Minorities In Television Part 2: Religion

Is it a good idea to include religious content in our regular TV viewing?

I went into this article thinking about wanting more diversity on TV when it comes to religion (particularly because awareness of peoples’ actual beliefs and honest portrayals would do a lot toward understanding each other and breaking down stereotypes), but after doing some research, I’m not so sure my first thoughts were sound.

What does religion add to our favorite TV shows? What could it potentially add? I think it would be a good idea to showcase a range of beliefs so that people are aware that there are peaceful Muslims, kind Christians, and people who struggle with belief, but I understand why people shy away from it. It’s a divisive topic. Many of us aren’t sure what we believe. Some of us shrink away from religion because of bad experiences in our past. Some of us are devout and would be offended or hurt by how our views are portrayed.

This is why there aren’t many strictly religious storylines or characters on TV shows. It’s difficult to accurately portray religion when we don’t want to offend the audience or lower the ratings. From a practical viewpoint it doesn’t seem like a good idea. What has happened, however, is that, in order to avoid a plummet in viewership, TV has allowed generic stereotypes to be the main representation of religion which I think pushes the audience even further apart and entrenches the stereotypes.

Sometimes, religion is portrayed as cultural with little to no impact on a character’s life. Examples include Rachel Berry from Glee, Willow Rosenberg from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Annie Edison from Community, and Kelly Kapoor from The Office; Shirley Bennett from Community, Angela Kinsey from The Office and Kenneth Parcell from 30 Rock round out the examples. The last three are kooky stereotypes (the sweet church lady, the uptight Christian, and the cultish backwoods believer), with their personalities aiding the religious undertones more than anything.

Atheists get the same treatment – odd comments here and there, often without any discussion, like we see with Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, Oscar Martinez from The Office, and Britta Perry from Glee. What could bloom into interesting speculations and conversations between atheists, agnostics, culturally religious individuals, and the devout instead gets pushed away in favor of less inflammatory topics.

However, two of the most human moments I’ve seen on the topic of religion revolve around characters who are atheists. Glee’s Kurt Hummel struggles with his beliefs in “Grilled Cheesus” when he doesn’t have religion or spirituality as a comfort during grief. My personal favorite moment, though, is when Toby Flenderson in The Office gets invited to the christening of Jim and Pam’s child (in “Christening). He arrives at the church but he can’t go inside. He works himself up and goes in to stand at the altar and ask, “Why do you have to be so mean to me?” It’s a beautiful, tragic, human moment and I think we need more of those. Not pert answers, not necessarily an indication of what beliefs the writers hold, but a moment of pure emotion when we confront our thoughts and feelings on religion.

I guess there’s some diversity in TV shows if you allow stereotypes or generic templates of religion. Community has a Jew, a Christian, and an atheist in the main character group; The Office has “nominal” Christians, an atheist, and a Hindu; and Bones has a Muslim, a Roman Catholic, and an atheist. There’s even a little diversity between how much peoples’ faith impacts them like in The West Wing. There are two Jewish characters who have different takes on their cultural heritage and religion (Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler) and of course, Josiah Bartlett is perhaps one of the most real portrayals of a human interacting with his religion (in particular the episodes “Shibboleth” and “Two Cathedrals”). There still isn’t enough representation of smaller religious groups, however. What about various Christian groups like Unitarian Universalists or Methodists, or how about Buddhism or Wicca, or traditional Native American and African pantheism?

As I continued thinking about this lack of diversity in religion, I started wondering if perhaps instead of writing about specific religions and the impact they have on characters, there was a better way, and that got me thinking about two of my favorite shows and how they handle religion. I realized that they have shaped my thoughts on religion far more than the shows who have a religious character that I would identify as close to my beliefs. But these shows talk about religion through the veil of science fiction and fantasy which makes them more accessible to a wider audience and creates a safe place for discussions about religion.

I love what Supernatural has done with religion. Instead of choosing sides, Supernatural has humanized religion. There aren’t any truly “good” characters whether angels, demons, or human; rather, they’re all mixed bags of alliances, mistakes, regrets, and occasional bouts of heroism. I love it because it’s a real depiction of life. None of us are perfect, and few of us are truly evil. It allows me to sift through my own experiences and know that I don’t have to be perfect to be loved and that my decisions are my responsibility. It also lets me process through what I believe without judgment or feeling like I can’t have periods of doubt. Everyone goes through this, and I’m not alone.

Supernatural has also written in some surprising twists to the Bible stories some of us grew up with. Think you know what really happened to Cain and Abel? Think again. The whole relationship between Lucifer and his brothers is heartbreaking. They have daddy issues too. The continued search for God is an intriguing component as well, and I’m hoping we get a (hopefully satisfying) conclusion to that storyline.

The show that for me is the benchmark of what a show with religion as an aspect of the entire story could be is Battlestar Galactica (the 2004 series). I loved the depiction of humans and cylons divided over the issue of religion. There are the cylons, who believe in one God (which could be a parallel to monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam), and the humans, most of whom operate in a polytheistic religious system (such as Taoism or Shintoism).

Although humans built the cylons, they have come into their own and are now more powerful than humans. What happens when one religious faction attempts to persuade or indoctrinate another faction in an increasingly violent and hostile way? And which one is right? Are either of them? It’s a fascinating look at how religion plays into our actions, with those who hold to our beliefs, and those who disagree. The humans and cylons war with each other, never quite able to understand the other.

Instead of having a clear “right” belief, Battlestar Galactica instead presents opposing religious beliefs and steps back to let the audience digest. I love this because it allows a safe discussion of religion without pointing fingers or hurt feelings. The reality of religion in our lives takes a backseat to the fantasy version and removes much of the hostility people feel when the topic of religion pops up.

By watching Supernatural and Battlestar Galactica, I acknowledge that I don’t know a lot about religion and spirituality and that the answers aren’t easy to find (if there are answers for all of my questions). I have more respect for others and their beliefs since I know that we are all attempting to answer our own questions and some of us find different answers through our experiences and cultural background. I appreciate the ability to talk to people about these topics via our favorite shows because it allows me to learn from others, expand my knowledge, and perhaps find a way to reach my own answers.

So maybe what we need in terms of diversity of religion on television isn’t a “correct” portrayal of a certain belief system or a politically correct view of cultural beliefs in context but a way to access the topic of religion, that isn’t divisive, through the use of a fantasy universe or science fiction setting that manages to portray religion in a neutral way thus allowing the audience to take from it what they will. More of that  in television would be welcomed.

K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone is a story nerd, particularly for the episodic stories told via the medium of television. When not parked in front of the TV, K.M. Cone can be found writing kooky urban fantasy on her personal site, attempting to learn German, or making a huge pot of soup for her friends, who are probably coming over to join her in her latest TV or animated film obsession.
K.M. Cone

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  • This is an awesome topic. However, through reading this article, it made me wonder: why can’t we have both? Why can’t we have shows like Battlestar Galactica that allow us to process the general topic of religion, while also having realistic characters depicting specific religions? Can’t the type of good writing that allows for the general topic also be used to promote specifics? Of course I’m using my bias against stereotypes to fight for the specifics, but I badly want that to be another viable option.

  • thisgirltv

    Nate, I think that trying to have realistic characters depicting specific religions would be hard. For example, I was watching American Horror Story: Coven with a friend of mine. I don’t know at all who Papa Legba is, so I am not questioning their portrayal of him. But for her, as a voodoo god in his own right, the way that they portrayed him was disrespectful at best. Her knowledge of him was just as extensive as someone from a Judeo-Christian background”s knowledge of Jesus. There just aren’t enough people who would write about the disrespect of this god, but if we can’t say, “This is what a person who believes in Jesus as Lord and Saviour believes,” then I think it would be very hard, indeed, to write specific religious characters. Also, besides Catholicism, what religious organization is actively trying to get its members to be part of the media and the arts? Most things we get will be, at best, from a removed source.

    • I would agree that it’s difficult to get that kind of character right, but (taking Devil’s advocate…pun?), I would also argue that some of the problem would stem from a lack of research. When someone writes a film like Gravity, they invariably get a professional to guide them on what the specifics of tethering and free-floating in space are like. Similarly, when someone’s attempting to provide a serious look at a Christian character (I can’t blame shows like “The Office” for showing a comedic version of a stuck-up Christian, since that’s just a comical stereotype; although one could argue that an influx of comedic stereotypes begins to infect general stereotypes, but that’s another discussion altogether), it’d be nice for research to be done on what Christianity is and what a believing and practicing Christian is like. I think that “believing and practicing” part is crucial, because not everyone who claims Christianity is, in fact, a Christian. In other words, I agree that a removed source ends up being what occurs in the process, but I think it’s possible to bring intelligent sources closer to the production.

      • thisgirltv

        Definitely there is a lack of research but for the Christianity uninitiated, what is a good source? And while those who have been soaked in Christianity know that not everyone that calls themselves Christians are believing/ practicing Christians, no self respecting Christian would ever admit they are not believing/practicing Christians. Also, Christianity does a good job of whitewashing their faults – they admit them, but it is hard to hear the depths of that struggle. For whatever reason. I used to do it, others do it. Just because you think you know a good source doesn’t mean that I would agree. The crux of the issue is that Christianity is too fractured for there to be a good consensus. For every 10 people who believe alike, there are 100 sets of 10 that have differing, though similar, beliefs. And yes, it is possible to bring intelligent sources closer to a production – and I’m sure there are some that do that – It could almost be a toss up as to what they will get. Also, honestly, I don’t believe many preachers would be willing to be the guiding voice for a television show’s “Christian” for the sake of not being the scapegoat for the general public or being at the writer’s mercy with how he translates what is said to the show. Space is a much easier vehicle to research than the belief system of Christianity.

  • K.M. Cone

    Nate, I think optimally we’d have both. I’m a both/and kind of person. But I don’t see it happening as of right now because of the lack of devout people of any religion writing specifically about their own beliefs on television. Either there aren’t that many devout writers (which I don’t think is true) or they can’t write about their religions because of viewership and other (financial?) issues.

    I think the separation of shows on “Christian” networks or “Muslim” networks or whatever religion has its own network would be an option, but it would divide instead of unite, which would be a step backwards (in my view). I also think having a set religious storyline can hamper a wider story – there are certain things that can’t be done when something like that is set in place (just as with other set storylines, like ethnicity, orientation, familial units, etc). I think eventually we could learn to balance out the religious beliefs with real human struggle and step away from stereotypes, but it would take a long time to work out the kinks. (Not saying it can’t be done, but that the effort doesn’t seem to be worth it for whoever is choosing what’s getting put on television)

    I think specifics are usually better, but in this case, on such a divisive topic, the best way right now is to learn to think and talk together before we get into what everyone believes specifically. Maybe when we all learn to listen to each other (and not merely tolerate) more of us will be open to sharing our beliefs in story form.

    • Unfortunately, I think you’re right. I tend to argue from a principle-type perspective most of the time, and that’s what I was advocating above (and in my response below as well). And while I may wish that, in principle, a both/and setup could be implemented immediately, I see what you mean about the current culture/media culture not ready for it at the moment.

      However, as I mentioned below, I think at least some of the problem could be resolved with solid background research, which is done for other unknown aspects of production anyways. I’m sure some is done, but, from my perspective and experience, it’s not quite across-the-board yet.

  • K.M. Cone

    I think the background research could be implemented – if showing accurate religious beliefs playing out in a character’s life was a priority, which at this point, it isn’t. In my ideal TV world, we’d be able to see devout, nominal, and seeking people accurately portrayed in a way that would encourage discussion, learning, and reaching out to those around us who don’t share our beliefs. But that’s a lot to ask of television and I don’t know that we’ll ever reach that point. However – I will say that I hope there are more people interested in religion who will start writing for television. It would be a work-in-progress, but it would be a start. Maybe the sci-fi/fantasy angle is a step in that direction?