Thoughtful Christians have long encouraged discernment and worldview analysis when watching films or television or reading books.
- What is the message here?
- What is the filmmaker’s vision of the good life?
- How does this message line up with what Scripture teaches?
Some Christian leaders have wondered if all this “worldview” talk may interfere with a Christian’s ability to simply enjoy a film without looking for its hidden or surface messages. That is a good caveat. A work of art is not something to be dissected merely for its “propositional truth message,” for the form is indeed part of the message. We will have an impoverished understanding of worldview analysis of cultural products if we try to reduce them in this way, and this is one of the reasons many Christian attempts at filmmaking come up so flat.
Still, it is likely that in the coming years we will need to raise our discernment antennas, not lower them. Why? Because the next round of popular entertainment will veer into the territory of propaganda, not just art.
The Art of Propaganda
Take, for example, the Amazon Prime television show, Transparent – a show that has won Emmys and been lauded by Trans Rights activists for its portrayal of an older man who transitions to a female persona.
For all its trophies and acclaim, Transparent finds itself squarely in the realm of propaganda. It is a heavily biased attempt to promote and publicize a political cause. The producers have deliberately and delicately crafted it so as to challenge the gender norms of American society.
In choosing the word “propaganda” to describe this show, I am not joining the ranks of conspiracy theorists who believe there is a secret plot to mislead the American public. I am echoing the word the producers themselves use.
“Propaganda Squads” for Artistic Activism
In a lengthy profile of the show and its creator (Jill Soloway), The New Yorker describes the writers as a “propaganda squad.” All of the writers (except one who had experience in television beforehand) hail from the academy where they participated in writing and theater and queer activism. “You are creating propaganda for you,” Soloway says.
The “propaganda squad” needs help to ensure faithfulness to the Trans Rights cause. So, they turn to other activists for support. “Every decision on the show is vetted by Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker, trans activists and artists… ‘We monitor the politics of representation – if we catch things in the writing stage, it’s kind of optimal because then there’s time to shape it.’”
The New Yorker affirms Transparent’s artistic activism, describing it as a show that “both reflects and advances” the trans “agenda.” The cast of Transparent describe themselves as a “wonderful cult.” Soloway doesn’t go that far, but she does call herself “seditious” and the name of her production company is Topple, meaning “topple the patriarchy.”
Entertainment in Service to the Gender Revolution
In describing Transparent, words like “propaganda,” “agenda,” “monitoring,” and “seditious” do not come from alarmist talk show hosts or conservative bloggers. These are the words the show’s creators use to speak about their work. They have a revolutionary perspective on what it means to be human, and they are pushing it unapologetically.
“We’re asking the whole world to transition with us to a less binary way of being,” Drucker says. “It’s the next step in the fight for gender equality: removing the habit of always qualifying a person as a man or a woman.”
Not surprisingly, the show’s producers are excited about the evolving nature of language, from “gender reassignment surgery” to “gender confirmation,” from pronouns like “he” and “she” to plurals that no longer indicate any gender at all. Soloway likes the idea of a person containing more than one self or gender. “Part of it is just the fiction of being alive. Every step, you’re making up who you are.”
Stalin’s “Enlightenment Through Entertainment”
Propaganda can be a powerful tool in the hands of revolutionaries. It worked for Joy Davidman, the future wife of C. S. Lewis. The 1934 film Chapayev, a Soviet piece of propaganda, enthralled Joy with its artistic sensibilities and powerful message. The film was “hailed as a masterpiece of modern cinema” and packed the house at Manhattan’s Cameo Theater for ten weeks. Abigail Santamaria writes:
“Stalin was seductively deceptive. The dictator and his filmmakers did not hesitate to advertise their movies as enlightenment through entertainment, a way of educating the people… To make those philosophies accessible to all, Stalin built thousands of theaters.”
Entertainment continues to be one of the primary drivers of societal change in morality—both reflecting and directing public consensus on what progress entails. Vice-president Joe Biden was not off-base in crediting the popular television comedies like Will and Grace (1998‒2006) and Modern Family (2009‒) for the public’s rapid embrace of same-sex marriage. Those shows aren’t pure propaganda in the way Transparent is, but they are clearly educating people regarding social norms.
Look for the Agenda
Let’s be clear. The producers and writers of Transparent have every right to push their perspective through the medium of television.
But when political and social revolutions are promoted powerfully through their presentation, and when they use the word “propaganda” to describe their work, it is wise for Christians to see it for what it is. Furthermore, it is paramount for Christians to view much of our culture’s entertainment as propaganda, some more and some less.
Our society’s songs, movies, and books don’t just communicate a message; some of them they may actually be specifically designed to promote a political cause. The ability to recognize propaganda and analyze it from the lens of a biblical worldview is more necessary than ever before.
Reprinted with permission from Trevin Wax.