Not too long ago, Syng wrote a very interesting post about a missed opportunity for faith-based redemption in Orphan Black. It’s really good and you should definitely go read it. Since I have not watched Orphan Black yet, I’m not going to discuss any of the themes there; instead I would like to discuss a comment we received on Tumblr in response to that post—specifically this part:
As for there being a lack of religious representation in the show, that’s true, but this is a self-labeled science fiction show, not a religious show. There are religious characters on the show, like Alison, but her religion is not focused on because it is not pertinent. When it became pertinent, such as her life crisis being obvious to friends and family, they introduce her religion as a natural course of action that would happen in the situation and environment that she’s in. Helena’s religious background is pertinent because there is a current police investigation going on and religion is one of the known motivators for serial killers, but also because her actions are so outlandish that it’s necessary to delve into her current frame of mind.
This was a very well articulated comment that made me think about whether religion and religious themes can be portrayed in a show that isn’t necessarily religious. This comes up a lot, and not just with issues of religion. When we critique anything on this site, from race-related issues, to gender issues, to everything in between, we are told, “Well, that isn’t what the show/story/movie is about.” Jeff Davis, creator of Teen Wolf, even responded to allegations of racism by saying that Teen Wolf isn’t an “issues” show. As if simply stating that means it’s okay not to worry about minority representation. Or just because something is an action-packed science fiction show that means religion can’t play a vital role.
I have often lamented many missed opportunities on the part of pop culture to discuss religion in their narratives. And I’m not just asking that my own Catholic faith be discussed, but rather all faiths that are applicable to the story at hand. Why is paganism not discussed more in Teen Wolf? Why the lack of discussion of Hinduism in Heroes? Why is the fact that Kitty Pryde is Jewish never even referenced in the X-Men movies? People may respond by asking me why the story needs to have these religious elements, and the answer is, despite being in a sci-fi or fantasy setting, characters need to come off as human and relatable and that may mean discussing religion. Religion is a part of our culture. People we meet every day will hold a variety of religious beliefs that inform what they do and how they live their lives. So why not discuss religion in a real and meaningful way? I’m not saying God should be featured as a main character, but having a religious character adds depth, makes the character seem more real, and helps writers better understand their characters.
Saying that a show isn’t a religious show is to me the same as saying that a show isn’t an “issues” show. If a story is going to reflect the real world in any way, then that show will incorporate characters of color, LGBTQ+ characters, female characters, characters with disabilities, and yes, even religious characters. The whole world isn’t secular. Most people at least have some manner of belief even if they aren’t completely devout. So saying that religion shouldn’t play a pivotal role because the show isn’t religious is pretty dismissive of the many people who are religious. Naturally, at least some characters will be, and if characters are religious then those themes should be explored. Writers don’t have to turn a show into Touched By An Angel for it to discuss religion. They just have to portray the real world.
having a religious character adds depth, makes the character seem more real, and helps writers better understand their characters.
How does religion make the character more real and more comprehensible? I ask because I’m not religious and never have been. Whatever knack it takes to be religious, I don’t have it.
There are exceptions, of course. If I were writing about a paladin or a priestess, their religion would be relevant to the character and the story. If I were writing a story set in a location where religious strife was common, I’d better acknowledge that and portray both sides fairly. And if I were writing something set in the Middle Ages, when whether you were Catholic, Jewish or Muslim affected all aspects of your life, again, I’d try to show that.
But, as I said, those are the exceptions. If I were inventing a character in modern-day America, the odds are that I would leave religion out of the equation–not consciously, but because adding religion would feel false and unreal. I don’t get religion. And honestly, I haven’t known many lay people to whom religion means anything. I can think of two. Maybe three.
So, as a result, I think of religion in characterization the way that I think of height. If you’re writing about a character whose height makes them impossible to hide or disguise, height matters. If you’re writing about a character who suffers from dwarfism, it matters. But most of the time, the character will just be average height and it won’t matter at all.
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I think geek culture has a pretty secular bias. Geeks are stereotyped as being smart, therefore, rational, therefore secular. Religion= backward superstition/evil oppressive hierarchy etc. Hollywood assumes discussion of religion will “make people uncomfortable” which I think is mostly due to the influence of fundamentalists on one end of the spectrum, and militant atheists on the other. Weirdly one of the better potrayals of religious diversity on TV that I’ve seen is on the Simpsons, which is kinda scary when you think about it!