“There’s no one like me on TV.”
This thought occurred to me about a year ago. I’m not sure why it took me so long to figure it out, but it explains why I find it difficult at times to connect with the legions of shows on television and streaming services. As much as I might try to identify with those characters, I end up hitting a brick wall of one kind or another, for none of them are like me.
Certainly, there are women my age on television. Many of them have the same ethnic background. A few have similar facial features. But what about the other aspects of my life? Few shows are set in Midwestern towns like Dayton, Ohio. (I had a bit more luck when I lived in Washington, D.C.) Few of those female characters show a keen interest in history or politics, and positively none of them study theology. Now I am getting more to the point: how many of those women share anything like my religious ideals?
Thinking back to some of the shows I have watched over the years, none of them were good representatives of what you might call “evangelical America”. In fact, characters who hold to a form of Christianity—whether Protestant, Catholic, or something else—are frequently portrayed as abnormal and weird. They are also typically hypocrites.
Take The Big Bang Theory. My enthusiasm for this formulaic sitcom has waned in recent years, but I originally enjoyed how it seemed to pull some of its jokes from topics other than sex. It also portrayed a segment of society that was once a rarity on American television: scientific researchers. I’m not suggesting that much of the humor wasn’t mean spirited or that the portrayals of scientific concepts were entirely accurate. However, given that the last show by the same creator was the rather vile Two and a Half Men, this seemed like a step in the right direction.
Nevertheless, the portrayal of religion on The Big Bang Theory is no different than what I have come to expect. Howard Wolowitz is a Jew who wants to get a tattoo to impress a girl, even if it means not being buried in a Jewish cemetery. Raj Koothrappali is a Hindu who likes eating hamburgers. Bernadette Rostenkowski is a Catholic who lives to gossip. All of these people have sexual ethics that do not match up with those in scripture.
Then there is Sheldon Cooper’s mother, Mary, who is meant to be a stereotypical Texas Christian. This is mainly demonstrated in her insistence that people attend church, pray before meals, and act nice. As her son is an atheist physicist, he often mocks her beliefs in an all-powerful Creator. The most that could be said for Sheldon’s mother for several seasons was that she usually practiced what she preached. However, Sheldon ended up catching her in a sexual misdeed. When he (rightly) complained about the hypocrisy of her actions and asked why she was doing it, she said, “Because I’m not perfect, Shelly, and that man’s booty is.”
Another show which I enjoyed watching for most of its run was The Office. Several of the characters were nominally Christian in one way or another, but it had little effect on their lives. Kelly Kapoor was described as a Hindu, but seemed to lack a basic knowledge of her own religion. The only loudly religious person in the office was Angela Martin. Once again, her Christianity was mainly expressed through her judgment of others. She criticized her fellow females for dressing promiscuously (i.e. not like nuns), referred to the unborn child of an unmarried co-worker as a “bastard”, became upset when she couldn’t display a nativity scene at an office Christmas party, and generally made a point of wishing God’s wrath on various persons. However, Angela was also a hypocrite who slept around just as much as anyone else, despite judging others for that very thing.
Two staple sitcoms of my early years, Friends and Frasier, featured main characters with no apparent religious beliefs besides an occasional nod to Christmas or Hanukah. At least they didn’t have recurring characters who were religious hypocrites, but Friends was particularly unhelpful in the way it normalized and justified the viewing of pornography by men—even those who were married.
My point here is not to be as judgmental as those Christian stereotypes. I am not at all surprised that those who do not hold my religious beliefs would do nothing to promote them in their shows. Part of me is upset to see Christians portrayed in such a manner, but the fact is that most of the time, Christians aren’t portrayed at all. This is relatively odd in a nation that still has a high percentage of church attenders in comparison to other portions of the industrialized world. We hear all the time about the impact of evangelical Christians in politics, but they are nowhere to be found in shows that are meant to portray average American life. Even when evangelical characters do appear, they have little depth and often serve as foils to the heroes and heroines.
About three years ago, I started watching a program called Jane the Virgin. It is a takeoff on Spanish language telenovelas, but it is somewhat unique in that the plot centers around a young woman who makes a vow not to have sex until marriage, only to then be accidentally inseminated due to a mix-up at the gynecologist’s office. The first season was entertaining and featured some good script writing, but any hopes I had that this show would portray abstinence as anything other than a joke were soon brought to an end. Yes, Jane is a Catholic, but her promise to remain chaste was made to her grandmother more than God. Her abuela had given her a guilt inducing speech in which she proclaimed that a woman who has premarital sex is like a ruined flower. Thus, Jane does nearly everything short of intercourse, but refuses to cross the final line.
Meanwhile, the other characters in the show behave exactly as you would expect from people in a soap opera. The Catholicism of Jane’s family is more about prayers and décor than anything else. The scriptural basis for abstinence is never explained. I appreciated how Jane strove to become a writer, but the sex she wasn’t having in real life simply showed up in her graphic fantasy tales. Her fiancée who seemed like such a great guy for supporting her abstinence pledge asked her to get an abortion after the accidental insemination. When Jane broke up with him, he immediately slept with someone else.
The reason I was more disappointed by this show was that it presented a lead character who shared at least a few things with me: she had a moral code, enjoyed writing, and valued her family and friends. Unfortunately, that moral code ended up being almost as flexible as those of the other characters, and as you might have expected, the Catholic grandma turned out to have a racy past.
Again, I am not surprised that a telenovela would portray such things. It just makes me realize that I belong to an invisible part of society. Even if they did someday portray an honest Christian on television, it would probably not be a childless woman with two college degrees. There I can’t fault our mass media, because I am a fairly rare species within my own sub-culture. In a way, it’s nice to know that you are atypical (i.e. special?), but in another sense it’s rather lonely.
There are Christian films out there, or at least films targeted at Christian audiences, but they seem as far removed from my daily life as anything put out by Hollywood. I suppose I must face the fact that I am odd by anyone’s standard. Some of the characters I particularly connect with appear in historical dramas. They may not share all my interests, but at least they have some sense of basic morality without maintaining a moralistic façade.
Perhaps it is good that TV characters have little in common with myself. After all, we watch these things to escape from real life. They aren’t meant to be completely accurate portrayals. Nevertheless, I can’t believe that I’m the only one feeling this way when I turn on the television. Surely there is an untapped market out there, as the success of certain religious-themed projects has shown. It’s not up to me to tap that market. (That’s why things like Lifeway exist.) For now, I’ll just stick to watching sporting events and the occasional film. If I wanted a story I could connect with, then I should have written one myself.
Oh wait. I did.