Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Candid Conversation about Objectifying Actors

In recent online discussions related to Hollywood’s secret rape culture, I’ve come into contact with some delightfully likeminded individuals like E. Stephen Burnett, Editor at Speculative Faith. While we may not see eye to eye on all the related issues, we are still, as Stephen has said, “allied on what really matters.”

Because the pornification of mainstream entertainment involves principles and practices that really do matter, I wanted to share a recent conversation I had with Stephen. Or, more honestly, this is a conversation in which Stephen said a lot of great things, and I wanted to share them with my audience.

I’m still mulling over some of what he said, and my approach to questionable entertainment may still likely differ from his own. Nevertheless, I genuinely appreciate the integrity of his beliefs: how he desires to apply Biblical wisdom to controversial topics like this, and how his convictions have encouraged and challenged me. Below is a segment of our online conversation.

E. Stephen Burnett: My question was about your critique of Into Darkness for (among other things) its gratuitous stupid objectifying woman-in-underwear visual. (Hey, but I’m sure it’s okay because: Art, and also because other Christians have been very very very very bad.) Would you apply the critique equally to specific episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, such as the exceptionally ghastly one in series 1 in which the crew beams down to 1980s Soft Porn Planet when male and female supermodels are strutting around a California park in high-hipped white-bedsheet bikinis and also lounging around rubbing oil? And if you would, would that also mean we’re not supposed to see that show? Of course, long before immodesty or objectification critiques kick in begin the It’s Just Ridiculously Asinine critiques...

Cap Stewart: Honestly, I haven’t watched TNG since I was a kid, so I have little memory of anything about the show (other than that I loved watching it). Anyway, it sounds like I would apply the same critique to that TNG episode from season 1. As far as practice goes, my wife and I currently follow these basic set of guidelines:

  • If sexual objectification exists in a film or show (even if it’s only for a few seconds), we will not financially support it.
  • If a film or show we’re interested in DOES have a questionable scene or two, but isn’t pervasively raunchy, we may pick up a used copy of it (or borrow it from the library) and skip those scenes.
  • With any potentially questionable TV show episodes (the occasional Monk or Star Trek episode, etc.), my wife previews them first.

In the case of recent(ish) films like Oblivion and Into Darkness, we waited until the DVD was released and borrowed it from the library.

E. Stephen Burnett: Hmm. I asked because methinks this can ultimately end up an impossible standard both in cultural context and a personal context.

Cultural context: Ultimately this will make no market impact because such a motive for “financial support” is impossible to discern. I “support” films like The Avengers not because I especially want to see Scarlett Johansson in arguably tight leather but because they’re awesome. If I withdrew support or added more, no one will know exactly why and therefore the “dent” or pushback in popular culture ends up negligible. (With something like Game of Thrones it’s a bit different because one could argue the majority of the series intends to endorse plain porn.)

But the best reason to suggest that this kind of boycott is not required of the Christian is this: the Bible never endorses it, and in fact when the subject comes up about meat sacrificed to idols Paul is blatantly uninterested about who gets the money for the meat and what they do with the money; his only goal is to put “freedom” in perspective and ensure that everyone is using his freedom wisely to love spiritual siblings.

Personal context: If the payment of money toward folks who are clearly using it to objectify other folks nonetheless bothers you, then of course, don’t do it. You might even go to extreme lengths (such as library loans, etc.) to avoid this stigma. And this is even more required if you believe viewing such things is personally sinful for you: BOYCOTT THEM.

But I only seek to prove 1) boycotts to affect/change culture are rarely successful when they’re about stories of mixed worldviews and meanings and even genres (such as Star Trek: TNG versus the nasty Game of Thrones); 2) it’s nearly impossible to avoid financially supporting the Thing even through buying used copies or borrowing from the library; the cultural Thing is still profiting from your endorsement; 3) Scripture doesn’t require this standard, so if you practice the standard it falls directly under the “meat sacrificed to idols”/“if you believe it’s sin, it’s sin for you” Scriptures.

Cap Stewart: Good thoughts. My convictions in this area made a drastic change about 1.5 years ago, due in large part to my reading of Wayne A. Wilson’s superb book Worldly Amusements. As a result, my standards have been evolving as I’ve sought the best ways to love God and love my neighbors (including actors) through my engagement with entertainment. What you say about various types of “support” is valid, and it’s something I would do well to wrestle with.

E. Stephen Burnett: As I wrestled with yours — thus my question.

...Even if you pay full price for a movie and then end up hating it, you can say so — and that might be a deadlier influence on culture than withdrawing altogether.

But of course the prime motive remains not to Change Culture but to glorify God both personally and as part of His Church, the only lasting influencer of culture. So if you’re okay with seeing even a good film…and going to heat your pizza like I do when [hanky panky happens], then that’s still ultimately a good way to exert personal discernment and to influence culture positively.

Cap Stewart: “But of course the prime motive remains not to Change Culture but to glorify God both personally and as part of His Church, the only lasting influencer of culture.”

Absolutely! Even if my meager efforts don’t radically affect the Hollywood system, they will be more than worth the effort if I love God and love my neighbor more as a result.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Problem with Telling People to “Do What You Love”

Like most kids, I wanted to be a variety of things while growing up: painter, firefighter, carpenter, and astronaut (although the movie Space Camp cured me of that desire). After developing an interest in cinematography in my pre-teen years, I pursued schooling in the visual arts.

God has graciously blessed my efforts. I’ve been involved in media in some form or capacity ever since officially entering the workforce. I’ve participated in video and film production, photography, radio, and social media (to name a few)—and I’ve loved (most) every minute of it.

“Do what you love” is a cultural mantra I haven’t really questioned. After all, it’s worked for me. Well, a few days ago, I read a challenging blog post by Gene Edward Veith entitled “Unfulfilling work as vocation.” In the article, he lists some random thoughts about the Christian doctrine of vocation. His insights, and the articles he links to, have continued to germinate in my mind.

The ultimate question I’ve had to ask is not so much, “Is it inherently wrong to do what you love?” On the surface, the answer is simple. Of course it’s not wrong. But when you start to look at the root motives for why we do what we do, a potential problem arises.

According to Jeff Haanen (whom Dr. Veith quotes), “do what you love” can actually be elitist. How so?

…it undermines work that is not done out of “passion.” Moreover, it severs the traditional connection between work, talent and duty. The vast majority of the world’s workers are not working because they love the job, but instead are simply providing for their loved ones, and they had little choice in the matter.

To quote Dr. Veith himself:

Contrary to the common assumption, vocation is NOT about self-fulfillment, self-aggrandizement, finding your greatness, finding meaning in your life, or doing what you love. Vocation is about loving and serving your neighbor. That means, in practice, denying yourself for your neighbor. . . .

It’s true that lots of people are asked to do work that they do enjoy and find fulfilling. But no one is entitled to that. It’s possible to find satisfaction and pleasure in just about any kind of work, but sometimes you have to learn to do that. But even the good, wonderful, fulfilling jobs have their trials and crosses.

Some helpful advice for all believers (again, from Jeff Haanen):

Ironically, when we think about work, chasing after our own happiness will never bring us happiness. It is in serving others and pointing beyond ourselves that happiness is tossed in along the way. To find happiness, forget about passion. Give yourself to what the world needs. Or better yet, give yourself to God, and let him use you as He sees fit.

The Christian’s purpose in whatever work he or she pursues is the well-being of one’s neighbor. Our vocational goal, first and foremost, should not be personal fulfillment. “Do what you love” is great so long as it is a means to the true end: serving and loving others.

These thoughts have challenged me over the last week or so. I pray they prove beneficial to both my desires and my duties. In the meantime, I plan to continue enjoying my job as the blessing that it is, while learning to better discern between the means and the end. This is, after all, no small matter. The glory of God and the good of my neighbor are at stake.

As a takeaway for my readers: I recommend reading the two articles I cite above in full:

Unfulfilling work as vocation

photo credit: kevin dooley via photopin cc

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

How to Tell if You’re Treating Actors Like Whores

The conversation I overheard took place between three Christian men. Maybe that’s why I found it so disturbing. Their words revealed a flippant attitude toward sexual manipulation—in this case, of underage girls. What’s worse, it was excused on the grounds of entertainment. The shocking callousness has stayed with me to this day.

The topic? A popular television series they had all been watching. Here’s what I heard them say. (The names I’ve used are not real.)

LEO: I’ve watched the first 5 seasons. I attempted to start season 6 the other day, but I just couldn’t take it. I made it only twenty minutes into the first episode before the hyper-sexualization of everything, including 15-year-old girls, did me in. So Nate, give me your best judgment: is there enough of a payoff in terms of storyline development to make another go at it worthwhile?

NATE: Orson would be the best judge of that. I stopped during season three.

ORSON: The finale of the latest season is, for me, quite a pleasant surprise in terms of the positive direction we may be heading for the seventh, and final, season.

At first glance, the conversation doesn’t seem that scandalous, does it? The moral callousness isn’t blatant, but it slinks through the discussion like Harry Potter under his invisibility cloak.

The main question brought up was this: When is it okay to hyper-sexualize actors—in this case, several minors—for the sake of entertainment? When are such actions worthy of our patronage? The answer, it seems, is when we’re fairly certain that the story is heading in a positive direction. That makes the sexual objectification okay. In other words, the end justifies the means.

To help make things even clearer, let me paraphrase Leo’s thoughts in this way: “I’m disgusted that the filmmakers hyper-sexualized everything about the show. The shameless objectification of actors was appalling to my senses. However, I’m willing to put my moral revulsion aside as long as the emotional payoff is rewarding enough to me as a viewer.”

Let me be the first to say that I don’t think Leo, Nate, and Orson are perverts looking for new ways to feed the lust monster. On the contrary, they seem to take seriously the matter of personal purity. The problem is, that’s all they seem to be concerned with. And too often, I think it’s all we’re concerned with as well.

As patrons of Hollywood, we’ve gotten into a consumer mindset that disregards most every other factor in favor of us having a positive, cathartic experience. If the story is interesting enough, and if it “demands” the objectification and dehumanization of actors, then the needs of the story win out.

In contrast, Paul calls Christians to give up their rights if it means hurting the conscience of others (see 1 Corinthians 9 and Romans 14). We’ve got it backwards: we financially support the violation of others’ dignity—even in the case of “willing” actors—so we can benefit from their moral and emotional compromises.

Granted, the context of Paul’s teaching on this matter is the relationship between members of the church, but I don’t think that gives us an excuse to disregard the well being of unbelievers. In the end, the conversation between Leo, Nate, and Orson shows how “love your neighbor as yourself” does not affect our entertainment choices like it should.

Let’s examine a current movie in light of the “law of love” principle and see how it applies. Transformers: Age of Extinction recently came out in theaters. It’s no secret that the past Transformers movies have blatantly objectified their female leads, and this entry into the franchise follows suit.

Speaking of underage girls, Steven D. Greydanus mentions how Nicola Peltz is “Bay’s youngest sex object yet.” Peltz herself is 19, but in Age of Extinction she plays a 17-year-old girl who is the willing victim of statutory rape—a fact which she and her 20-year-old boyfriend rub in her father’s face throughout the film.

The movie makes sure to rub Peltz’s body in the audience’s face as well. Andrew Parker writes, “[Micahel] Bay gets his pervert on thanks to shooting Peltz like a sex object and then chastising his audience for viewing her as such, before finally giving his audience the most ludicrously reassuring pat on the back to tell you it’s cool to ogle teens.” And Peltz isn’t the film’s only victim, according to Diego Crespo: In true Bay fashion, every woman in the movie is treated like a sex object. . . . The camera fetishes [sic] their every motion. It makes Victoria Secret commercials look subtle.”

Now, can I say that it is universally and categorically sinful for anyone to go see Transformers 4? No, I cannot. Such a sweeping statement would be unwise and uncharitable.

What I can do, and what I encourage you to do, is ask the following questions (about Transformers or any other movie):

  • If an actor (or group of actors) is being objectified (which often indicates he or she experienced some form of manipulation on set), do you financially support it anyway because the story looks interesting or thought-provoking or entertaining enough?
  • When it all is said and done, is your patronage of a film unaffected by whether or not actors are shamefully dehumanized and/or abused?

If your answer to the above questions is “Yes,” then no matter how well your own personal purity is protected, you are treating actors like whores for your own personal gain.

That may not be your intention. Your desires in and of themselves may be far from perverse. But you’re still being a party to the objectification of actors made in God’s image. Metaphorically speaking, you’re fine with touring a pimp house—just so long as the sounds of abuse are quickly replaced by relaxing music on the drive home.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Two Popular Myths About the United States

I don’t normally get political because that’s not what this blog is about. But because we’ll be celebrating our nation’s independence this week, I wanted to honor the occasion by looking at two common misconceptions about the U.S. government. Here they are:

  1. There is a constitutional separation of church and state
  2. Faith-based concepts should be kept out of the public realm

Let’s see if I can address these highly controversial topics in the least controversial way possible.

1. There is a constitutional separation of church and state

The U.S. Constitution does not guarantee a “separation of church and state”—at least, not in the sense the phrase is understood today. In fact, that particular phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution.

So where did the wording come from? We find it in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. This group of Baptists was concerned about a potential restriction on their freedom to pursue religion as they saw fit. “Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty,” they wrote, “…[and that] no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions.” If you read their letter in its entirety, you’ll see that they were not concerned about America being friendly toward religion. They were concerned about the establishment of a state religion that infringed on the rights of dissenting individuals.

Jefferson agreed with the Danbury Baptists. His response involved citing from the First Amendment (that congress would “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) and thus assuring the Baptists that this clause established “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

It has been argued ad nauseam about what that phrase means, and I won’t delve into the argument here. All I will say is that the First Amendment guarantees American citizens the freedom publicly to participate in (among other things) religion, speech, and the press. These rights are equally important and should be defended with equal devotion.

2. Faith-based concepts should be kept out of the public realm

This myth is closely associated with the previous one. As an illustration: During an argument I once overheard, one man made the following statement: “There is a very clearly defined separation between church and state, and arguments founded in faith have no place in the public sphere.” He said we need to have better reasons for policies than just “well, God says so.”

Now, there’s a certain sense in which I actually agree with this man. The United States is not a theocracy. Even so, such a blanket statement on this gentleman’s side of the argument ignores the reality that the seeds of our nation’s birth were cultivated in the soil of a “God says so” proposition:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.

The Declaration of Independence claims that all men should be treated as equals. Why? Because this newly established government says so? No, because something—Someone—greater than this or any government says so. Because there is a Creator who made us all equal and granted us certain rights.

The very reason the United States exists is because of its acknowledgement that “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” supersede the attempts of overreaching tyrants. Our Founding Fathers appealed “to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of [their] intentions” and placed “a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” At its outset, the American way of life was bound to the idea that there is an Authority higher than any form of government.

For the sake of our purposes here, that Authority need not necessarily be the Christian God in whom I believe. The Founding Fathers represented a mix of religious beliefs, not the least of which was Deism. The point remains that they discerned an indissoluble link between human rights and Divine fiat.


Okay, so I’ve just made two controversial arguments. After reading them, you may have concluded that at least some of my political leanings could be categorized as “conservative.” Or you may have seen visions of me riding into the political fray on a rogue stallion, wearing an American flag, holding a double barreled shotgun in both hands, and firing rounds at anything that moves. Yes, political debates can so easily be derailed by generalizations and assumptions. To avoid that, let me quickly make a few clarifying statements.

There are several points I am not attempting to make with this blog post. First, I am not saying that anyone who disagrees with me on these matters is obviously a traitor worthy of deportation. That would be a gross and uncharitable assumption. Second, I am not saying that America was or is or should be a Christian nation. The true Kingdom of God is not of this world, and it cannot be reduced to being perfectly compliant with any man-made form of government. Also, I am not saying that we need to take back “our” nation from the radical secularists who have stolen it from us. This great nation belongs to all who live within its borders—religious or otherwise.

So what is my point in writing this blog post? Simply this: if we are going to have a productive debate about these and many other political issues, let us make every effort not to perpetuate falsehoods. Such confusion (intentional or unintentional) only serves to dirty the waters. And politics is a dirty enough topic to begin with.

photo credit: kyteacher via photopin cc