Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Spirit of Social Change: Religion, Society, and the Media

By: Elise Burgett

Though neither series is explicitly religious, both Grey’s Anatomy and Gossip Girl feature episodes containing overtly spiritual material. In fact, the lack of religious content in most episodes makes its occasional presence that much more powerful. This technique of including religious themes in otherwise secular forms of media, such as television series, falls in line with Stig Hjarvard’s discussion of the mediatisation of religion, a process by which the media takes the place of institutionalized religion and is therefore able to shape messages about religion disseminated to society. As a result, the door for social change motivated by the media’s portrayal of religion is left wide open (Hjarvard 5). By inserting religious language and references where they are not necessarily expected, in this case two primetime television drama series, the media is able to relay messages to and therefore influence the attitudes of its audience regarding both religion itself as well as broader social issues.

(Grey's scene)

Set in the bustling medical hub of Seattle Grace Hospital, Grey’s Anatomy focuses on both the stories of the variety of patients the hospital sees every day and also on the (love) lives of the doctors treating them. In the season six episode entitled “Invasion,” Callie Torres’s unorthodox love life comes under fire from her deeply religious father. Having found out that Callie has begun dating women (after being married to a man in the past), Mr. Torres arrives at Seattle Grace armed with Father Kevin, a Catholic priest, ready to confront his daughter about the error of her ways. The conversation turns sour when Mr. Torres reveals that he is worried for Callie, who he believes will spend an “eternity in hell” if she continues seeing women ("Invasion"). He goes on to cite text from the Bible, pulling quotes from Leviticus and Romans. Callie counters this attack by reciting the words of Christ Himself, which preach love and forgiveness, as she becomes more and more emotional compared to her stoic, obstinate father.

The stark contrast between Mr. Torres, who is unsympathetic and unyielding as he quotes words written in the Bible, and Callie, who is clearly under attack and on the defensive as she speaks the lessons of love that came from Jesus Himself, steers the audience’s sympathies to Callie’s side, and therefore to the side of gay rights. By using this battle of Biblical expressions between father and daughter to generate such a strong tension between old and new, dogma and individual interpretation, condemnation and acceptance, Grey’s Anatomy takes a stance on a social issue (gay rights) and uses religion to influence the audience’s views on it. As Hjarvard explains, a process of mediatisation of religion takes place, paving the way for “social change that to some extent subsumes other social or cultural fields into the logic of the media;” in this example, that subsumed field is religion (6). In the case of “Invasion,” the old-fashioned, strict teachings of the Catholic Church are pitted against an individual who, though still displaying a strong faith in God, cannot comply with them. The show uses these straightforward religious references to assert that society has changed and that it is important that the audience be understanding, especially concerning people who live their lives against the grain. Love and reconciliation, not eternal condemnation, should be the focus of a religion professing faith in Jesus Christ, the ultimate unconditional lover. This episode is an ideal example of the media influencing the attitudes of its audience as it conveys a religious teaching embedded in the social issue of gay rights.

(Gossip Girl scene)

Gossip Girl is another series that, though not meant to be religious, occasionally contains explicitly religious scenes. This teen drama, set in the wealthy Upper East Side of New York City, depicts the privileged lives of teenage socialites who spend much of their time partying, drinking, and engaging in countless sexual relationships. In particular, Georgina Sparks embodies the typical sex, drugs, and rock and roll attitude, partaking in everything from drugs to blackmail to theft. In the season two episode entitled “Southern Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” a friend finds Georgina in an unexpected setting: on the banks of a picturesque lake in the forest, at a Christian camp. However, the camp and the people there are clearly satirized in a strongly mocking fashion. The scene is packed with stock symbols (giant wooden crosses, a full-screen shot of a dove poster, “OMJC” shirts), and Georgina herself throws out phrases that are stereotypical of evangelical Christians as she asks her friend, “have you been saved too?” ("Southern Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"). While the previously discussed Grey’s scene employs scripture and raises hefty questions about what it means to love one another, this Gossip Girl scene portrays Christianity in a much more superficial light. This idea is underlined in the following episode when Georgina, returning to her former immoral ways, explains to her friend, “You can tell Jesus that the bitch is back" ("The Wrath of Con").

In this Gossip Girl scene, religion is again mediatised, but in an extremely stereotypical manner. Georgina’s technique of putting on the guise of a sudden conversion to Christianity then dropping the act the moment it becomes inconvenient can be interpreted as a way of criticizing and emphasising her own vindictiveness as she will use any strategy she can to manipulate others’ opinions of her. However, an audience with more knowledge about, and especially faith in, Christianity will likely take the scene as an attack. By portraying Georgina so thoughtlessly using religion to further her own ends, especially in such a stereotypical manner that lacks any profound theological substance, this scene makes a mockery of the idea of Jesus Christ, something Americans (the show’s main audience) hold as extremely sacred. Its liberal use of banal religious elements, which often help form religious imagination using representations that are not necessarily the most significant aspects of the actual institutionalized religion, casts a negative light on Christian camp and therefore, by association, Christians in general (Hjarvard 7). Because the media does have so much power to influence its audience’s views regarding religious issues, shallow, stereotypical depictions such as this one can ultimately have a damaging impact on society’s views of Christianity. This episode is another example of the mediatisation of religion having the potential to prompt very real changes in attitude within society at large.

These days, since many people rely on the media as “prov-iders of information and moral orientation” instead of acquiring a moral compass from the family or a religious organization, the manner in which the media incorporates religious issues into otherwise secular television shows has the potential to cause far-reaching social ramifications (Hjarvard 5). The particular episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Gossip Girl discussed above serve as two very different examples of this interaction among media, religion, and society.

Works Cited

Hjarvard, Stig. “The Mediatization of Religion: A Theory of the Media as Agents of Religious Change.” Northern Lights 6:1 (2008): 5-7. Web.

“Invasion.” Grey’s Anatomy. American Broadcasting Company. ABC, New York City. 15 October 2009.

“Southern Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Gossip Girl. CW Television Network. Burbank. 27 April 2009.

“The Wrath of Con.” Gossip Girl. CW Television Network. Burbank. 3 May 2009.

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