. They understand the power of a story well told, and they understand that it costs something.
If it’s true that the average American spends close to 200 hours every month in front of a screen, then gay Americans, like secular Jews or agnostics or liberal Christians—but often unlike conservative Christians—are right that society’s perception of romance and marriage will be uncommonly shaped by the stories we tell on television and film. This is another way of stating—as have Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and “crunchy con” journalist Rod Dreher—that politics routinely exists downstream of popular culture.
To nuance my original contention, it is not that all conservative Christians have failed to take the artistic imagination seriously. Many have, and in very thoughtful ways. It is that too many conservatives have not taken the artistic imagination seriously enough—enough to invest in the sort of institutions, cultures of patronage, communities of artists, and rigorous habits of art-making that over decades would yield a winsome Christian presence within the industries of art and entertainment.
Christians have made so little artistic culture in the “public square,” in fact, that our witness to the graces of traditional marriage is feeble, capturing the attention of few.
Thankfully, this is not the full story.
In Word and Deed
While writing this article, I corresponded with several Christians who have written for a range of TV shows, from That ’70s Show to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They told me that, while there are more Christians in the studio system today than even ten years ago, their numbers are miniscule and their power to make a difference is relatively small. As one writer said, “The real issue is not the writers but the gatekeepers (the networks and studios), and what they want or will allow on the airwaves.” Though we needn’t subscribe to a conspiracy theory, as a lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Peter Stark Producing Program mentioned, Hollywood nonetheless feels little motivation to explore traditional marriage, especially when story lines about single people seem far more dramatically exciting.
Another writer stressed that “it is difficult to write about that which you do not know: a good marriage.” When 60 percent of industry marriages result in divorce, there is little incentive to write about a reality that seems too good to be true, or even necessary. Even if a writer wanted to change the plot, he or she likely could only provide a minor “salting” presence in a process that involves hundreds of people to produce a single television episode, and many more for a feature film.
A writer for The Americans, which The New Yorker dubbed “a show about marriage dressed up as a spy drama” (and which my wife and I place on par with FNL, alongside NBC’s Parenthood), pointed out that of the 500 story pitches that a network hears each season, only 5 are turned into a new series. That is a 1 percent chance of success for stories that may have included a nuanced picture of traditional marriage.
In light of this, is there anything for Christians to do? Yes, in fact.
For starters, as valuable as parallel efforts such as Big Idea Productions or Sherwood Pictures may be, I would encourage us not to abandon the center of Hollywood (or Bollywood, for that matter). We should offer wholehearted support to the writers, producers, and executives who labor within the industry, whether in Los Angeles or in our own cities, performing their small but brave labors on behalf of God’s kingdom, even if they add only a pinch of light for the common good.
Beyond this, pray for artists. Befriend an artist yourself. Patronize them with financial and practical helps. Encourage them to put in the 10,000 hours and the discipline required to make good work, to tell the kind of nuanced, textured, winsome, even humorous stories that evoke a desire in an audience to be truly, fully human. Help them to discern the shape of their calling. Help them connect to a good community.
If Christians are to reshape the public square of art and entertainment, it will not be due to a single person. It will be due to the body of Christ everywhere, releasing artists in all stations of life to remain faithful to their vocation. It will take more than a handful of TV shows or movies; it will require hundreds of them. It will require a decades-long endeavor, not a few enthusiastic years here and there. And it will call for a humble relinquishment of all our efforts and desires to the good, often inscrutable, will of God.
Beyond these artistic activities, I would encourage the church to keep offering a brave, clearheaded articulation of sexuality and marriage. Good teaching and preaching are essential. It is also important that we not pit relational efforts against political ones. Both have their place, even if the integrity of our lives may speak most convincingly.
For those of us who are married, we need to give ourselves permission to live transparently before our neighbors, letting them witness our marriage’s imperfections and tensions, as well as the moments of grace when God rescues us from our worst selves. We ought also to support those whose marriages are breaking or broken.
As always, we should seek every opportunity to lay down our lives to serve our neighbors, gay or straight or otherwise, offering them the hospitality of Christ in witness to the fatherly love of God. Nothing good will come of holding onto stereotypes. Our neighbors are not our enemies. They are men and women made in the image of God and beloved by him. To them we owe the same kind of humble love that Christ has shown us.
In the end, faithful artistry together with faithful living may well enable our neighbors to imagine life not “just as it is” but as the triune God would have it.
The Good Marriage
Critics often ask what made FNL’s marriage work, dramatically speaking. For New York Times critic A. O. Scott, the answer is that Eric and Tami’s marriage was neither complacent nor predictable, and it included the “messy delights and petty frustrations” that make lifelong fidelity interesting. Basinger adds: “There was no ‘strategy’ for their marital story: no clever plot twists, no dream episodes, no other woman or man, no cheap theatrics or misunderstandings.”
Marked by great writing, an honest friendship, and a permission to take its time, FNL exhibited what Basinger calls an emotional truth, which viewers week after week could recognize, absorb, and be nourished by. In my case, it frequently made me want to be a better husband.
I contend that Friday Night Lights is exactly the kind of story that we need played out on the small and big screen—a story that helps us not only to imagine a flourishing marriage but also to desire one. We need such stories to help us feel again that it is actually possible to have this kind of marriage, despite the relational fragmentation and ideological mayhem that daily surrounds us.
If a Christian community were willing to invest in those who are called to produce such television and movies, then I believe we might be looking not at the failure of the Christian imagination in the public square, but at the gift of a vision of marital love, in all its complexities and pleasures. God willing, viewers may yearn for much more of where that came from.
W. David O. Taylor is assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and the director of Brehm Texas, an initiative in worship, theology, and the arts. You can read more from Taylor at his blog, Diary of an Arts Pastor.
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