Just the other day, I was remarking about my difficulties with my current expletive vocabulary. As a Norse pagan, I figured I should be saying things like “Odin’s beard” and “For the love of Frigga’s distaff” or something. Instead, I keep saying things like, “Ack, Jesus” and “for Christ’s sake” and, less religiously, “Jeebus.” Yes, there are a bunch of four-letter words in there too just in case you were concerned. I should probably mention at this point that I wasn’t raised Christian. Not really. We weren’t regular church goers and my parents aren’t terribly keen on organized religion. So, why do I resort to Christian terms when I’m getting riled up about things?
It’s culture, stupid.
As we grow up, our language and ideas are shaped by everything we encounter. In this more advanced technological age, a lot of what we think or say is influenced by the media we consume. Therefore it comes as no surprise that I grew up hearing Christian-flavored expletives my whole life. That’s what the people on TV and in movies say, after all. Furthermore, that’s what I heard coming from my friends.
Western media is chock full of Christian influences. For as much as they might believe that they are becoming a persecuted minority, that is hardly the case. For centuries, there has been a methodical effort to wipe out any culture that contradicts the Christian machine. Countless lives and stories have been lost in a relentless quest to convince everyone to believe in their benevolent God and His son, Jesus Christ. I’m not warping that narrative. There have even been conflicts between Christian sects that have resulted in a great deal of bloodshed as well. That determination to bring the truth and good word to the masses is one of the reasons why they have become such a dominant force over the past two thousand years.
I have quite a few friends who are devout Christians of varying flavors. I’m not trying to make a judgment call with regards to their belief system as it’s not my place. I think it’s just important to look back at how we’ve gotten to where we are now. It’s important to look at things in the proper context. Christianity didn’t become the dominant religion solely due to an overnight alteration in the convictions and beliefs of the masses, though sincere conversion did play a part. It became the dominant religion through a variety of factors.
The downside with dominance in a culture is that the moment it appears as though things may be shifting away from that to a more egalitarian treatment for all, there’s a knee-jerk reaction that results in the assumption that this somehow means something is being taken away. In the United States, people are still free to worship as they choose. They are still free to believe as they choose. At least those freedoms still exist on paper even if the interpretation of those guaranteed freedoms are heavily weighted to one side. That, however, is another post for a different sort of blog. For now, we’re going to shift gears to talk about what this means for pop culture.
What’s the big idea?
On principle, I was doing my utmost to avoid dealing with Ridley Scott‘s upcoming Biblical epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings. Unfortunately, going to movies frequently results in exposure to movie trailers one might otherwise avoid on the internet. So, there I am, stuck watching this trailer. Sure, the effects look grand and epic. It might even be a well-crafted film for all I know. That said, I have no desire to see it for a number of reasons.
Here, let’s look at my biggest issues with it: 1) White people: Specifically, the cast is filled with white actors playing people who aren’t white. Before you start lobbing the Ptolemys at me, look at the timeline. The royalty of Egypt during the assumed time period of this story would not be white. Moses, likewise, would not be white. They would be varying shades of brown. People in that area are varying shades of brown. It’s just the way things are. 2) Yet another Biblical epic. I want to launch into some kind of sarcastic commentary about how hard it must be for Christians to find movies made for and/or about them. I’m not. I’m just going to point out that there are a lot of them while people of different faiths and belief systems find themselves frequently cast as caricatures and villains.
Not only are there a lot of movies based off of stories found in the Bible or about Christians, there is a ton of Christian imagery found in many of our movies and TV shows. When I was in college, I took a class on medieval literature and the professor showed us the train clip from Spider-Man 2 to demonstrate how prevalent the crucifixion imagery is in our pop culture. The Wachowskis even hit us over the head at the end of The Matrix Revolutions with the idea that Neo (Keanu Reeves) is some kind of Jesus. While those are older examples, I think they do a good job of illustrating my point.
It’s always exciting to find pieces of pop culture that treat non-Christian beliefs with the fairness that they deserve. The two examples that leap immediately to mind are the History Channel’s “Vikings” and Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon and How to Train Your Dragon 2. For as much as “Vikings” deals with the friction between the Norse and Christian belief systems, one is not shown as being better than the other. That’s kind of remarkable. How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel mostly deal with the dragons, but they have non-Christian expletives and the sequel had a beautiful moment that really called attention to their beliefs. I don’t want to be spoilery, but I owe Dreamworks a wonderfully-worded fan letter for what they did in that scene.
I know I’ve been focusing a lot on Christianity as being the faith portrayed most frequently on screen, I should point out that Judaism has also gotten some great screen time in the past. That said, more can be done to show a variety of cultures on screen. I can’t keep stressing that enough. Also, having your antagonist being some kind of Muslim extremist is overdone and perpetuating a harmful stereotype and does not count toward any sort of level of diversity. While I’m at it, not all pagans are the same and what the media thinks of Wiccans is kind of horrifying. It would be nice if people at least tried to do some research beforehand.
But wait, there’s more!
Recently, I’ve been tempted to write a whole diatribe about how Hades gets short shrift in popular fiction. In Disney’s Hercules, the Percy Jackson franchise, and various other forms of media, he’s portrayed as a bitter, angry god who isn’t content with his lot as ruler of the underworld. While he and his brothers drew lots for who got dominion over what, Hades was actually pretty all right with being King of the Underworld. Unlike his elder brother, Zeus, Hades is actually a nice guy. Sure, he’ll punish those who deserve it, but he’s not entirely unreasonable when it comes to the softer emotions. I’m going to skirt past the Persephone thing for now because that’s a big can of worms.
Anyway! I wonder if a lot of how we perceive some of these older mythological figures is due in part to how many scholars have looked at their stories through their own cultural filter and gave them aspects that weren’t there before. Hades’ PR must have suffered from some people relating him to the Christian devil and therefore becoming a more sinister figure. It’s hard not to compare characters to others you’ve encountered. I mean, I’ve looked at stories and declared, “Oh! It’s like this guy is this story’s Snape. I get it.” It’s one of the ways we can make our reading experience our own and relate to the characters. That said, it’s important to keep the author’s intent and the context in which these stories were written in mind.
I’ve been at this blog post for a while. I think the takeaway from this should be that everything we watch and read is a product of the culture of its creator. That’s an important thing to understand as we move forward and our culture continues to change and evolve. What we’re reading today will seem charmingly out-dated at some point in the future. I’m hoping that someday, all cultures will be able to thrive and be represented in mass consumed media. Perhaps that’s a naive dream, but there it is.
For my part, I’m going to work harder in diversifying my expletive vocabulary so that it more accurately reflects my belief system. Or I could just stick to four-letter words and cursing like Winnie the Pooh. That makes for a fun juxtaposition.