Oh, My Pop Culture Westboro: Fantastic Beasts and Magic as Metaphor Instead of Genuine Representation… Again

I enjoyed 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie, though like Lady Geek Girl, I felt it had a lot of logical issues and problems with racial representation. The film didn’t have much in the way of religious or LGBTQ+ representation either… but it did have metaphors for them. Which—do we even have to say it anymore?—is not enough.

We’ve called out the Harry Potter series before for using magic and various conditions in the wizarding world as a metaphor for different kinds of oppression in the real world, such as lycanthropy as a metaphor for AIDs and discrimination against non-purebloods as a metaphor for racism. The problem with these metaphors is that readers might not make the connection to the real-world problem, so in order for them to really have impact, there should be examples of the real-world issue too. For instance, the series could have featured more prominent characters of color who experienced racism in the Muggle world in addition to discussions of blood “purity”. Instead we got a cast of all white protagonists, with characters of color getting very little development.

J. K. Rowling makes no secret of her support for social justice causes (just look at her Twitter feed!). In fact, she’s totally fine with headcanoning Hermione as Black and applauded the casting of Noma Dumezweni, a Black woman, as Hermione in the Cursed Child play, and racebending Hermione helps to relieve some issues about her Muggleborn blood status acting as a stand-in for discrimination rather than discussing any real-life discrimination. But real-life discrimination is still not discussed in canon. You would think that maybe Rowling would have listened graciously to some of these criticisms about hiding real-world issues behind metaphors that not everyone is going to get, and would have worked harder to avoid them in her next work. What is that next work? Fantastic Beasts. Did she listen? Nope. Instead the movie gave us a new metaphor to grapple with: obscurials as coded LGBTQ+ children repressed by overzealous religious families, in this case represented by the Second Salemers. And it isn’t pretty.

Spoilers for many aspects of Fantastic Beasts below the jump!

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Tenuous Relationship Between Buddhism & Doctor Strange

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I love it when any piece of pop culture incorporates some kind of religion that isn’t Christianity, because despite the fact that Christian themes are everywhere in Western media, not everyone is Christian. It’s nice to see media embrace themes from other faiths and show more religious diversity. However, sadly this tends to be a very exotified, watered down, and often inaccurate depiction, especially when it comes to Eastern religions.

Marvel’s latest hit, Doctor Strange, is based on a comic that relies heavily on Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism. However, the orientalism displayed in the comics, as well as the culturally appropriative nature of the comics in general, means that the portrayal of Buddhism in the movie tends to be a rather problematic one.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Legacy of Christian Paternalism in the Harry Potter Universe

As long as there has been racism, people have been trying to justify it to themselves and others. Unfortunately, all too commonly, religion has been a prime factor in these justifications. While the Atlantic slave trade was just beginning, before slavery was made hereditary, slavery was justified by the simple fact that slaves weren’t Christian. Worse—they didn’t even know about Christianity! It was obviously necessary to capture them all and take them under the loving wing of white overseers in order to educate them about the Lord and Savior, right? Jesus did say to go and make disciples of all men! And otherwise they wouldn’t be able to get into heaven! And Christian salvation was just the first perk in a long line of awesome things slaves got for being slaves!

Yeah, that was my sarcasm voice.

Slavery is rampant in the Bible. The Hebrews were God’s chosen people, and they had slaves. Not only did they have slaves, but God must have approved of them doing it, because He gave them specific rules in Deuteronomy and Leviticus on how to do slavery the Yahweh way. In the New Testament, in St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon, Paul doesn’t so much reject the idea of slavery as he recommends that slaves and their masters maintain an imbalanced system of mutual respect, e.g. slaves should be obedient to their masters, and masters should repay that obedience with compassionate lordship. (Sounds a lot like what he had to say about marriage, so, uh, yikes on that one, dude.)

In the beginning, God created a bunch of stuff, including Adam. In both of the Creation stories included in Genesis, part of the myth involves God granting dominion over the earth and all the creatures He created to Adam, to hold in stewardship. As nonwhite peoples, in particular Black Africans and brown Native Americans, were seen as lesser, subhuman, and savage by white colonialists, it was easy to argue that this sense of God-given stewardship, this paternalism by divine right, should extend to include these other races. (The troubling principles of social Darwinism later lent pseudo-scientific credence to these arguments.) Instances of cultural genocide like the Trail of Tears, the doctrine of manifest destiny, and the Indian Residential School System were all in some way justified by the God-given belief that the white man had authority over how these “lesser races” should be living their lives.

Now, this is all horrifying and unpleasant to say the least, but what does it have to do with geeky stuff? Well, this Christian paternalist mentality is front and center in the Harry Potter universe, with the serial numbers filed off just enough to make it kind of secular.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Scrooge’s Real Sin

It’s December and that means it’s time to watch the endless parade of awesome Christmas specials. Of course, one of the first ones I turned to was The Muppet Christmas Carol. I apologize to all others who have English degrees, but I just can’t stand Charles Dickens. Not that he wasn’t brilliant—writing a ghost story to celebrate Christmas is awesome—but I just loathe his writing style. Thankfully, I don’t have to read his writing to enjoy The Muppet Christmas Carol. (And besides, everybody loves Muppets!)

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While I was watching this amazing movie, I started thinking about Ebenezer Scrooge and how he was portrayed primarily as showing the deadly sin of greed. However, the more I thought about it, the more I started thinking that greed might not be his main problem.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Gnosticism: What if God Isn’t God?

Nothing says pop culture like 2000-year-old theological debates, right? You’d be surprisedand we’ve discussed it before.

Gnosticism—a heretical branch of early Christianity—faded almost entirely from view after its founders were edged out of the Church by what would become orthodoxy. With most of their works lost or destroyed, their ideas survived only in the denunciations from the likes of Tertullian and Irenaeus. The Gnostic focus on secrecy didn’t ensure a broad legacy, either—early leaders such as Valentinius and Marcion privileged access to the deeper nature of the universe for initiates and other worthies. Modern Gnostics avoid the secrecy, and as with many aspects of Gnosticism which may seem troubling, the marginalization of Gnosticism limited our understanding to unfriendly characterizations by their orthodox contemporaries.

But in the 20th century, a treasure trove of Gnostic texts was discovered by a couple of Egyptian farmers at Nag Hammadi in a sealed jar. Ever since, their ideas—which seem stunningly modern in some ways—have started to permeate back into the world, gaining influence well beyond what would be expected from their obscurity, particularly since the texts themselves are rarely read by anyone besides scholars.

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Still, the ideas in these texts are starting to make their way into pop culture, directly or indirectly, and Gnostic ideas are fascinating enough to be talked about far away from their original sources. They feature prominently in the His Dark Materials series, and some concepts pop up in such unexpected places as Young Avengers, Final Fantasy, and even Futurama.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Rick and Morty and the “No Atheists in Foxholes” Trope

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Rick and Morty is definitely a show with some strong atheist themes in it. Rick very openly professes that there is no God, and many of the episodes that deal with religious themes are set up specifically to disprove religious beliefs. Even in the episode where Rick faces the literal devil, the whole point is about how humans are more powerful than these religious figures by showing that Rick is able to humiliate and even beat up the devil. However, there is one moment where Rick’s staunch atheism falls apart, albeit briefly. In the episode “A Rickle in Time”, there is a moment when Rick thinks he is about to die and prays to God, but after he survives, he goes back on his prayers, declaring once again that there is no God. This plays into a rather offensive trope that “there are no atheists in foxholes”, which is the idea that under pressure, everyone believes in God. But is this really the message that Rick and Morty is trying to send?

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Worship the Bomb

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Ever since that famous scene in Planet of the Apes with the temple dedicated to an unexploded nuclear missile, I’ve been fascinated with the concept of post-apocalyptic theology. The duality of simultaneously worshiping death and finding ways to validate the lives of those who continue to survive takes on a very literal dynamic in these stories and it allows for some unique and fascinating narrative possibilities. While numerous classic geek works from Tank Girl to Adventure Time examine this in one way or another, I have long been particularly fascinated by the Children of Atom from Fallout. Granted, with the amount of time I’ve spent playing Fallout games, I know more about their beliefs than I do many real-life religions, but something about the Children of Atom hits right at the issue of what our artistic musings about post-apocalyptic religion really say about us as a culture.

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Top: Warboys pray at the altar of V8 in Mad Max: Fury Road. Bottom: High Confessor Tektus leads the Children of Atom in praying to a nuclear submarine in Fallout 4.

While we don’t know what a post-apocalyptic religion would actually look like, we have real-life cults with apocalyptic visions that share some commonalities. We also have real-life mainstream religions that reference apocalyptic events. Large-scale death and destruction are a historical part of most major religions, in some cases as an allegorical component to the philosophy and in some cases as a literal part of the religion’s history, often both. Many of these stories are given apocalyptic qualities in their retelling. But “fictional anthropologies” of future religions are incredibly revealing and deeply fascinating. From the various “mini culture” city-states deifying gasoline and automobiles in the wastes of Mad Max’s Australia, to a monk guarding the knowledge of the past in Canticle for Leibowitz, to a tribe worshiping the power of the Ringworld engineers’ long abandoned buildings, there are some common themes among our favorite works in this sub-genre that are worth exploring. To me, the Church of Atom is an arguably perfect example of those themes, so I have chosen to focus mainly on them throughout this post.

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