Thursday, December 26, 2013

Watching Reality Television like a Christian


I am out of touch with the American public. I know this because I did not know there was a reality television show named “Duck Dynasty” until the Robertson family patriarch was interviewed by GQ, and made all kinds of people upset.

I read the Washington Post blog by Dylan Matthews about the questions we have about A&E’s Duck Dynasty that we are too embarrassed to ask (read here). I learned that Mad Men is a flop in comparison to this show I hadn’t even heard of until the GQ incident (involving the following sentiments: black people were happy before civil rights, any religion not involving Jesus is prone to violence, vaginas are better than anuses, and I’m sure some other gems). Here's the link to the original interview, although I haven't read it (suffering is optional, I say).

(To be clear, I don’t think the brouhaha is real news. Also, is anyone really surprised that Phil Robertson holds these views? This isn’t the first time Phil Robertson said something homophobic. A&E knew what they were getting into.)

The buzz this whole thing generated, when compared to, say, the ongoing real persecution of Christians in certain countries, or the number of people the U.S. military drones have killed, I just wonder about how shallow we really are. But since we’re spending time talking about reality television, I have a few observations.

My first observation: I’m definitively an “out-of-touch coastal elite.” I was born in San Francisco, grew up in eastern (rural) Oregon and western Washington, then lived for a year in New York (the city), before going to seminary in Chicago (which involved a year in San Francisco). One of my reasons for even considering a seminary in Chicago was my awareness that I thought of the middle of the country as flyover land, and I thought I should get away from the coasts for once in my life. Now that I’ve left, I can’t seem to get back.

(There are a few other possible reasons for my ignorance…  I’m Asian American, and while I do not speak for Asian Americans, the other Asian American women I know do not watch this show. Oh, and given that I try to avoid shows that are exploitative or rely on stereotyping based on gender/region/class/race, I limit my reality television watching to the Food Network. I am out of touch in soooo many ways.)

My second observation is about what seemed to upset people. Most of the people on my social media newsfeed were upset about the racism (you know, that black people were totally cool with the Jim Crow era, and now that they have all their rights, they are unhappy freeloaders.), or about the homophobia (What is wrong with gay men that they prefer anuses to vaginas? Because sex and love are only about genitalia, apparently.), or about the anti-Shinto/anti-Muslim sentiments (Because religions lacking the Jesus connection are more prone to violence. No one told Mr. Robertson Muslims believe Jesus was born of a virgin and was a great prophet.). I wasn’t happy with his statements, but I think they were pretty standard coming from that particularly context. Plenty of churches and politicians hold these same views.

What upset some people was his suspension from the show. Many of the religious right have defended Robertson’s rights to his beliefs. They might have forgotten that cable television has almost nothing to do with the right to free speech (protection from government infringement for citizens), and everything to do with profit (gay people, people of color, and people who are religiously Muslim or Shinto have been discovered to have lots of capital). Robertson apologists are either ignoring the racist stuff he said, or they have melded their religious conservatism with contemporary political racism, and agree, at least implicitly, that black people were just fine before civil rights.

As a person in ministry to the wider church, I know I need to be “up” on what is of concern to the people. But I have to admit I might be drawing the line at reality television. I do not worry about my television ignorance. I grew up without television, thanks to my parents’ philosophy of childrearing (insert jab at coastal elites here).

Reality television is not really real. It is produced, scripted, manipulated to maximize viewership. Do you remember the original reality television? MTV’s Real World, the early seasons. I hear from friends that it was boring (cf. my lack of access to television as a young person). But it was honest. It was reality. Reality is not terribly outrageous. But the television version can take a family of college-educated country-club-wealthy white Southerners with a successful business and turn it into a spectacle that has the platform to exploit stereotypes about white southern people, and makes lots of money for both the network and the family.

Why do so many people love it?

Reality television is a means of escape. It’s nice, isn’t it, to get worked up about who is going to date a single rich man, or the packaging on a duck-hunting product. It’s a lot more fun than thinking about children who go hungry whenever school and school meal programs are on break, or about the devastating impact we have on our planet. Many of us work on or think about or experience real problems every day, and sometimes we want a brain break. We want fluff.

But every once in awhile, someone made famous by money, business, and reality television gets a lot of press for doing or saying something controversial or just stupid. And then we wrap ourselves into knots over a television show.

What is the responsibility of the church in speaking to this? What can the church say about what matters to us as Christians? And when is it ok to watch fluff?

I love some fluff, you know. But I also know that media has a huge impact on my perception of reality, and my viewership is quantifiable. Maybe being a Christian means I do not necessarily have a right to watch whatever I want.

Want to have a conversation about reality television in your community? Here’s a Thoughtful Christian downloadable study for adults. It’s older, but still a helpful guide for conversation.

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