In 1998, just over a decade after the scandal that landed Tammy Faye Bakker’s husband, Jim, in prison and crashed the couple’s ministry empire, Tammy Faye was a guest on Roseanne Barr’s daytime show. Roseanne’s opening line of questions quickly turned obnoxious, even cruel: “I want to know what in the heck is the makeup a metaphor for? What does it really mean? Because you know it’s really extreme.”
Tammy Faye, obviously stung, tried to deflect the insult. Roseanne persisted: “No, your makeup is extreme. It’s very extreme. … What does it mean to you? … Are you protecting yourself? You’re putting so much stuff on your face; you’re, like, hiding.”
Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Searchlight, 2021), a film based on Fenton Bailey’s and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary of the same name, is no less interested in what her “look” meant and means. Jessica Chastain’s performance, however, affords Tammy Faye a dignity Roseanne’s interview did not. Hopefully, this difference signals a long-needed shift in how Pentecostals—and Pentecostal women, in particular—are represented in mass media and popular culture.
Broadly speaking, Pentecostals found Tammy Faye’s look especially troubling and dismissed her as a “cruisematic” clown, while evangelicals feared her willingness to engage with gay people and her sympathy for those dying with AIDS. The culture at large, insofar as it noticed her at all, laughed her off as a tongue-talking, Bible-thumping pseudocelebrity.
When I was young (I’m the same age as Jay, Tammy Faye’s son), reared by my parents and grandparents in an old-fashioned, blue-collar Pentecostal church in rural Oklahoma, the Bakkers had just reached the height of their influence. I remember preachers, male and female, routinely parodying Jim’s “health and wealth, name-it-and-claim-it” message.
But women, especially “rich and famous” women, received the brunt of the condemnation, especially, as I recall, Tammy Faye, Amy Grant, and Jan Crouch (who in the early ’70s cofounded the Trinity Broadcast Network with her husband, Paul, and the Bakkers). These women, among others, were reviled as “Jezebels,” the name given to that type of woman thought to lure men away from the truth by carnal wiles, leading the church—and, more importantly, the nation—into ruin.
Of course, as the Roseanne interview indicates, Tammy Faye was held up for scorn by the wider culture as well. But while she only seemed otherworldly to them, she epitomized “worldliness” for our religious community. In our circles, women and girls, no matter their ages, were not allowed to wear makeup, jewelry, or attention-grabbing outfits, and it would be hard even to suggest the intensity of our disdain for those who did.
Tammy Faye’s appearance struck us as proof that no sane person would ever want to be “worldly.” She seemed to us the face of everything wrong with everyone who rejected our way of life. “Without holiness,” the preachers shouted, “no man”—and certainly no woman—“shall see the Lord.” We knew not only what they meant but whom.
In the film’s telling of her story, it seems obvious that Tammy Faye’s look set the stage for white Pentecostals to begin to break free of their legalistic dress codes and that her vision began to make it possible for evangelicals to risk seeing gays and lesbians differently—more caringly, more compassionately.
She was, to be sure, “camp incarnate.” Much of what she said and did was not merely odd or showy but outright foolish, or even wrong, as she herself often acknowledged. But somehow, against all odds, she never entirely lost touch with her personhood, her humanity. And to its credit, the film tries to honor this about her, this childlike openness to the truth.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye, with all its faults and shortcomings, promises to change the way Tammy Faye is remembered. But the way that the characters around her are so relatively undeveloped is consistent with the ways Pentecostals as a group continue to be perceived and portrayed in mass media and pop culture.
The first season of HBO’s recent Perry Mason, for example, stars Tatiana Maslany as Sister Alice McKeegan, founder of the fictional Radiant Assembly of God and an unmistakable interpretation of the real-life Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, the phenomenal turn-of-the-century evangelist, faith healer, and founder of the Foursquare Church. In Maslany’s performance, Sister McKeegan, much like Chastain’s Tammy Faye, is shown to be deeply enigmatic and troubled, sexy and theatrical, but never reduced to burlesque or parody. Her fellow Pentecostals, however, including McKeegan’s tightfisted and highhanded mother, are not afforded the same respect.
Something similar happens in Them That Follow(Amasia, 2019), which tells the story of Mara Childs, a snake handler’s daughter in an Appalachian Pentecostal church who at last is forced by her own compassion to abandon her family, if not also her faith. Some Pentecostal communities can be toxic, as my own story proves. But the courage shown by Chastain’s Tammy Faye, Maslany’s Sister Alice, and Alice Englert’s Mara Childs surely had something to do with the spirituality and theology that shaped them. Why do the storytellers fail to make that plain?
Before she died, Tammy Faye said she hoped to be remembered for her look and for her walk with God. Showalter’s film reminds us that she should be remembered not so much for her blush and lipstick as for her character, not for her eyeliner and eyelashes but for how she saw the world.
Regrettably, the film not only fails to fully realize its supporting cast but also seems reluctant to acknowledge that her character and her vision were in some real sense Pentecostal, shaped in her experience of the Spirit and led by her love for Jesus. In the film, the more sympathetic she becomes, the more she distances herself from the church. In fact, however, something more like the opposite was true.
Near the end of the interview that had started so awkwardly, Roseanne makes a request: “You are an ordained minister. A lot of people don’t know that about you, and always think of you as the wife behind the minister. But you yourself are a minister. So, we want to hear you preach, and we want you to go over to the organ and sing for us.”
Tammy Faye does exactly that, happily belting out a rendition of “(Give Me That) Old Time Religion.” The crowd immediately joins her, smiling and clapping. Roseanne, surprisingly, does too, with an accompanying tambourine. All together they sing, faces beaming: “Makes me love everybody, makes me love everybody, makes me love everybody, and it’s good enough for me.”
Nothing could be more Pentecostal or stand as a clearer witness against the biases so many still hold against Pentecostals. That lyric, sung in that way, sung with the woman who had belittled her, not only captures Tammy Faye’s spirit perfectly but also bears glad witness to the Spirit that blows where he wills, whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways.
Chris E. W. Green is a professor of public theology at Southeastern University and director for the St. Anthony Institute of Theology and Philosophy. His most recent book is All Things Beautiful: An Aesthetic Christology.
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