Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
Yesterday I was watching the season premiere of Project Runway when my six-year old daughter joined me on the sofa. After a couple of minutes, she asked, “Mom, is this show real?”
I had to pause before answering. Rosie had never heard of “reality tv,” and I wasn’t sure how to explain that while Project Runway is reality tv, it still isn’t actually real.
Those of us who have witnessed reality tv’s explosion in popularity over the last twenty-five years have come to understand that much of what we’re seeing is actually scripted. Yet still we believe, deep down, in the myths that reality television scripts for us: that justice is blind, the strongest will survive, the most talented will win, and—perhaps most of all—that true love is fireworks and rose petals, candles and happily-ever-after.Love never fails. But if our definition of love is all messed up to begin with, then of course it will fail.
We expect shows like The Bachelor to end with a declaration of true love. This summer’s surprise tv hit, UnREAL, both fulfills and subverts that expectation brilliantly.
Created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, UnREAL is a scripted drama about the off-stage lives of the producers of Everlasting, a reality tv show with an uncanny resemblance to The Bachelor. Not incidentally, Shapiro spent three years as an Associate Producer for The Bachelor before creating UnREAL.
I was hooked from the first scene. Rachel (Shiri Appleby), a producer with a troubled past, is lying on the floor of a limousine with a dirty ponytail and a t-shirt that declares “This is what a feminist looks like”. She’s managing a car-full of contestants in ball gowns begging for bathroom breaks. You can’t help but love her immediately, while also wondering how in the world a feminist justifies working on a show that objectifies women and presents “love” as a patriarchal fairy tale featuring white people. It becomes something you want to keep watching in order to figure it out.
Rachel and her boss/mentor/mother-figure Quinn (played with pitch-perfect cruelty by Constance Zimmer) don’t believe in the story they’re selling: for them, love is an illusion they create and market. In the producer’s room, they tack contestants’ headshots to the wall, labeling them (excuse my language here) “MILF,” “virgin,” “bitch,” and “wifey”. Rachel is conflicted about the ways she manipulates the contestants—a whisper to start a catfight, a friendly suggestion that leads to public humiliation—but she’s masterful at it, “producing” not just the contestants but also her coworkers and friends, including Quinn.
Midway through the season, something changes for both Rachel and Quinn. (Yes, there are spoilers here, but to be honest, nothing could spoil the salty-sweet indulgent pleasure of watching this smart, dark show for yourself.) At some point, both Rachel and Quinn start to believe in true, Everlasting-style love. Rachel falls for the show’s Prince Charming, Adam (Freddie Stroma). On a dusky beach, he asks her to run away with him, and you can see the fairy dust in her eyes. Quinn’s longtime boyfriend leaves his wife and proposes to her, on set, with candles and rose petals and an enormous diamond. For a moment, both women are living the exact fantasy they work to create everyday. For a moment, they both believe in it.
But the fantasy doesn’t last: Adam gets cold feet, and won’t leave the show. He proposes marriage to a contestant instead of Rachel. And Quinn walks in on her fiancé with an intern.
In the season finale, both women are ready for revenge, and they get it, making sure every romantic arc crashes and burns.
For these women, romantic love is as unreal as reality television. And yet we do get a profession of love in the show’s final scene. Rachel and Quinn on lounge chairs, sipping drinks, discuss the season. When Rachel says “I love you” to Quinn, she’s not expressing romantic love. It’s not entirely clear what she means. Is she once again acting as a master manipulator, using Quinn’s maternal sort of affection for her as a way to control her? Is it a way of agreeing to Quinn’s assessment of life as all about power? Is love just a way to get power?
When it comes to reality shows like The Bachelor, we watch, amused by those who allow themselves to be led like lambs to the slaughter in the televised quest for love. But UnREAL forces us to face the cruelty behind the drama, and our own complicity as viewers. Perhaps more importantly, though, it shows how easy it is for television to convince us to believe in the things we know aren’t true.
We mock the fantasy of love as portrayed on The Bachelor, convinced we don’t believe in that nonsense. But Rachel and Quinn didn’t believe in it either, yet they still fell prey to the illusion’s allure. Rachel began to believe in a lie about love and romance, what they looked like, how they felt. And then the lie broke her heart. The show creators wanted us to see that happen. Co-creator Gertrude Shapiro told the Hollywood Reporter that when Rachel saw Adam propose to another contestant, it was her “Walter White” moment. Walter White burned down a factory; Rachel gave up any hope in love.
Love never fails. But if our definition of love is all messed up to begin with, then of course it will fail.
If we teach little boys and girls—and somewhere subliminally believe ourselves—that love is what marketers and the romance-industrial complex and The Bachelor tell us it is, we’ll face consequences. When that lie failed for Rachel, she turned to power and revenge. (We also saw that lie fail for Alicia Florrick of The Good Wife, and that’s when she began her own slow descent into choosing power and selfishness over forgiveness and sacrifice.) And when that lie fails for our own daughters, what will they begin to believe instead?
Frankly, sometimes the church tries to sell the same fantasy that The Bachelor sells, though slightly cleaned up. Instead of framing marriage as one way to live a God-glorifying, fully-human adult life, we paint it as the ultimate fulfillment of our sexuality, the deepest meaning of our identity as male or female, the only way to truly grow up, the maturest form of Christian adulthood. We train our daughters to be ladies-in-waiting and tell them to make themselves attractive and available to their husbands in order to have a good marriage. We imply that it’s about ball gowns and diamonds and dreams-come-true and a constant feeling of infatuation.
Sometimes our portrayal of romantic and marital love has more in common with cultural mythologies than with scripture and Christian tradition. And how will our sons and daughters respond when they find that version of love to be an illusion? Won’t they, like Rachel, rightly want to burn it all down?
Tinder is right there waiting for them when they do.
Hollywood Reporter asked co-creator Marti Noxon if UnREAL is telling us that true love doesn’t exist. That’s not it at all, she answered:
“I think the barrier for a lot of people to actual, real, lasting love is the fantasy. The problem is that we think in [terms of] ‘happily ever after’ love, but real love grows over time…”
Fantasy is a barrier to truth. UnREAL deconstructs the fantasy, making way for the truth, and that’s what the church ought to do as well: we need to expose the myth that human love is an eternal springtime and marriage a personal adventure in finding happiness. We didn’t “lose” marriage when the government extended the right to the LGBT community. We lost it long ago when we bought into its romantic redefinition.
We need to stop supporting the romance-industrial complex, both on our tvs and in our churches. We need to recognize the way that these lies seep into our subconscious and alter our views of real relationships. When my daughter asks me again someday about what’s real or what love means, I want to have a better answer than “someday a strong man will choose you, and you will be captivated, and follow his dream, and live happily ever after.”
Yeah, that mythic fantasy sells better than a story of sacrifice and commitment and personal growth. But she needs to know that, in the long run, marriage is as much about doing small things with great love as it is about sparks at sunset. There are sparks, yes; romance is real and a God-given gift. After nine years of marriage, my husband can still make me dizzy with desire. But pre-marital abstinence is not a guarantee of good sex in marriage. Sexual desires wax and wane, for both women and men. There are kisses on the beach at sunset and there are nights when you’d rather watch The Office. Laundry piles up and we lodge tiny grievances regarding dishwasher-loading-methods. He makes you coffee every morning and leaves his stubble in the sink. Marriage isn’t riding off in a carriage while wearing a ball gown. It’s a relationship in which two become one while inexplicably encouraging each other to be more fully who they are as individuals. It is, as Gary Thomas writes, more about holiness than happiness.
If we want people to believe in the goodness of marriage and the possibility of everlasting, mature love, then the church should be doing exactly what UnREAL is doing—exposing the false promises of these myths. But where Rachel and Quinn turn to cynicism and power, we can offer another ending: a turn to hope and sacrifice, and a restored vision of the beauty and life-giving nature of marital love. “The Bible teaches that the essence of marriage is a sacrificial commitment to the good of the other,” Tim Keller writes in The Meaning of Marriage. Marriage isn’t just a social transaction, a “way of doing your duty to family, tribe, and society.” And it isn’t just a consumerist choice for personal or romantic fulfilment. Christian marriage, instead, “unites feelings AND duty, passion AND promise,” Keller says. And in some mysterious way, marriage teaches us about the love God has for us. God truly knows us, and still truly loves us.
At its best, marriage offers us a taste of that same experience.
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