Media stories are usually a mixed bag
When I give presentations to Catholic catechists and parents about media they often ask me about what to do when a film or favorite TV show portrays something that makes them squirm. Sometimes it’s offensive language, sometimes it is the level of violence, and sometimes a behavior or lifestyle that doesn’t sit well with their faith is presented as normal and acceptable.
I love a good story. So, it should come as no surprise that I enjoy watching television and movies. I don’t really have a favorite movie genre (well, I really love films based on true stories) but with television, I’m partial to the police procedurals like NCIS and Hawaii 5-0, but I also really enjoy Scorpion, Madam Secretary and Designated Survivor. And I have to mention my favorite Canadian show, Murdoch Mysteries. One trait all these shows share is some sort of mystery or problem the protagonists need to figure out. My analytical mind likes the journey of uncovering the truth together with interesting, quirky, and beloved characters.
At the same time, I watch these shows and films as a follower of Christ with a very specific and defined set of values and ideals that I strive to live by. I’m delighted when my values are reflected in what I see, whether on the big or small screen. The underlying ideas behind many of the television shows I watch is that the good guys will always win or the truth will always prevail.
However, even on the shows I enjoy, not all the values I see represented in the stories or the characters are in line with my values. For example, in Murdoch Mysteries, Murdoch is a Catholic character but when his love interest decides to divorce her husband in favor of Murdoch, he decides to marry her, even though he knows it goes against the teachings of his faith. (If you’re wondering, the show avoids the dilemma by making the husband a homicide victim). The truth is, in our society today with its own values, we can expect to see both positive and negative values in almost any media story. That’s just the way it is. So what do we do with that?
Sifting through the mixed bag
There’s a truth about media that as people of faith we might want to keep in mind: media normalize behavior. This means that media, especially entertainment media, by the way they present characters and stories, can make certain behaviors and lifestyles seem perfectly normal and acceptable even when our faith tells us otherwise. For example, when many romantic relationships happen in a TV show or film, oftentimes the couple will jump into bed at the first opportunity. What does this mean for us who believe that sex is something exclusive to marriage? I remember when a friend of mine was engaged, she once complained about some comments she was getting from other people and said, “Why does everyone assume we (she and her fiancé) are doing it (having sex) already? We’re Catholic and we’re waiting until we’re married.” The thing to realize and question when sex is treated so casually in the media is that not everyone is doing what media makes seem normal. There are those who believe that sex is a gift only for those totally committed to each other in marriage.
Here’s another example. In 2012 there was a television sitcom called The New Normal. It’s plot was a gay couple using a surrogate mother to have a child. The show, cancelled after only one season, ended with the men planning for their wedding as well as the birth of their child. To the non-mindful viewer, this show made homosexual relationships and behavior seem like an acceptable lifestyle choice. The characters are regular, nice, successful people who have many of the same joys and struggle as anyone else. Because they are likable and relatable as characters, their lifestyle is made to seem like a social norm. A quick look at the numbers, however, tells a different story. A Gallup poll in 2015 shows that only 3.8% of the U.S. population identifies as LGBT; not exactly a social majority.
Keep calm and communicate on
It is because of situations like these that the question comes up: what is a follower of Christ to do with this phenomenon of media normalizing behavior? I’m of the opinion that just because media can tend to do this doesn’t mean that we cannot enjoy television or movies—as long as we practice media mindfulness.
What is needed is awareness. We need to be tuned in to the messages media give and the values those messages contain. Then we make choices according to our faith and values. As adults, hopefully there is a maturity level that enables us to distinguish real life from what we see on screen and make thoughtful judgments about what media we allow ourselves to experience. Does a TV show rely heavily on sexual innuendo and sex-themed jokes? Maybe that might be a show we choose not to follow as it contributes to a casual attitude toward sex. Perhaps a film’s story is about love, forgiveness, and mercy, but it has a few swear words, or a gay character. Perhaps we can let ourselves be inspired by the story of love and mercy while at the same time knowing that we would not choose to use offensive language or promote homosexual behavior.
With children, the key is age-appropriate communication with them about what they experience in media. Parents can encourage their kids to ask questions of media stories. A better way to put it might be to be mindful before the media. Whatever your kid’s favorite TV show is, ask it questions. What are the values in this show? Why do I like a particular character? What kinds of lifestyles, behaviors, or language is made to seem normal and acceptable? Just because a show makes something seem normal, does that mean it is or that it should be? Are characters that you like doing something that you don’t like? What would you do differently? Make sure children know that they can always come to their parents about things they see or hear that makes them uncomfortable—whatever it may be. My mentor, Sr. Rose Pacatte, says it this way: “Control is for the moment. Communication lasts a lifetime.”
Most entertainment media presents a mixed bag of things we love about the story or the characters and things we don’t like or disagree with. Especially with children, this presents those of us who care for them perfect opportunities to pass on to them our values as followers of Christ. By engaging kids in meaningful conversation about the positive things we see in media we encourage positive thoughts and behavior. At the same time, we also have the opportunity to speak to them calmly about the negative things we see so our children come to understand that just because we see something in media stories doesn’t always make it right or a good and proper way to act. Then we teach them what is right and proper.