Brandon Ambrosino of Vox, using his review of the Christian film Old-Fashioned as a peg, asks the question of why Christian movies are just so bad. Not movies that incorporate Christian themes or are made by believers, of which there are plenty of good ones, but movies created by the Christian-industrial complex as an explicit counterpart to what is deemed sinful “secular” entertainment. Old-Fashioned is a clear example of this: It’s explicitly made and advertised as a kind of “counter-programming” to Fifty Shades of Grey, but instead of the domineering, sexist asshole introducing our heroine to hot sex, he’s introducing her to the, um, joys of chastity. Ambrosino goes on a long examination of why these kinds of movies end up being tedious and boring and failures as art, concluding, to paraphrase wildly, that the pathetic knock-off quality is an inevitable result of the motivations of the filmmakers to “send a message” rather than make a piece of art.
I think that’s true, to an extent, but it’s not the entirety of the issue at hand. Because, to be blunt, plenty of movies have “messages” that they knock you over the head with and still manage to be good movies. “War is hell”, for instance, is a fairly straightforward message, but one that has nonetheless been the backbone of many great novels and films. Nor, as Ambrosino agrees, is ripping someone else off necessarily going to lead to an inferior product. A lot of fiction is just swiping other people’s ideas and reassembling them, deeming it “homage” if the final product looks a little too much like what’s being ripped off, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Look at Quentin Tarantino’s entire body of work for evidence.
No, I think what Christian entertainment is generally missing is humanity. What makes for compelling stories is that they speak to the very real emotions and desires and experiences of the audience. This is true when we’re talking about great art or just diverting entertainment. Citizen Kane speaks to us about the potentially dehumanizing nature of ambition, the alienation from self and others brought on by capitalist forces. Fifty Shades of Grey is not great art, but it’s bringing in the bucks because it presents a fantasy that, like it or not, is real and very provocative for a lot of women, the idea of being able to find sexual and romantic satisfaction without having to rebel against sexist norms restricting women’s power and self-expression. And that’s just it. There’s great art that compels you to think. There’s diverting entertainment that amuses you with fantasies. There’s a lot of stuff that does a little of both. But either way, for a story to work, it has to be rooted in humanity and an understanding of what human beings feel, desire, and fear.
With that in mind, here is a snippet from Ambrosino’s description of Old-Fashioned:
Amber learns of Clay’s theories firsthand when she asks him to come over to fix something in her house. Before he can enter her home, he makes Amber leave. He has made a promise to himself that he will never be alone in a house with a woman. He’s saving himself for marriage, you see.
Clay’s ideas are intriguing to Amber, who finds herself drawn to the throwback gentleman. But both of them have skeletons in their closet, and need to deal with those first if there’s any chance of making their old-fashioned courtship work.
What you get from that description is that Rik Swartzwelder, the screenwriter and director, has never considered in any depth at all what women actually find intriguing. It’s like he read a brief plot description of Fifty Shades and thought, well, if women like men being imperious assholes in bed, then I guess they’d like men being imperious assholes while refusing to fuck you. Hopefully the illogic of that is self-evident, but let me spell it out. However politically incorrect it may be, the fantasy of Fifty Shades is a straightforward one that has been regurgitated over and over for women: The domineering but sexy man takes you against your will and you like it. The reason this fantasy is so evocative for a lot of women is that it allows you to express the fundamental desire to get off while also relieving you of the responsibility of choosing to have sex. For women who have absorbed sexist messages about how women aren’t supposed to want sex, fantasies of rape or reduced consent allow them to have it both ways, to achieve sexual satisfaction without having to question the expectation of chastity put on women.
I’m not making excuses for it, just noting that this is a thing that is true in the world. Not everyone is a feminist who is willing or able to stand up to the bullshit expectation put on women that we should not seek out sex or put a priority on our own pleasure. It’s just a fact that a lot of women go along with social teachings that it’s “wrong” to want sex, and for them, the fantasy of being taken and liking it is evocative. (It’s also, to be abundantly clear, a fantasy. It is not evidence that they actually want to be raped, which is a paradox anyway. It’s understood as a fantasy, like erotic fiction about having sex with centaurs.)
There’s also the Cinderella story aspect. Fifty Shades, like its precursor Twilight, is the fantasy that the boring, everyday person who seemingly has nothing special about them is actually the Chosen One who has a special destiny. It’s basically Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, except that your special destiny is hot sex with a billionaire who can have any woman he wants instead of saving the universe. But same idea, just eroticized. I shouldn’t have to explain why that fantasy has power.
From that synopsis, it’s easy to tell Old-Fashioned has none of this. Being put outside by a man because he thinks merely being alone with a woman, any woman, is too much temptation doesn’t make you feel special or chosen. It makes you feel degraded. And there’s no payoff. You get disrespected, but you don’t get any hot sex out of it. People have fantasies of seducing or being seduced, and neither is on offer here.
Of course, a movie doesn’t have to be wish fulfillment to be entertaining. There’s always the possibility of it being, you know, art, that says something deep and meaningful about human nature and captures your attention by interrogating your values or understanding of the world. (Or it can be horror, which to say that it provokes fears and anxieties and offers catharsis by playing them out for you to scream to. But we can eliminate out of hand the possibility that this is what Old-Fashioned is trying to do.) But it’s hard to imagine how any movie extolling the virtues of chastity could ever really be artful in any meaningful sense. Ambrosino disagrees, writing:
To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with either plot. Chastity is rarely depicted onscreen, but that, of course, doesn’t mean the topic is off-limits. Plus, if Hollywood is serious about cultivating diversity of perspective, then it needs to tell more stories that portray lesser-known walks of life on screen — including religious ones.
I have to disagree. This isn’t a political thing or an argument that art should only depict my values. I’ve seen and read plenty of stuff that has values I disagree with, but I think is still thought-provoking art. But the problem with the pro-chastity point of view is that it collapses under even the briefest of interrogation. To portray, artistically, a struggle for a character to achieve something, you have to convince the audience that the something has value. Chastity, sad to say for Christians, has none. The arguments for its value are laughably flimsy and clearly just a cover story for darker impulses regarding male dominance over women. So you’re left simply asserting that chastity is good because chastity is good, which is boring.
Now, a movie about someone trying to maintain chastity because they need to in order to achieve other, more meaningful goals? That could be interesting. A person who experiences sexual desire but fears being ejected from her family or church and is forced to choose would be a great story. But for the tension to exist, the writer would have to admit that desire is legitimate or that the pressure to be chaste is not due to the inherent goodness of chastity—an impossible thing to argue for—but because of outside forces. Neither of which is admissible here.
That’s why Christian entertainment, I think, is mostly bound to fail. It can’t indulge audience fantasies but nor can it offer meaningful interrogation of ideas or values. Which is interesting, because right wing ideology isn’t inherently anti-entertaining. American Sniper, for instance, may be a political nightmare, but it’s no great mystery what kind of wish fulfillment it offers its audiences. But fundamentalist Christianity is, at its heart, about suppressing the humanity in people and trying to force them into cookie cutter roles that eliminate all the human messiness created by desire. And that is inherently boring and there’s no way to make it not-boring.