Monday, November 3, 2008

Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and the Modern Jew

By Daniel Garrihy

Judaism stands as one of the world’s most venerable religious traditions and is a forerunner of both Christianity and Islam. Despite its rich and ancient history and culture, modern perception of the Jewish faith has been muddled by mass media representations particularly in the comedic work of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. As Marsha Woodbury notes in her essay “Jewish Images that Injure”, Jewish identity can be difficult to define: “Jews share some distinctive characteristics such as culture, religion and language. Jewishness comes from birth or from religious conversion, and among the Jewish community there is no definite agreement on who is and who is not Jewish” (Woodbury 123). If the concept of Jewish identity is a mystery even to the Jewish community, it is easy to see how pop culture’s depiction of Judaism becomes an easily accessible definition of Judaism for the masses.

When Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David teamed up in the late 1980’s to create “a show about nothing” they could not have been aware of the cultural phenomenon that they were beginning. The hit sitcom Seinfeld ran for nine seasons and became one of America’s most beloved television programs. Seinfeld and David, the creative geniuses behind the show often worked with “Jewish humour” as two of the show’s main characters, Jerry Seinfeld and George Kostanza (based on Larry David) are Jewish. On the one hand, this program exposed millions of Americans to Judaism in a way that they had never seen it before.

Regarding Jews in politics, specifically Joe Lieberman’s vice-presidential nomination on Al Gore’s ticket in 2000, Jonathan Alter notes that Americans no longer fear and misunderstand Jews: “The main change is cultural--the Seinfeldizing of America. You can get a bagel almost anywhere in the country nowadays (a good bagel is another question), including at that quintessentially American institution, McDonald's. Jewish entertainers are everywhere, and they don't hide their heritage as the old stars and their studio bosses did. Judaism is even hip with non-Jews: Madonna studies the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and the "kosher sex" rabbi counts Michael Jackson among his followers. (On second thought, maybe that's not such a recommendation.)” (Weiss 2). Critics of the show’s representation of Judaism are quick to note, however the overwhelmingly secular undertones that surround the show’s Jewish flavour. Indeed, Seinfeld, while of Jewish heritage, is not by any means, a practicing Jew.

Philip Weiss laments the secularization of the Jewish people and notes that an alarmingly low 30 percent of Jews consider religion and important part of their lives, a significantly lower number than other religious groups (Weiss). Further, Weiss notes that while people retain their Jewish identity for ethnic and community purposes, few pay any heed to the laws or ethics at the centre of the faith. “Of course, Jews consider themselves Jewish for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with mitzvot. Because they are scholarly and intelligent. Because they look Jewish and the world regards them as Jewish. Because of their interior decoration budget. Because they love Seinfeld and use Yiddish words. "I'm a bagel-and-cream-cheese Jew," one former member of the board of the Anti-Defamation League told me” (Weiss).

In Larry David’s own sitcom project, Curb Your Enthusiasm, David takes on his Judaism in more head-on terms. The program, a success in its own right, frequently portrays David in awkward situations that frequently revolve around his Jewish faith. From awkward seder meals to scalping tickets to a high holy day service, David does not hesitate to send up his Jewish heritage. David seems to view his Judaism more as a source of comedic material than as a path to enlightenment, however: “But there's no doubt so much of "Curb's" curbside appeal stems from the jaunty Jewish quips that point to his own embrace of religion. Maybe "embrace" is a bit too warm and huggy for such an un-haimisch heartthrob -- "I'm not one of these guys that goes, 'Hey, I'm a Jew. I'm a Jew. I'm a Jew,' " he says (Elkin 3).

David and Seinfeld’s decision to embrace their Jewish heritage for comedic purposes put Judaism on the map in American pop culture in a way that it had not been seen before. Ariel Levy believes that Seinfeld’s decision to portray Jewishness as commonplace rather than emphasizing the otherness of the Jew (a la Woody Allen) helped to create a portrayal of Jew as everyman. “So in a way, Seinfeld is less Jewish than his comic forefathers. Of course, this rests on the fragile assumption that Jews are outsiders. But then, the existence of the New York Jew as a central figure in the history of comedy rests on an equally unprovable (if right-feeling) assumption: that Jews are funny” (Levy).

The Jewish stereotypes that pervade the media today are largely the creation of the Jewish people themselves. “And in nearly all of these cases, it is Jews who promote this image. Up until the middle of the 20th century, Jews often felt pressure to "Anglicize" their names and act "American"—assimilation was the name of the game. But today the situation has completely reversed itself and Jews are increasingly proud of their ethnic origin” (Tobias). While to an extent, this willingness to embrace and poke fun at their ethnic identity empowers the Jewish people, there is a fine balance between poking fun at a stereotype and creating a false archetypal representation of an entire people.

Larry David can be seen as a definite culprit of misrepresentation as not only was the character of George in Seinfeld based directly off of David, but also, David plays a very similar autobiographical character in his show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Marsha Woodbury believes that George stands as the mass media representation of a Jewish man: “short, bald, aggressive, obsessive, and constantly trying to overcompensate for his profound insecurity. George is a stereotype- always hot for women who are not Jewish, always trying to impress” (Woodbury 125).

A Jewish blogger also vehemently rails against David’s representation of Judaism in Curb which started out as innocent enough comedy, but the author believes has become insidious and self-loathing. “David exemplifies the worst qualities in the Jewish stereotype and displays them unabashedly, as if they were badges of honor. But what made David¹s show so brilliant was that for the most part, it was funny. That is, until now...” (Bring Back Sincerity online blog).

The representation of Jews in American media is significant not only because of America’s cultural dominance in the modern world, but also because the United States boasts the world’s largest Jewish population with 43 percent of the world’s Jews living in America (Williams 1). Judith Williams suggests that Jerry Seinfeld’s loose affiliation with Judaism in the television series can be seen as many modern Jews’ struggles with their identity. Judaism has long since shifted from a religious identity to an ethnic or ideological identity in American culture and as America continues to change, the question of what it is to be Jewish becomes more and more puzzling for the individual Jew.

While religious observance does not hold the weight that it once did in Jewish society and intermarriage, once an unthinkable concept has become much more the norm, Jews still hold fast to their Jewish identity : “ …virtually all our respondents regard their Jewish identity as inalienable. They are Jews because they are Jews, and no one can become more of a Jew by doing or believing more, or less of a Jew by doing or believing less… In their view, intermarriage does not affect one’s Jewish identity” (Williams).

The dilemma of Jewish representation with regards to Seinfeld is a multi-faceted debate. While some agree with Williams’ and levy’s assertions that Seinfeld was a positive phenomenon for the Jewish people, an opportunity for the world to see Jews as everyday people and not as outsiders and members of a strange and oft-misunderstood faith, there is a counterpoint to this argument. Many believe that Seinfeld and David’s willingness to explore the comedic side of their Jewish heritage slips into the realm of self-loathing.

Some contend that Seinfeld could have used its incredible popularity to portray Judaism in a positive light: “Pearl contends that "Seinfeld" reinforces "unfortunate" stereotypes regarding Jewish clergy, ritual and women, rather than using its prominence to offer honest and positive depictions of Jews and Judaism” (Segall and Ephros). Clearly a program with such incredible mass-appeal and such a rabid fan following is prone to generating fierce debate as it becomes ingrained into everyday life and culture.

Most feel that the writers of the show were not too harsh with Judaism but were in fact comedic geniuses. Prominent Jews have embraced Seinfeld for what it is, a comedic take on life in New York City with ample references to the Jewish culture that so influenced the writers and characters’ lives. “Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a huge "Seinfeld" fan, believes Pearl may be missing the point.

‘Getting more positive messages out about Judaism is not what `Seinfeld' is about,’ he says. ‘It's comedy’” (Segall and Ephros). Seinfeld clearly cannot speak to the thousands of years of Jewish culture that preceded it, nor can it present itself as an authority on the complex and ancient Jewish faith. What the program does, quite effectively however is to observe the life of several Jewish characters in modern times. Because of its unprecedented success, Seinfeld did become a significant cultural force for modern Jews. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David make no claims to speak for Judaism they are simply two Jews with an ironic worldview that got together to make a highly successful television program. It was perhaps inevitable, however that Seinfeld did come to represent modern Judaism for many people as the relatively small world Jewish population is often misunderstood. As Woodbury notes in her article, Jewish identity is difficult to define even for Jews themselves.

Cultural representation is a difficult and sensitive issue facing modern media. While Seinfeld was able to successfully combat previous hegemonic ideals as Jews as outsiders, it did influence a whole new hegemony of Jews as caricatures of the characters in the show. Was jerry the true everyman that some claim him to be? If so, then America truly embraced a Jew like never before. Or was George and later Larry David, the self-loathing, curmudgeonly Jew the image that most resonates as “Jew”.

It seems that the issue of representation in Seinfeld is so difficult to examine because of the ever-changing nature of Jewish identity in America. As Jews puzzle over their cultural and religious background (an area in which cultural and ethnic pride seem to have surpassed religious observance), perhaps Jerry’s unique relationship with Judaism is the same as most modern Jews’. In any event, the long lasting cultural impact of Seinfeld has brought to the forefront Judaism and the issue of representation of Jews to the forefront. Perhaps Jerry has formed a new identity for modern Jews or perhaps in the wake of Seinfeld, Jews will continue to shape their own unique identity and place in modern culture.

Work Cited
Alter, Jonathan. Post-Seinfeld America. Newsweek, 00289604, 08/21/2000, Vol. 136, Issue 8
Dworken, Arye. “Milk Products and Larry David bad for the Jews?”. Bring Back Sincerity Blog.
Elkin, Michael. “Curb Appeal”. September 6, 2007.
Levy, Ariel. “D’You Laugh?”.
Luck, Zach. “Wait, Larry David is Jewish?”. The Columbia Current.
Segall, Rebecca and Ephross, Peter. “Critics Call Show ‘Self Hating’: Was Seinfeld Good for Jews?”. Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Friday, May 8 1998.
Tobias, Josh. “Meet the Fockers, Larry David, and the Jewish Archetype”. Brown University.
Weiss, Philip. “To Some Jews, Faith Means Lox, Bagels, and Seinfeld”. The New York Observer. November 11, 1999.
Williams, Judith. “Raising Jews on South Park and Seinfeld”.
Woodbury, Marsha. “Jewish Images that Injure”. Images that injure : pictorial stereotypes in the media, (2nd Ed.), London : Praeger, 2003, ch.15, pp.121-130.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Are Religion and the Media Compatible?

By Shona Chandani

Religion and media are two of the most influential forces in people lives and in human culture. Are these institutions two separate and irreconcilable pods or can they find a happy balance of co-operation? Is it possible for their ideologies to have similar nuances?

Even back as far as the early 1970’s there have been investigations and reports on how the secular media and religion interact. No other generation has had the freedom the new media has given to discuss, explore and practice religion and this has sparked massive interest from all sides; scholars, journalists and the public.

In the contemporary world the media are now moving at the centre of the western religious experience, projecting our culture and values to the rest of the world. It is a huge part of the way we communicate; it can connect the entire world in just a few seconds. Our culture, values and customs are all shaped by what we see on TV, read in magazines and newspaper and download from the internet.

Different media has the power to shape our religiousness. A pioneer in understanding this, and using the media to promote her religion was Aimee Semple McPherson. For the period between the two world wars she built a mass media empire designed to bring people back to the church. McPherson also used media within her church services which helped make them immensely popular. While religion can be given meaning by the media can also be given credibility by religion; it’s understanding and responsible promotion of it.

Similar to the argument why politics and religion should always remain separate, some say that because of this religion and media should be kept in two separate pods because their ideologies could never mesh. There was once an invisible line drawn around religion protecting it from scrutiny but it has long since been dissolved by the ever growing and universalising media. It is important that we begin to think more clearly about the possible consequences of this technology for religion, even though we are still only at the dawn of the Internet age and fumbling over ourselves to understand it.

There is a distinct difference between religious media and mediated religion. There is a thriving religious, largely Christian, media in Australia, the UK and America. In Australia alone there are 34 radio stations, over 300 narrowcast stations and 9 TV channels devoted to religious media. This is completely separate to the secular media’s interaction with religion. On the surface the universe of discourse that religion inhabits is completely separate from the workday world of the press. Although, many religious organisations have high stakes invested in the media.

Scholars are now trying to find the common ground to provide a mechanism for interaction between the two. Hosseini considers three approaches to defining the relationship between media and religion. The Functionalist, Essentialist and Interactive approaches. The Functionalist outlook generally sees the media a mere tool used by religious concepts and notions. There are serious criticisms of this argument as being shallow and erroneous. The essentialist approach claims that the media intrinsically have an independent cultural and historical identity therefore in their interaction with other aspects of life the compatibility or lack-there-of with other entities should be fully taken into consideration when reflection on their relationship.

Hosseini’s own view is the interactive approach. This theory tries to find a way to interconnect the two important elements. The considerable expansion of mass media in since the 1970’s has led religious leaders to call for interaction between arguably the planets two largest social institutions. The Vatican has even expressed a very positive view of the interaction between media and religion describing it as a divine gift and blessing. Hoover stresses that religion cannot be reduced to an individual experience; it is not confined to a sacred domain bit in inseparable from culture. As the media is also inseparable from and gives meaning to human life these two entities should naturally work together.

Jay Rosen, a media critic and reviewer, has a slightly different idea; he believes that journalism, and by extension the media, is itself a religion. Rosen identifies eight categories in which he compares elements of journalism to those of a religion. He highlights an interesting feature of the media; there is a priesthood of the press with a high church, ceremonies and rites of passage. The Journalists Creed was written by Walter Williams in 1906 to be a code of ethics for journalists. It reads very much like a religious text; part indoctrination, part theology and part sanctity. Finally, the media has a God... the public. They are considered to be the controlling or guiding force of journalism. The morality of journalism itself stands for the way things should be. It’s implicit belief — you could call it faith — is that people can make a difference when they know what is happening in their world.

As religion continues to infiltrate mainstream media, journalists are finding themselves with more opportunity to report on religious issues or less choice to not. For journalists the religion beat holds appeal because of its versatility, reporting ranges from hard news to politics, social issues and world events. It is impossible to political events, like the US presidential election, without a fairly extensive knowledge of religion these days. The Journalism School and Columbia University even offers a combined course is journalism and religion.

How do journalists keep neutral when writing about religion, be it their own beliefs or something completely different? Goldman said he avoids criticizing any religious belief, except in the most extreme cases of violence or danger. “I see my role as to tell the story and not put a value judgment on it,” he explained. The press plays an extremely important role in the way that religion is understood by those outside of it. “The media often falls into extremes and not the mainstream because they’re boring,” he said. “The press isn’t interested in Muslims that say ‘we condemn violence.’” Rosen says that “The public climate is partly our creation, they said. If it turns murderous, we need to admit our part in that. And find some way to redemption”.

Having pushed the boundaries as far as possible with food, sex and sport it was only a matter of time before religion got the reality treatment. In a society obsessed with the make-over it is unsurprising that faith is getting one too. These shows are one of the few ways religion has infiltrated mainstream television. Major networks like MTV are getting on board the new phenomenon.

The leading religious network in India, Aastha has developed a program that’s part Idol, part Songs of Praise. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, star of TLC’s Shalom in the Home, is now a celebrity. It is one of the stations most highly rated shows pulling in about 700,000 viewers, this makes it more popular than some of its home improvement and fashion and makeover programs. According to the Rabbi "It's a show about family," said Boteach, who is known as Rabbi Shmuley. "To the extent that religious thought can be brought to bear on healing them, then of course, I do that. But these truths are universal . . . applicable to men, women and children of every denomination, every way of life."

The show has proved so popular that TLC is now launching another spiritually motivated show. On the British Islam channel, eight mosques competed for the title of Britain’s Model Mosque in 2007. The organisers were not only keen to show other mosques what their possibilities are but to dispel fears about Islam of non-Muslims. While they also appreciate the popularity of reality TV with younger audiences and the effectiveness of this medium in reaching generation Y the show should not be interpreted in a non-religious way. They want a smooth transition of power to the next generation and this TV program can facilitate this by involving them. Secular programs are also using religion to attract audiences. The Dr. Phil Show uses essentially religious narrative and indoctrination to attract participants and hook audiences. It was found that TLC’s A Wedding Story supported current hegemonic religious views but it has the potential to show audiences more diverse religious portrayals.

These shows allow people to experience other faiths and belief systems far different from their own in a non-threatening, entertaining and accessible way. The Aastha show has been praised because “It also shows how religious leaders and activists are trying to use new media to appeal to young Indians, who are increasingly exposed to, and attracted by, Western culture.” The show is to be less about competition and more about teaching young people to appreciate more traditional religious music. If religion is going to engage a new generation it needs to be enjoyable. The major problem with these shows is that they give, at best, a watered down version of reality. They cannot depict any particular religion in any specific detail. Engstrom and Semic believe that despite this and although A Wedding Story reaches a limited audience it is the perfect, unthreatening way to introduce lesser known religions through a common ritual.

Using data from several search engines it is clear that religion is flourishing online. There is a plethora of religion and religious information available on the internet. You can do everything from attending services to go on virtual pilgrimages to consulting with a rabbi or priest. There is an ocean of online communities are thriving and religion is just getting its feet wet. Blogging, Facebook, email and online communities have become as popular, if not more so, than face to face communication. Even dating is now done largely online. If religious organisations don’t keep up, they’ll fall into obscurity. Online is a place where religious freedom can reign supreme in a sometimes painfully PC world. The Internet has truly become a haven for an abundance of alternative religions and spiritualities, from lesbian witchcraft to white-supremacist apocalypticism.

Cyberspace allows freedom because it removes the stigma of living a atypical religious lifestyle. There is a definite difference between religion online and online religion however. Religion online is the extension of existing religion into cyberspace where online religion is a new phenomenon; entire religious movements that have come to be on the World Wide Web.

Religion online has triggered notable changes in the traditional religious experience also. Heidi Campbell came to several conclusions from her research into religion in computer mediated communication (CMC). Online religion has not replaced the traditional church service; it is not causing people to shy away from real world participation. People did note that relationships are lacking in the offline church. There are however serious limitations to how far relationships can progress online.

Trustworthiness and truth are very difficult to determine without physical contact. Users of online church and religious communities highlighted that their characteristics are a vision of what the church or Christian community could be like. When the online community may not be complete in some respects users find that the spiritual connection and freedom they find on the web is not something they can get in the real world.

Ritual and myth are essential elements of religion. Cyberspace and its far reach have transformed traditional ritual space and time. For years television has been bringing people from their home into the action, the internet is now doing a similar service.There are some criticisms or religion going digital; some say that the web is a dehumanising medium and has no place in the spiritual field. Helland found that the greatest difficulty with online religion was keeping pace with its rapid development. The scale at which online religion and religion online is growing is phenomenal.

There is no consensus between scholars as to the exact nature of the way media effects culture and religion, only that it does. The nature of the relationship between media and religion is constantly changing as technology advances and spreads. The media are the ultimate conveyors of messages so most organisations will find it necessary to interact with them and religion is no longer protected from this. Modernity has given man a renewed thirst for meaning; this seems to be leading to the revival of religion in the modern sphere which is largely controlled by the media. Religion has begun to make savvy decision with regards to using the media, particularly TV, radio and the internet. The media too has stepped up its religion coverage, journalists are more aware than ever of religious issues. If religion wants to remain a seminal institution, to appeal to the next generation, it must find a way to work in harmony with the media. Their ideologies must also find common ground and this is well on the way to being achieved.

Reference List

Brasher B. Give Me that Online Religion. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
Butt, R. “Faith Meets Reality TV in Contest to Find the Best Mosque in Britain”. The Guardian. Oct. 6, 2007.
Cowan, D and Lorne L. Dawson (Ed.). Religion Online. New York, Routledge: 2004.
Dawson, L.L. “Doing Religion in Cyberspace: The Promise and the Perils”. The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin. Vol. 30, No. 1, 2001. pp. 3-9.
Day, S. “Reality TV Gets Religion”. St. Petersburg Times. Jul. 23, 2006.
Egan, D. “You Either Get It or You Don't: Conversion Experiences and The Dr. Phil Show”. Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. Vol. X, Summer 2005.
Engstrom, E and Beth Semic. “Portrayal of Religion in Reality TV Programming: Hegemony and the Contemporary American Wedding”. Journal of Media and Religion. Vol. 2, No. 3. pp. 145-163.
Friedman, R. “Having Faith in Media”. The Jewish Independent. Jan. 25, 2008.
Hart, R.P. Kathleen J. Turner, Ralph E. Knupp. “Religion and the Rhetoric of the Mass Media”. Review of Religious Research. Vol. 21, No. 3, Summer 1980. pp. 256-275.
Helland, C. “Online Religion as Lived Religion”. Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet. Vol. 1, No. 1, 2005. pp. 2-16.
Hoover, S.M. “Religion in the Media Age”. Denver Post. Nov. 16, 2003.
Hoover, S.M and Knut Lundby. Rethinking Media, Religion and Culture. USA: Sage Productions: 1997.
Hosseini, S. H. “Religion and Media, Religious Media, or Media Religion: Theoretical Studies”. Journal of Media and Religion. Vol. 7, No. 1. pp. 56-69.
Karaflogka, A. “Religious Discourse and Cyberspace”. Religion. No. 32, 2002. pp. 279-291.
Mason, D. Religion/Newswriters: Helping Journalists Report on Religion.
Mitchell, J and Sophia Marriage (Ed.). Mediating Religion: Conversations in Media, Religion and Culture. London: T&T Clark Ltd.: 2003.
Page, J. “Reality TV Discovers Religion at Last”. The Times. Jun. 21, 2007.
Rolfsen, C. “Reporting on religion: When neutrality and faith collide”. Journalism Ethics. Journalism School of British Columbia University. Jan. 31, 2008.
Rosen, J. “Journalism is itself a Religion: Special Essay on Launch of The Revealer”. PressThink. Jan. 7, 2004.
Turner, S. “’God Slots’ Embrace the Spirit of the Age”. The Independent. May 22, 2006.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Buffy and the power within - Tallulah Grey

Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while it can be seen as a leader in the modern occult phenomenon, has also helped break down barriers and demolish stereotypes that have in the past severely damaged our views and beliefs. Buffy has become a source of power for many individuals and groups which had previously lacked either the strength, the will or the faith to stand up and be counted. Buffy is, in its very essence, counter-hegemonic: going against the tide in every way. Buffy Summers becomes a Patron Saint of feminine strength, and her best friend Willow becomes quite literally a Goddess.

The standard in television is usually a hero: a young man with some sort of power, whether it be intelligence, strength or the ability to breathe fire or jump back in time. This hero either works alone or with a small group of companions. Romantic entanglements are short-lived, especially for the romantic character, who often dies almost immediately after a relationship is begun. Villains are irredeemable, and sometimes in some way demonic. Buffy breaks the mould in many ways.

The hero is a heroine: a teenage girl gifted (or cursed) with the task of being the Slayer. Normally the Slayer is a one-man (or in this case woman) show, but Buffy has a group of friends who help her. Each of her friends embodies a different strength: Giles has the knowledge, Willow has the magic as well as the tech-savvies to hack into any system, Anya has the experience, Cordelia has the guts, and Xander has the heart. Buffy’s romantic relationships, while often ending in heartbreak and, on occasion, violent death, last for much longer than most television heroes seem to be able to manage. While Buffy’s villains are almost always literally demonized, they usually have a human aspect. In most cases, they love someone or something, and this leads to either their salvation or destruction. (Wilcox 3 – 17)

The article “Willow’s Queer Transformations on Buffy the Vampire Slayer” by Susan Driver deals with issues of “coming of age, coming out, [and] becoming powerful.” (Driver 91) Using the character Willow Rosenberg as an example, Driver discusses lesbians in the media, or the lack thereof. Driver states that often in television, while male coming out plotlines can be drawn out and complex, lesbian characters get pushed to the backburner, getting ignored unless necessary for a bit of “erotic fascination”. (Driver 92) “On rare occasions when girls are portrayed, they become reduced to an immature phase of bisexual indecision”, (Driver 92) suggesting that the media is implying that teenage girls are less likely to have as much of a decisive will as their male companions. When Willow came out, teenage girls flocked to this new guide through a complex and confusing time in their lives. Willow’s relationships had as much screen time as the heterosexual relationships in Buffy, and she had just as much depth as, if not more than, any other main character. Her arc was overwhelmingly powerful. “Willow went from innocent and geeky and adorable to confident and intelligent, and then to frighteningly evil but still sexy, and then to unsure” (Driver 95) and from there to an all-powerful Goddess.

One of Willow’s most attractive aspects is her imperfection. In high school, she is not the sexy girl who stood out from the crowd. She’s just another teenager wearing dorky clothes, not knowing where her life is going to take her. A twenty-year old girl, Helen, is quoted in Driver’s article as to why a character like Willow is so necessary to the young queer community.

“I work at Taco Time. I don’t have a girlfriend, and haven’t in over three years. I wear normal, boring clothing and dirty shoes. I listen to Broadway musicals and obsess over TV shows. I love my friends, but don’t fall in love with them. Every person I’d like to be with doesn’t necessarily want me back, and vice versa. I have an accepting family where there is no drama whatsoever related to being gay. I’m not a sex object used to please the male viewers. I am a real person who happens to like girls.” (Driver 96)

Rather than waking up one morning to discover a new set of truths, Willow, like many other teenage girls, “become[s] ‘gay’ slowly and patiently, beyond the linear progression and finality.” (Driver 97) Again, this is important, as a realistic view of gay women helps to not only give young questioning women the confidence to believe in themselves and truly understand their feelings, but also to educate a society in which young lesbians are still often considered to be seeking attention, or just simply experimenting. Willow becomes a beacon of hope for a more accepting future.

Returning now to Buffy herself, it is easy to read the Slayer as a metaphor for female power. A beautiful, sassy young woman with super strength and a destiny, while being an attractive feature in any television program, becomes a symbol. “In Buffy, we see no heaven, no God, no Christ,” (Erickson, 114) just the demons and the girl here to save us. None of the main characters in Buffy are particularly religious. Buffy herself, although she has died and gone to what she thought might be heaven, is still unsure of the existence of any higher power. It is mentioned on occasion that Willow is Jewish, but as she delves further into the world of witchcraft this life is left behind and she becomes her own symbol of power. On occasion a character will quote the Bible, but it is almost always a demon or vampire doing so. Does this make a statement regarding fundamental religion, or perhaps those who are drawn to it? Religion is wisely ignored during Buffy whenever possible. While Buffy is a show that relies heavily on occult and religious imagery, there is never a need to shove these images down our throats, although at times Buffy may feel the need to shove one of these religious images, such as a crucifix, down a vampire’s throat.

Buffy has become a symbol of strength and power for those unable to stand up for themselves. Throughout so much of history, women have not had equal rights to men, and it is only in the past hundred years that this has begun to change. In our supposed enlightened and free western society, there are still many women who are downtrodden and controlled. Even some who do not realize it are manipulated by their families, friends or partners. They become less than their potential. Buffy gives us all the opportunity to take the power back, and to fight those who have crushed our spirits. Whether we’re men or women, straight, gay or undecided, black, white or purple, living or undead, Buffy shows us that we all have the power to be strong.


Driver, S. “Willow’s Queer Transformations on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: coming of age, coming out, becoming powerful.” in “Queer girls and popular culture: reading, resisting, and creating media”, New York, Peter Lang, 2007, ch.3 pp.91-126.
Erickson, G. “Sometimes you need a story: American Christianity, Vampires and Buffy” in “Fighting the Forces: what’s at stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, Oxford, Rowman and Littlefield, 2002, pp. 108 – 119.
Pender, P. “Kicking Ass is Comfort Food”
Playden, Z. “What You Are, What’s to Come: feminisms, citizenship and the divine” in “Reading the vampire slayer: an unofficial critical companion to Buffy and Angel”, London, Tauris Parke, 2001, ch.6, pp.120-147.
Wilcox, V. “Who died and made her the boss? Patterns of Mortality in Buffy” in “Fighting the Forces: what’s at stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, Oxford, Rowman and Littlefield, 2002, pp. 3 – 17.

Popular Music, the Internet and Religious Identity

by Elina Arola

In this essay I attempt to shed some light on how religious identity is constructed through the use of popular music and the internet, and how religious (especially Christian) authorities use popular music to encourage young people to reach out to them. I will also briefly examine how Christian churches view popular music and its impact on the behaviour and attitudes of young people. My focus will be on heavy metal and Christian metal but my research references have material ranging from a variety of popular music genres (e.g. Stiles 2005). I intend to start with introducing different takes on identity construction by means of popular music and the internet, and then tying these together in an example of the transnational Christian metal scene as discussed by Moberg (2007, 2008). I will also critically examine the views asserted by Christian authorities on the values and morals they think metal music conveys, and those they wish to convey themselves, by using a similar musical aesthetic in their own evangelization.

Metal and Christianity

Metal has been a controversial genre ever since its emergence in the early 1970s and religious authorities have condemned its messages and ideologies as satanic and evil (e.g. Moberg 2008). The conflict between the Christian church and popular music has been discussed in various studies by e.g. Dyrendal (2008) and Cataldo (2005). Christianity has blamed metal music for turning adolescents to Satanism. Dyrendal debunks this by making a clear distinction between Satanism as a religion, and adolescent Satanism, or “devil-worshipping”. According to him, Christian authorities’ use of popular media (such as horror films and heavy metal imagery) to warn their members of the dangers of Satanism has turned against itself, making rebellion even more attractive. (Dyrendal 2008: 74-75). On the other hand, the popular music scene is frustrated with Christianity, as well. Cataldo examines the lyrics of several different musical acts (ranging from Disturbed and Metallica to Jewel and R.E.M.) to find signs of this frustration. Christianity in the United States is viewed by these artists to be “stumbling [in the] fulfilment of its social role”, and conveying conflicting messages when it preaches about love and understanding, but condemns various minorities and supports the government in its war pursuits. (Cataldo 2005).

According to Moberg, Christian metal emerged in the United States in the late 1970s as a way for Christian churches to evangelize to secular metal fans, and spread quickly to European countries with established secular metal scenes. One of the main characteristics of Christian metal is the way it has embraced the features (the musical and visual aesthetic) as well as the ideology behind secular metal (standing up for one’s values, not following authority figures etc.). The only notable musical difference between secular and Christian metal is the lyrical content of the songs. (2007: 427-428).

Stiles highlights the economic importance of contemporary Christian music (CCM) in his article Contemporary Christian Music: Public Relations amid Scandal. The industry has boomed especially since the 1980s when artists decided to start drawing influences from secular genres. This combined with a “self-supporting core fan base” has kept the industry afloat even through tough times. (Stiles 2005: 5-7). Luhr (2005) sets Christian metal in a larger framework of contemporary Christian music, and examines its political impact in her article. According to her, the main difference between Christian metal and other genres of CCM was that Christian metal bands played to secular audiences, while other bands and artists from other genres generally focused on people who already were believers (2005: 104).

Popular Music, the Internet and the Construction of Religious Identity

In recent years, the role of institutional religion in people’s lives has declined quite substantially (Lynch 2006: 481, Lövheim 2004: 63). Instead of attending services and prayer sessions in churches and mosques, people are turning to other means of having religious experiences, and new channels for making their religious identities manifest. In his article, Gordon Lynch lists three issues that are relevant for the study of religion and society. The first one is the above-mentioned decline of institutional religion. The second is the rise of a phenomenon of alternative spirituality that is distinct from religion. The third issue is the growing significance of media for religion and spirituality, or the “mediatization of religion.” It is in the intersection of these three issues that the study of popular music and religion becomes particularly important (2006: 481-482).

Lynch goes on to summarize the key scholarly works on the role of popular music in the construction of religious identity. The connection between popular music and religious identity has not been a popular research topic until recently, with scholars such as Robin Sylvan (2005), Christopher Partridge (2005) and Graham St John (2004) examining religious experiences and religious content in popular music, and attempting to connect them to the construction of religious identities. While Lynch finds their work important, he offers some critical feedback on the execution of their research and the conclusions they draw. Lynch finds Sylvan’s definition of religion too broad (which leads to hasty conclusions); criticizes Partridge’s account of the religious content of popular music for not taking into consideration the audience; and wonders why St John’s study of rave audiences’ religious experiences does not go on to explain how these experiences are used in the construction of religious identity. (Lynch 2006: 482-484). To complement these shortcomings, Lynch suggests that we turn to Tia De Nora’s work (2000) in the field of music sociology. Lynch highlights De Nora’s argument of music as a tool for managing one’s identity, environment and emotional state, and her conclusion that people formulate musical meanings in the interplay of memories, musical aesthetics, and the environment and circumstances in which the music is heard (Lynch 2006: 486).

In her article on constructing religious identities online, Mia Lövheim argues that, while the construction of identity is based on the interaction between one’s presentation of self and the feedback one receives for it, it is also influenced by the medium of communication one uses for this interaction (2004: 60). Her other main point is that one can not construct an identity based entirely on online interaction, but that one’s offline experiences play an integral part in it as well. The third important thing to bring up from this article is the relationship of religion and popular media. Lövheim (2004: 64) cites Lynn Schofield Clark’s (2003) conclusion that young people have to negotiate between the different meanings of religious symbols communicated by popular media and organized religion.

In his articles on the “transnational Christian metal scene”, Marcus Moberg (2007, 2008) examines how relatively marginal local Christian metal scenes in Northern Europe, the United States and South America have come together on the internet to form a transnational scene that transgresses the geographical boundaries that would have kept these scenes apart in the past. Moberg chooses to use the term ‘scene’ instead of ‘subculture’ because of its suitability for examining temporal and spatial relations and circumstances within the consumption and production of popular music (Kahn-Harris 2007, in Moberg 2008: 82), and because it draws attention to the interconnectedness of different aspects of popular music culture (such as fandom, the popular music industry etc.). Moberg defines scene as something that “is formed when a number of people in a certain place, with a shared passion for a particular kind of music, come together and develop a vide [sic] range of other practices, discourses, aesthetics and styles in relation to that particular form of music.” His aim is to use the concept of scene to illustrate the local, national and transnational dimensions within Christian metal. (Moberg 2008: 83).

Moberg (2007) examines the construction of alternative Christian identities in the context of the transnational Christian metal scene. The processes involved in the construction of identity require a scene (such as the church) (Dyrendal 2008: 68), but with Christian metal being a relatively marginal scene, there is a need to look outside the box to find a channel for the self presentation discussed by Lövheim (2004). Moberg identifies four central discourses that are central in the Christian metal scene.

The Christian metal scene is seen as “(1.) an alternative form of religious expression and identity, (2.) a legitimate form of religious expression, (3.) an effective means of evangelism and fighting and standing up for the Christian faith, and, (4.) a positive alternative to secular metal.” (Moberg 2007: 424-425). The scene has brought together people from different social, ideological and religious backgrounds, and, while these differences raise some debates among members, the scene is viewed as a shared space where Christians with different backgrounds can “shape an alternative form of religious expression and Christian identity.” The internet has facilitated the spreading of these discourses, and this has led to an independent “scenic infrastructure” which consists of record companies, fanzines, magazines, distribution channels, message boards and festivals. (ibid: 428-429) Fans of Christian metal tend to feel alienated from their churches because of their habitus and musical preference and the imagery and rhetoric connected to it (ibid: 429). The church’s attitude against metal is another reason. Luhr argues that Christian musicians, as well as the people who rally against metal, believe music can be used to influence audience behaviour and attitudes, and that, using the theatrics and imagery in addition to the musical aesthetic of secular metal, they can reach people more easily. On the other hand, critics among the Christian community are worried that by turning to these means of evangelizing, the musicians will corrupt their own values and morals. (Luhr 2005: 106). Thus, it can be argued, that turning to the internet to create networks of likeminded people, such as in the case of Moberg’s Christian metal scene, is a way of reinforcing one’s own religious identity without being condemned or judged by authority figures – an ideology that both secular and Christian metal fans would agree with.

Concluding Remarks

In today’s world of highly independent and individual religions and spiritualities, popular music and the internet are important tools in identity construction. Clark (2006: 476) argues that music has become a vehicle for having religious experiences that may not normally be available to people. Based on what I have read from Moberg’s (2007) and Lövheim’s (2004) work on identity construction, I think the same can be said about the internet. I agree with Lynch (2006) in that more research needs to be conducted on the relationship of religion, identity and popular music, but I would argue that the role of the internet and online identities can not be excluded. As Clark (2006: 476) puts it, “people now have transnational experiences and identities”, which Moberg has confirmed in his work. The music industry has become increasingly global because of the internet. And with the introduction of small and cheap portable music devices, music has become a more intimate and immediate part of people’s everyday lives – in a sense it has occupied the void left behind by the decline of institutional religion.

Whether the music people use to construct their identities is produced in a religious framework or not does not matter in the end. The experiences people get from music are deeply personal and individual, and it is up to the individual to choose which genre of music he or she likes, and whether the experiences can be described as religious or spiritual or not. What matters is that people can find other individuals to relate to, in order to get the feedback they need for identity construction. It is in this respect that we need to recognize the internet as the invaluable tool that it is.

Primary Academic References
Cataldo, J (2005): Popular Music on Christianity in the United States: Christianity’s Failure to Love. Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Vol. IX, Spring ‘05:
Clark, LS (2006): Introduction to a Forum on Religion, Popular Music, and Globalization. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Vol. 45, Issue 4. Pp. 475-479.
Dyrendal, A (2008): Devilish Consumption: Popular Culture in Satanic Socialization. Numen, Vol. 55, No. 1. Pp. 68-98.
Luhr, E (2005): Metal Missionaries to the Nation: Christian Heavy Metal Music, "Family Values," and Youth Culture, 1984-1994. American Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 1. Pp. 103-128
Lynch, G (2006): The Role of Popular Music in the Construction of Alternative Spiritual Identities and Ideologies. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion Vol. 45, Issue 4. Pp. 481-488.
Lövheim, M (2004): Young People, Religious Identity and the Internet. Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet. New York, Routledge. Pp. 59-73.
Moberg, M (2007): The Transnational Christian Metal Scene Expressing Alternative Christian Identity through a Form of Popular Music. Linköping University Electronic Press, Linköpings universitet:
Moberg, M (2008): The Internet and the Construction of a Transnational Christian Metal Music Scene. Culture and Religion. Vol. 9, Issue 1. Pp. 81-99.
Stiles, J (2005): Contemporary Christian Music: Public Relations amid Scandal. Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. Vol. XI: Fall ’05:

Secondary Academic References
Clark, LS (2003) From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural. New York. Oxford University Press.
De Nora, T (2000): Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.
Kahn-Harris, K (2007): Extreme metal. Music and Culture on the Edge. Oxford. Berg.
Partridge, C (2005a): The Re-Enchantment of the West (vol. 1): Understanding Popular Culture. London. Continuum.
Partridge, C (2005b): The Re-Enchantment of the West (vol. 2): Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture and Occulture. London. Continuum.
St John, G (ed.) (2004): Rave Culture and Religion. London. Routledge.
Sylvan, R (2005): Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimension of Popular Music. New York. New York University Press.

Film and Indigeneity

RELN2011 Research Essay – ‘Film and Indigeneity’
By Michael Curd

In 2000, art-house director Rolf de Heer was approached by Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil to help write and direct a film about his people – the Ramingining people of North Eastern Arnhem Land. What resulted was the film ‘Ten Canoes’, a Dreamtime story of “doomed love, kidnapping, sorcery, bungling misadventures and ill-directed revenge.” (Starrs, D.B. (2007) (online)) The cross-cultural collaboration between Rolf de Heer and the Ramingining people gave birth to a film which gives meaning to both indigenous and non-indigenous people. Through the partnership of these two forces, Balanda (non-indigenous) director Rolf de Heer was able to act as a tool for the marginalised people of Ramingining to present their story to a worldwide audience. To the non-indigenous, ‘Ten Canoes’ provides an insight into the cultural differences of the indigenous Australians, and to the Aborigines, it is a recognition of the memories of the traditions, meanings and way of life. The cross-cultural collaboration between de Heer and the Ramingining people can also be seen as a symbol of the reconciliation between the Balanda and indigenous Australians in a national sense, as both groups continue to right the wrongs of the past. ‘Ten Canoes’ counters the hegemonic view of indigenous Australians, showing them as powerful, as opposed to repressed and disadvantaged. In recent times, many indigenous Australians have begun to take control of not only their own lives and communities, but have actively led the charge to create awareness of Australia’s indigenous culture to Australia and beyond, dispelling the negative connotations, and emancipating their people in a bid for equality.

Italian philosopher Antonia Gramsci formulated the most widely acknowledged concept of ‘hegemony’, a term commonly recognised in the problem of the marginalisation of indigenous Australians. Gramsci regards hegemony as “a form of control exercised by a dominant class.” (Postcolonial studies at Emory (2008) (online)) Hegemony is thus evident in the “borders, boundaries, edges and complex relations within and between indigenous and non-indigenous territories in Australia.” (Howitt, R. (2002) pg. 233) In the article, ‘The Authentic Aboriginal Voice in Rolf de Heer’s ‘Ten Canoes’’, author D. Bruno Starrs notes that according to the dominant perspective of the Australian media, indigenous Australians are “passive victims of colonial aggression… [with] problems of substance abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, and reduced life expectancy.” (Starrs, D.B. (2007) (online)) This hegemonic view of indigenous Australians has not come about without evidence. In October 2008, it has been reported that there has been “a sharp rise in petrol-sniffing in Aboriginal communities.” (Medindia (2008) (online)) Furthermore, Australian officials reported that “Aboriginal children as young as five have developed an addiction.” (Medindia (2008) (online)) Petrol sniffing amongst Aboriginal communities is seen as an opportunity for an escape from the reality of poverty and community struggles. However, as stated by author D. Bruno Starrs, “one must not assume they have always been that way – or will always be so.” (Starrs, D.B. (2007) (online)) Thus, the film ‘Ten Canoes’ acts as a counter-hegemonic view of the Aboriginal community in Australia, not ignoring the present situation of indigenous communities, but acting as a memory and a contribution to the amplification of the marginalised voice of Australian Aborigines.

The key to the success of ‘Ten Canoes’ was the intercultural fusion between white Australian director Rolf de Heer and the indigenous Ramingining people in creating a film that enabled the Aboriginal community to reflect upon their spiritual connection to the land. Moreover, the film gave them an opportunity to tell the story of their past to a worldwide audience, simultaneously privileging the Aboriginal culture of the present. Author Therese Davis sees de Heer’s role in ‘Ten Canoes’ as a twofold process; “he is both an auteur…and an artisan, a skilled craftsman at the service of the Yolngu people who…very much wanted him to help them to make a film that would show a wider audience that their culture, their past, is ‘of value’.” (Davis, T. (2007) pg. 7) Rolf de Heer sees his role in the production of the film in a similar light, explaining to TIME Pacific journalist Michael Fitzgerald; “They’re telling the story, largely, and I’m the mechanism by which they can.” (Rolf de Heer in Starrs, D.B. (2007) (online)) It is thus evident that while ‘Ten Canoes’ is seen as a cross-cultural piece of film, it is the Ramingining people who are telling the story, with de Heer acting as a tool by which they can use to distribute to a worldwide audience.

Both Rolf de Heer and the Ramingining people of North Eastern Arnhem Land had to pinpoint the way in which the film was to be produced in order to achieve the goals of reclaiming the memories of the Ramingining people’s past for present and future generations; and to counter the hegemonic view of indigenous Australians as ‘troubled’. In an interview with indie movie website ‘indieWIRE’, ‘Ten Canoes’ director Rolf de Heer stated that one of the primary goals of his approach to the film was to “do everything to make [the production] a true collaboration. What [everyone] wanted was a film that they could show their children and say, ‘this is where you come from.’ But it was also to be a film that could play around the world so that people could understand something of Aboriginal culture and recognize it, value it.” (Rolf de Heer in indieWIRE (2007) (online)) ‘Ten Canoes’ has been highly praised in its successful cross-cultural collaboration between Balanda and indigenous Australians. De Heer made sure that in order to achieve this, he made sure the Ramingining people had much input in the retelling of their ancestral fable. An example of this is in the ‘Ten Canoes Agreement’, a legal contract between the film’s producers and the Ramingining people. As noted by author Therese Davis, the agreement was formulated in order to respect the property and moral rights of the Ramingining people. Moreover, “unlike most films in which producers have rights of ownership for all materials used in a film…the Ten Canoes Agreement recognizes the Ramingining community’s property rights for all artefacts and sets made for and used in this film.” (Davis, T. (2007) pg. 6-7) Indigenous Australians are noted to be spiritually attached to places and the land to which their ancestors as well as they belong to. Thus, through the Ten Canoes Agreement contract, the non-indigenous producers of ‘Ten Canoes’ are seen as actively privileging the Ramingining people’s values and beliefs.

More steps were taken to ensure that the retelling of the Aborigine’s Dreamtime story was produced with respect, valuing and upholding the Ramingining people’s cultural traditions. Author D. Bruno Starrs notes that because the movie was spoken in Ganalbingu (the Aboriginal language spoken by the Ramingining people), international distributors of the film requested a dubbed version. However, because the actors in ‘Ten Canoes’ didn’t give permission, director and producer Rolf de Heer declined the request, thus preserving the Ramingining people’s “cultural desire to have their language heard and known.” (Starrs, D.B. (2007) (online)) However, Rolf de Heer came across the challenge of the language difference during the filming of ‘Ten Canoes’, in which there was much room for miscommunication and misunderstanding. Rolf de Heer states “the biggest challenges were language because there is no one who speaks both Ganalbingu and English fluently.” (Rolf de Heer in indieWIRE, (2007) (online)) Nevertheless, through the privileging of the Ganalbingu dialogue, using the English narration of Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil using his indigenous accent in the film, and incorporating the Aboriginal storytelling narration style of ‘cascading repetition’, de Heer further elevates the status of the Aboriginal culture.

Many indigenous people that worked on ‘Ten Canoes’ and were directly involved in the cross-cultural collaboration praised Rolf de Heer for successfully producing a film that reflected the Ramingining people’s culture. Indigenous actor David Gulpilil, who narrated ‘Ten Canoes’ stated that the film achieved what it aimed to do; to create awareness for a worldwide audience, and to educate their own people (the Ramingining) who no longer are aware of the significance of their tribe’s stories and traditions. In an interview with film critic David Stratton, Gulpilil states, “this film will go to every young person who want to see it, not only black fellas but the European kids…and the young one that growing up and they going to high schools and universities…because this is something that has never been told and never been made and never been shown.” (David Gulpilil in At the Movies, (2007) (online)) Frances Djulibinj, who also participated in ‘Ten Canoes’, saw the film as a response to the urgent need to revive the memory of the Ramingining culture. Djulibinj states; “Everything is changing; everything is going, going, gone now. The only thing the children know is some ceremony…they not even normal kids anymore. Maybe they gonna keep this film with them so they can put it in their head.” (Frances Djulibinj in Davis, T. (2007) pg. 12) While ‘Ten Canoes’ can be viewed as a film giving an amplified voice to the indigenous communities in Australia through the representations of Aborigines as strong and powerful owners of the Australian land, the film also aims at preserving a memory of life for a culture who sees their traditions as rapidly vanishing with each new generation.

In following with the interest of the Aboriginal culture caused by the popularity of ‘Ten Canoes’, the Ramingining people have moved to the internet in another opportunity to generate awareness. Moreover, indigenous Australians have begun to reach out in different fields of work, media and education to inform non-indigenous Australians, either explicitly or implicitly, about their history and their culture. As a way of further sharing the “stories and the culture, past and present, of the Yolngu people of the Ramingining community,” (CG Publicity (2008) (online)) the Ramingining people initiated the website ’12 Canoes’ ( As stated in the article ‘Thousands paddle through’, the website has had visitors from “128 countries…including Australia, the US, Canada, Germany…Uzbekistan, Uganda, Greenland, the Dominican Republic, Mongolia, Iran and Kuwait.” (CG Publicity (2008) (online)) Twelve Canoes describes the reasoning for the site’s creation, stating;
“…we have history and culture here [in Ramingining], that our ancestors have been growing for more than forty thousand years. They passed that culture on from generation to generation. Now it’s our turn to pass it on, not just to the next generation, but to people everywhere, all over the world. That’s because our way of life is changing fast now, and what you can see on this website is for every generation to remember and keep our culture alive.” (Twelve Canoes (2008) (online))
It is thus evident that the Twelve Canoes website, similar to ‘Ten Canoes’, is attempting to preserve the memory of the life, the history and the culture of the Yolngu people through generating awareness through a worldwide means of communication.

In more local terms, amongst public schools in Queensland throughout 2008, a workshop entitled ‘The Big Picture’ has been initiated; an interactive experience for primary school students run by Indigenous Australians. It gives students an opportunity to “explore an Indigenous perspective of Australian history…expand…[their] knowledge and understanding of Indigenous cultures, explore attitudes, beliefs, facts and myths…[and] policies and Acts that impacted on Indigenous cultures.” (Education Queensland (2008) (online)). A new Australian television program, ‘First Australians’ also gives Australians an opportunity to become educated on the truth of the indigenous history in Australia. One of the interviewees in the documentary notes the current change in perception between non-indigenous and indigenous Australians, noting, “There’s this very curious and very touching attempt to come together and comprehend.” (Unknown in SBS (2008) (online)) In yet another example of countering the hegemonic view of Australian society, Indigenous former athlete Nova Peris produced a calendar in 2007 featuring fourteen indigenous women posing for the first mainstream all-indigenous swimsuit calendar. Peris’ primary goal for the project was to show Aboriginal women as they really are, dispelling the negative connotations from the media. Shannon McGuire, one of the models for the calendar, spoke out about her frustration of the stereotyping and othering of indigenous Australians by the media, saying, “They don’t see the beauty in the culture because everything in the media is so negative. All you’ve got to do is take a look.” (Shannon McGuire in Gibson, J. (2007) (online)) Through creating awareness in primary schools as well as print media and national television, it is evident that indigenous Australians are actively voicing their pride and respect for their traditions, values and beliefs, and are countering the hegemonic view of Aborigines as a ‘marginalised group’.

While the Australian media may still be presenting a hegemonic view of ‘repressed’ and ‘disadvantaged’ Aborigines, there is evidence that since the change of the federal government, white Australians are voicing their concerns over the unfair treatment of indigenous Australians, and are actively finding ways to resolve the wrongdoings of the past. On 13th February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd read an apology addressed to the indigenous community in regard to the mistreatment of the Aborigines linked with the stolen generation, reciting, “The time has truly come…for all Australians, those who are indigenous and those who are not to come together, truly reconcile and together build a truly great nation.” (Kevin Rudd in Sydney Morning Herald (2008) (online)) Since the apology, the Australian government has given back the iconic Devil’s Marbles landmark to traditional Aboriginal landowners. Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin echoed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s call for action, stating, “(Prime Minister Kevin Rudd) said that we must deal with the unfinished business of the nation…These people have fought for years to protect this place…And, I sincerely hope that these hand-backs will provide a sense of peace of relief.” (Jenny Macklin in The Age Online (2008) (online)) On 28th October 2008, Governor-General Quentin Bryce expressed her disapproval over the continuing disparity between white Australians and indigenous people in regards to health care and work opportunity, and plans to “provide an ear and a voice for indigenous Australians.” (Lunn, S. (2008) (online)) Bryce sees her role as a representative voice as well as a listening ear for Aboriginal communities across Australia in helping to combat inequality and to fully reconcile. Therefore, it is evident that along with numerous indigenous activists, white Australians are also assisting in vanquishing the hegemonic view of ‘disadvantaged’, ‘troublesome’ and ‘repressed’ Aborigines, by righting the wrongs of the past, and, recalling upon the memories of the past in order to move forward into the future.

In conclusion, Rolf de Heer’s cross-cultural collaboration proves to be not only a representation of a Balanda director and the Ramingining people of North Eastern Arnhem Land working together to counter the hegemonic world view of Australian Aborigines as ‘troubled’, and to generate awareness to present and future generations of indigenes about their ancestry. The making of ‘Ten Canoes’ is a living symbol of the cross-cultural collaboration between indigenous Australians and non-indigenous Australians in a broader sense. ‘Ten Canoes’ establishes the need to tell a Dreamtime story of a rapidly diminishing culture and tradition, in order to hold on to the values and beliefs for future generations. Similarly in the wider Australian community, indigenous Australians are empowered to share their history and their pride with the rest of Australia, through activities such as primary school workshops, a television program, and even swimsuit calendars. In the making of ‘Ten Canoes’, director Rolf de Heer saw his role as a mechanism by which the Yolngu people could use to recreate their story. De Heer states that while there were issues of misunderstanding between cultures, once these barriers were broken, then true collaboration was able to come about, and goals were achieved. This is a living symbol of the way in which the present Australian Government has now embraced the notion of moving forward, and although there have been troubles along the way, through working through the misunderstandings, reconciliation, equality and recognition can be achieved.

At The Movies, ‘Ten Canoes Interview’ [online]. Available: [28.10.08]
CG Publicity, 2008, ‘Thousands paddle through’, eBroadcast, 8 October [online]. Available: [28.10.08]
Davis, T. 2007, ‘Remembering our ancestors: cross-cultural collaboration and the mediation of Aboriginal culture and history in Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer, 2006)’, Studies in Australasian Cinema, 1, 1, pg. 5-14
Education Queensland, ‘The Big Picture’ [online]. Available: [28.10.08]
Gibson, J. 2007, ‘Calendar a role model for Aboriginal girls’, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 October [online]. Available: [28.10.08]
Howitt, R. 2002, ‘Frontiers, Borders, Edges: Liminal Challenges to the Hegemony of Exclusion’, Australian Geographical Studies, 39, 2, pg. 233-245
indieWIRE, 2007, ‘indieWIRE INTERVIEW – “Ten Canoes” co-Director Rolf de Heer’, 3 June [online]. Available:
Lunn, S. 2008, ‘Quentin Bryce vows to give voice to indigenous people’, The Australian, 28 October [online]. Available:,24897,24565080-601,00.html [28.10.08]
Medindia, 2008, ‘Petrol-sniffing by Australian Aborigines Increasing’,, 28 October [online]. Available:
Postcolonial studies at Emory, ‘Hegemony in Antonio Gramsci’ [online]. Available:
SBS, ‘First Australians’ [online]. Available: [28.10.08]
Starrs, D.B. 2007, ‘The Authentic Aboriginal Voice in Rolf de Heer’s ‘Ten Canoes’, Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture 7, 3 [online]. Available: [15.10.08]
Sydney Morning Herald Online, 2008, ‘Kevin Rudd says sorry’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February [online]. Available: [28.10.08]
The Age Online, 2008, ‘Aborigines handed back Devil’s Marbles’, The Age, 28 October [online]. Available: [28.10.08]
Twelve Canoes [online]. Available: [28.10.08]

Friday, August 22, 2008

Religion and News Media

By Rebecka Donnelly

Religion is quite often seen as a point of controversy within the realm of mass media, specifically news and journalism. However religion and spirituality manifest in various ways within news and journalism and as a result can lead to various outcomes within this field. This paper will discuss articles from, Stewart Hoover, John Schmalzbauer and Jay Rosen to display the ways in which religion is present within the news media and journalism and how said media is affected as a result.

Stewart Hoover’s article “Media and Religion in Transition” demonstrates the relationship between religion and the media and how the changing perception of religion as well as the evolution of the mass media influence and interact with each other. The article argues that although media isn’t as homogenised as it once was, it’s ‘public-ness’ continues to make it a prominent and relevant cornerstone of society. The separation of the media has enabled faith based programming to be aired and to reach certain “niche” audiences. Although the reach of such programs/ channels is not as vast in comparison to previous trends in the mass media, they are still able to operate successfully within the current mass media model. This is also shaped by the changes in faith throughout greater society. The article states that an increasing number of people don’t identify themselves with a traditional religion but rather see themselves as ‘spiritual’ or believing in god and/or perhaps a significant life force.

It continues on to describe the four main avenues religion and spirituality are covered in within the mass media (news, religious broadcasting, religious publishing and entertainment) and the ways in which they are covered. In regards to how religion is portrayed within the news, the article states that classically religion based stories are quite often avoided. Hoover offers four reasons why this is the case. Because of its strong experiential aspect, religion is hard to “source”. Religion based stories also go “under reported” as they can’t necessarily be based on fact and can quite often be too complex and intricate to sufficiently cover. Finally such stories are avoided because they are often considered too controversial.

“Journalism and the Religious Imagination” by John Schmalzbauer focuses more on how one’s religious orientation influences one’s perspective of the news. Schmalzbauer covered the work of ten Catholic and ten Protestant journalists to determine major recurring themes within the stories of each group. In his study he found the religious perspective of the journalists he studied influenced the nature of what stories they covered as well as how they covered them. He notes that the relationship with God differs between the two religions and this difference in relationship determines the angle from which stories were covered. He states Protestants preferred to cover stories from a “culture wars” angle, almost an ‘us versus them’ between the” religious conservatives and the secular liberals”. Catholics preferred to cover stories from more of an analogical angle, focusing on “points of agreement” between the opposing parties.

Quite different to the concepts of Hoover and Schmalzbauer is that of Jay Rosen who theorises that journalism itself can be and is regarded as a religion. In his article “Journalism Is Itself a Religion”, he outlines eight different points of argument that support this notion. He confirms the similarities between religion and journalism by drawing attention to the practices and theories within the school of journalism. Rosen compares the hierarchy of the newsroom, journalism’s code of conduct (the Journalist’s Creed) as well as the various practices and behaviours that are characteristic of the profession with those aspects of similarity within the church. He argues that the profession of journalism is held in such high regard by those in the field of journalism that it’s practices and values are deemed sacred.

The works of Rosen and Schmalzbauer have almost directly contrasting concepts. Where one sees religion as a cause for certain journalistic practices, the other perceives journalism as a religious practice. Hoover also makes a pointed argument in reference to the relationship between religion and media that is relevant to the discussion. Rosen’s journo-religio theory supports Hoover’s observation of the news media’s general avoidance of faith based stories. Given that journalists are trained and encouraged to maintain integrity by factually and accurately covering stories as per their ‘religion’, they will, as a result, neglect to cover religion based stories that are heavily reliant on the experience of believers rather than by substantial evidence.

Media and religion are fundamental cornerstones of society. Both function in ways that influence and perhaps at times determine the beliefs, values and behaviour of the greater community. This review has examined three very significant and very different ways in which religion and news media interact and intertwine with one another. It can be seen that the relationship between these two entities can be both beneficial but also, at times, detrimental.

List of Works Consulted

Badaracco, Claire Hoertz (Ed.), Quoting God: How media shapes ideas about religion and culture, Waco, TX, Baylor University Press, : 2005 / ch.1, pp.21-36

Hoover, Stewart M., Religion in the media age, London, Routledge : 2006 / ch.3, pp.45-83.

Rosen, Jay. "Journalism Is Itself a Religion: Special Essay on Launch of the Revealer". 2004. .