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Users of Amazon Prime have been recently been greeted by a banner of the website advertising a new comedy, Transparent. The plot apparently revolves around a middle-aged family man who is transgender. The arrival of such a sitcom is hardly surprising. It is of a piece with the political dynamics of this present age. As Archbishop Chaput indicated in his recent Erasmus lecture, “democracy isn’t just ‘allied’ with modern technology; it depends on it.” In practical terms, this means that the entertainment industry is the most powerful manufacturer of public opinion. Politicians themselves acknowledge this fact by spending vast amounts of money to buy space in the media and in the craven pursuit of celebrity endorsements at election time.
Transparent follows the established pattern for the transformation of sexual ethics. Some months ago, I was asked by a student how I would argue in the public square against gay marriage. I answered that I regarded Robert George’s work in the area to be compelling but I also observed that the work had seemingly persuaded nobody to change their minds. The reason for this is simple: Gay marriage has not become normalized through the presentation of arguments (though that is not to deny that many of its proponents have made arguments). It has become normalized through the Will and Grace factor: The impact of comfortable, sentimentalized, middle-class sitcoms, soap operas and their like in which no-one is ever seriously hurt, no action ever has wider social ramifications, and niceness triumphs every time.
Comedy of the American sitcom kind has proved the unexpected silver bullet for changing moral perceptions. The genre is well established as a means of projecting the values and aspirations of middle America. Characters are generally harmless and likable, even sympathetic. The villains are not sinister but typically buffoons or idiots, with the result that any opinions they spout lack all plausibility. The good guys and gals are all clean, comfy, witty, and ultimately reasonablethe kind of people who would generally make good neighbors. The very bland predictability of the genre combines with the subversive morality of the plots to prove a powerful force in reshaping public opinion. No doubt Transparent will preach the morality it wishes to promote by making sure the heroes are on the side of love, tolerance and, of course, history, whilst its villains are bigoted fools from a bygone age.
This underlines the problem that intelligent traditionalists face. Most people gain their understanding of selfhood not from reading Thomas Aquinas but from watching The Bold and the Beautiful and following the antics of the Kardashians. We who advocate for traditional marriage and sexuality are at a huge disadvantage in the public square because we simply do not have the access to the kinds of tools exemplified by Will and Grace and Transparent. As we try to argue for our position, our opponents have simply narrated theirs, identifying their revolutionary positions with the reasonable and the normal by using the most apparently harmless and familiar of cultural idioms.
If we cannot successfully argue our case, then perhaps we can narrate it. Yet that requires power in the entertainment industry which we simply do not possess. There is surely a certain irony to the whining which has been emanating from Hollywood over The Interview incident and its implications for freedom of speech and artistic expression. Hollywood itself tolerates only a very narrow range of ethical narratives, and the non-negotiable desirability of a lifelong, faithful, monogamous marriage between a man and a woman is not one of them. Nor is the personal and social importance of sexual continence. Nor is the decisive nature of our bodies for our identities. There will be no sitcom which promotes those ideas as good and beautiful and puts the alternatives into the mouths of buffoons or idiots. I suspect that the fans of freedom of speech and artistic expression in Hollywood would regard that as “negative stereotyping.”
Even the news media, the one place where one might have expected a less truncated presentation of human behavior, tends to operate within the protocols of sitcoms and soap operas. When a celebrity leaves his wife to take up with a same-sex partner, the rhetoric used to describe the action is often that of liberation, honesty, and of having previously ”lived a lie.” It is fascinating, is it not, that abandoned spouses and children rarely have a chance to tell their side of the story. Yet this makes sense. In a world where individuals have the right to create themselves without taking responsibility for the wider social implications, the heartbroken spouse or the discarded children are actually part of the problem and to be numbered among the oppressors. And, perhaps just as significantly, their stories are simply not that funny.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.
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