Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Religion is Not a Joke

We’ve discussed before on this blog how few and far between characters of faith are in pop culture. When they do crop up, it is often of the extremist/terrorist/serial killer variety. The only other time it seems to come up is as the butt of a joke—literally. Far too often, religion is only brought up in a comedic line to get some laughs. Religion, how do we mock you? Let me count the ways.

Willow Rosenberg, Jewish on Hanukkah, Pesach, and whenever it's convenient for a joke.

Willow Rosenberg, Jewish on Hanukkah, Pesach, and whenever it’s convenient for a joke.

W.A.S.P.

W.A.S.P.

There’s a magical, wonderful show I love called Wonderfalls, from the well-known geek creator Bryan Fuller. In it, the main family is revealed to be Presbyterian, for the sole purpose of having them make some slightly bigoted lines about Catholics for comedic effect during an episode about a runaway nun. When they think their daughter Jaye is seeking counsel from the nun, they tell her: “Catholics aren’t bad people, they just do things differently. Catholic prayer has to go through saints and apostles and statues; Presbyterian prayer goes straight to the source, right to J.C.!” The idea is to shake one’s head and chuckle at Jaye’s parents’ misconceptions, but the fact of the matter is, her family never engages with the Catholic characters to try to understand them any better. Learning opportunity missed.

Willow, this facial expression: funny! Using your Judaism only for cheap laughs: less funny - (x)

Willow, this facial expression: funny! Using your Judaism only for cheap laughs: less funny—(x)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was also guilty of this. I think almost every time Willow’s Judaism was brought up was for a one-liner. When Xander said he wanted to make sure the egg he was caring for as part of a home ec project was raised with good Christian values, Willow said she was gonna raise hers with good Jewish values. Not because of Willow’s undying devotion to Torah and Talmud, but because it made for a quick laugh. In another episode when bearing gifts for her friends, Willow says, “I feel just like Santa Claus, except thinner and younger, and female, and, well, Jewish.” LOL!

This is a true statement, y u guyz laughing? -(x)

This is a true statement, y u guyz laughing?—(x)

In the second season of the TV show Roswell, the character Kyle Valenti discovers Buddhism and begins to integrate it in his life. Well, every now and then he’ll talk about meditating to find his calm center or begin with “The Buddha says…” I’m not sure if there’s supposed to be something inherently funny about a white suburban high school jock trying to take on an ancient Eastern philosophy, but the other characters never take him seriously, despite the fact that he seems quite genuine in trying to study Buddhism. Perhaps it’s just the idea of any teen thinking they are a paragon of wisdom, but I feel like he would not have been taken seriously no matter what philosophy or religion he was studying.

Amanda Bynes Easy A Jesus freak 2

—(x)

Many times, it’s just a small aspect of the character that is brought up every now and then. In the movie Easy A, however, Amanda Bynes’s “Jesus freak” character is played entirely for laughs. It’s a much more integral part to her identity than Willow’s Judaism, so it’s brought up more often. But every time she says something religious, she’s presented as dumb or silly for saying such a thing. Her faith is judgmental and critical, but it also seems pretty genuine. No one says, “I don’t agree with your narrow-minded views, but I can at least respect you for standing up for what you believe in.” Rather, she is merely portrayed to the audience as one big joke.

These are just a few examples that stood out to me in somewhat recent pop culture. I would like to present to you a counter-example, where someone’s faith doesn’t completely define them, doesn’t make them a violent extremist, and isn’t used to crack a joke. I’d like to, but I can’t think of any! Just once, can’t a character say, “Brb, going to church!” and can’t their friends just be like, “Ok, cool, we’ll see you after” with no quips or judgment? It’s disheartening that faith seems to only make characters villains or laughingstocks.

6 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Religion is Not a Joke

  1. I agree that thoughtful depictions of religious characters are scarcer on the ground than they should be, but I DO have one counterexample: Babylon 5. Several characters on that show are religious, and the religion is absolutely treated as an important part of who they are without being everything they are. And for a change, not ONLY the alien characters (though they have their own faiths, and struggles with faith).

    Commander Susan Ivanova is Jewish, and not only is it brought up several times throughout the show, but she gets a whole episode plot revolving around her rabbi trying to get her to sit shivah for her departed father, which is portrayed as an important part of the grieving process that she’s neglecting because she doesn’t want to deal. An order of Catholic monks move to the space station at one point whose order believes that learning more about alien faiths will help them better know God, because surely God must have appeared to all of them as he did to his children on Earth. The monks are recurring side characters, appearing in several episodes. Doctor Franklin is a member of a new religion that apparently springs up sometime between our own time and that of the show, indicating human religion will keep growing and changing in the future.

    If you’re hungry for depictions of faith that aren’t one note or played for laughs, I can’t recommend Babylon 5 enough.

    • wow this is exactly how i’d love to see religion brought up in shows — in its proper context as mix of socio-cultural and personal factors, not just as a punchline. I’ve heard of Babylon 5 before, but will def have to check it out in depth now! thanks!

  2. Glee ends up doing this surprisingly well. They explicitly make Kurt an example of an atheist who isn’t a crass/harsh/pessimist all the time, which is also unique, they make Finn fairly secular but not “an atheist”, and yes they basically play Rachel’s, Puck’s, and even Jake’s?? Judaism for laughs (And Jacob Ben Israel’s, I guess, unfortunately). But when it comes to Christianity, over time it’s become something important to Quinn, Mercedes, Sam, and Joe without 100% defining them. They meet at an after-school club called the “God Squad”, we’ve been to Mercedes’ church multiple times on the show, they discuss being okay with gay people despite being Christian in 3×13 “Heart”, they pray over Karofsky after his suicide attempt in the next episode (3×14 “On My Way”) and also Quinn and Mercedes pray in 2×03 “Grilled Cheesus” in a way that feels believable for those who believe. Quinn wears a cross necklace for many, many, episodes – possibly every episode in the first season? I think. And she mentions in 2×03 that in the first season God helped get her through her hard year with her pregnancy. These things maybe were initially meant as a joke but everything on Glee is kind of half a joke and half dead serious, and they turned it into a pretty dead-serious thing. She was going to go to a Father-Daughter Chastity Ball which is a real thing that exists. But she was always defined as a cheerleader more than as someone who was purely a religious person. No one ever considered her a “religious freak”. It was more “she’s religious” and that’s just what it is from the start, I think.

  3. I think the Canadian TV Series “Being Erica” also does a good job with Judaism being a real part of Erica’s character/family. Her dad is a rabbi but he’s so much more than that, and as she’s a grown woman and he doesn’t decide to become a rabbi until her late teens (we find out in a flashback) it’s complicated. But it’s real and they celebrate almost every religious holiday/ritual. I think it’s done respectfully and honestly. Erica seems like a secular Jew to me while her dad is a bit more religious about it but she still respects the traditions and still fully considers herself Jewish whenever religion comes up in conversation. It’s actually never treated as an excuse to “joke” on the show.

  4. Religion is handled interestingly on Joan of Arcadia in season 2 when Joan’s mother, Helen, begins the process of converting to Catholicism. It’s a side plot, separate from the scenes where Joan talks to God on the street or whatever, and I think Helen’s journey and thoughts are handled respectfully. I don’t know.

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