On Storytelling with Integrity

So one of my guilty pleasures in life is the fact that I watch a certain show on Fox that involves an incredibly diverse group of Ohio high schoolers who happen to break out into song a lot. (Fact: having lived in Ohio for most of my life, I have yet to encounter a school quite like that one…) Even if you have only a passing familiarity with pop culture, you’ve probably heard about this show.

There are a lot of things I love about Glee. I love (most of) the songs. I love Sue Sylvester’s biting wit. I love the fact that it’s a mainstream show that depicts a variety of characters so all the viewers have someone to identify with. (I have a lot of opinions about the importance of having characters to identify with. I love diversifying our media and I think it’s a wonderful thing.)

But there are also some things I am less than pleased with about the show, namely the poor–and I would go so far as to say offensive–portrayal of Christians on the show. Now a lot of people will point out that Glee represents Christians the same way it represents every other group. There are members of the glee club who are Christian, just like there are members who are gay, or bi-sexual, or Jewish, or handicapped. But those Christian characters aren’t defined by their religious belief the same way that, say, Kurt is defined by his sexual orientation. They believe in God and they have their little Christian club that gets mentioned about once a semester, but that’s about it. Kurt gets episodes about his character arc while he accepts who he is. These Christian characters don’t really get the same attention while they struggle with their beliefs.

Which is fine, really. I know plenty of good Christian people who believe in God and Jesus and that’s about the extent of their religious devotion. There’s not really a grand struggle there, and that’s okay.  I’m totally cool with that. What bothers me is the fact that the characters on Glee who are very devoted to Christianity, whose religious beliefs dictate their role on the show, usually turn out to be douche bags. They fit (an admittedly honest) stereotype of Christians who are judgmental and hateful. And this was particularly noticeable in the most recent episode.

In this particular episode, the new head cheerleader and resident bee-otch, Kitty, held a meeting about the rapture and berated her fellow students that they all needed to shape up or burn in hell, because once the rest of them were raptured up, they’d be all alone. It escalated to the point that when one girl at this meeting professed doubt, Kitty made an excuse to get the girl out of the room and, while the girl was gone, got all the other people at the meeting to stage a pretend rapture. They all laid down clothes where they had been sitting and quickly left the room. When the girl came back, she had a panic attack.

Again, I will admit that there are self-professed Christians who do things like this. But there are just as many Christians–including, I would think, the open-minded Christian members of the glee club–who would be horrified by that kind of behavior. And even though those self-same members were at that meeting, not a single one of them spoke out against that pretend rapture or told Kitty she crossed a line by inducing panic attacks. Because personally, as a Christian myself, I was appalled by this girl’s behavior and had I been there, I would have called her out about it.

And I was confused that none of the other Christian characters–characters I’m supposed to identify with by virtue of our shared religious beliefs–didn’t say a word. Not one of them said, “Hey, this isn’t what Jesus would want.”

In the end, it all comes down to telling stories with integrity, which is something the writers and producers of Glee have been neglecting for a few seasons now. If they want to portray the negative aspects of Christianity, they have every right to. But I think they also have the responsibility to show the other side of Christianity–the side which is predominantly made up of people who are just trying to live life the best they can, who try to make the world a better place because that’s the example they were shown by Jesus Christ, who try to love their neighbors, and who try to live their religion in a world that is increasingly intolerant of their conservative beliefs.

Glee has marketed itself as a show that promotes tolerance and understanding between conflicting social groups. That’s one of the founding premises of the show–a group of social misfits who get together to create beautiful music while they try to navigate the shark-infested waters of high school life. But I think the show’s poor portrayal of Christianity–which, in itself, is a very diverse demographic–shows a lack of tolerance and understanding. It lacks the integrity to show the differing view points of social groups. Not all Christians are the same, just like all gay people aren’t the same.

Storytelling with integrity is about trying to portray different groups of people–many of whom have opinions different from yours–in the most accurate light possible, and that means accepting that no matter what box you try to force people into (based on their sexual identity or their religion or their political stance or their race) that people are still people. In every group and every demographic, there are people who are out to be mean and nasty and spiteful and who’s entire motivation in life is to tear other people down (ie Kitty). But in those same groups and demographics are good people who are genuinely trying to live good lives and be good people. And I think we have every right to expect our storytellers and our artists to depict all sides of humanity, regardless of the box we try to force them into.

2 thoughts on “On Storytelling with Integrity

  1. Kent says:

    I hate to be the one to point this out (that a lie, I love it), but of the characters who have religious that we know about, the Christians that you’re describing are in the minority. Kurt is the only self-identified atheist, all the other characters are religious in one way or another as far as we know. Yes, Quinn started out as a pretty bitchy character, but that was more to mark her as a rival to Rachel than it was to mock Christians. Yes, New Quinn is a terrible character, but it’s really not for her terrible portrayal of Christianity. New Quinn is terrible because she is nothing other than Quinn without the spotty characterization in a new body. They may as well have kept Dianna Agron around, completely ignored her character development yet again, and not hired a new actress. Would have kept the Faberry shippers happy at least.

    Quinn, however, did mature. She grew out of her hypocritical ways. She never once called Kurt a sinner. She never pushed her religion on people like Rachel or Puck, and considering her relationship with Puck, that’s actually kind of surprising given her initial characterization. Mercedes was also a Christian, and the only time it was ever even brought up was when Kurt’s dad had his heart attack. She was Kurt’s best friend and never made a big deal about his sexuality.

    Christian stories aren’t told in the show because Christians in our society aren’t underdogs. The show is, or at least it once was, a show about underdogs overcoming the odds. And frankly, TV is a business. Long religious arcs don’t sell well to a demographic of young people who are, by and large, moving away from organized religion.

  2. gaddmegan says:

    Great post, Sarah! I don’t watch Glee but it always bothers me when any group isn’t characterized as the the big, complex, mash-up of human beings that it is. I love it when John Green says that we need to imagine each other complexly. True words.

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