Pop Culture Rewind: Representations of God on the Screen

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Words || Tieri Cafe

You know that scene in Hail Caesar where Josh Brolin’s character calls in several clergymen to give their opinions on how God should be represented in the least offensive way, and then everyone ends up arguing? So it’s like that. Religion has always been one of the few topics that can start a heated debate at the dinner table or turn someone into a keyboard warrior. In my research into popular representations of the Abrahamic Godhead and what they say about our society I’ve found that – despite the fact that religion is a highly malleable construct, constantly subject to contextual ideals – any expansion upon the heavily reinforced narrative of the white patriarch is often short-lived. Western popular culture seems to keep coming back to the depiction of its most prevalent religious icon as a powerful, strangely muscular old dude with a beard as white as privilege itself.

The Man Himself

Straight out of the pearly gates with a voice as smooth as honey, Morgan Freeman is arguably the most iconic film representation of the religious idol, his role in Bruce Almighty solidifying him in the public consciousness as the ACTUAL Almighty. It is an interesting idea to consider that while racial discrimination is still distinctly apparent within our society, an African American man is so easily accepted as God. Do light-hearted religious comedies open our minds to racial issues? Has Morgan Freeman single-handedly broken the God-ceiling for people of colour? Well, no. Turns out the ‘black angel’ trope has been around for decades, and it’s not so friendly. Morgan Freeman as God is just a trumped-up version of every Janitor/Mechanic/Homeless African American dude who ever so kindly nudges the white protagonist back onto their path of glory (usually with some kind of vague spiritual power). Disney’s long-buried Song of the South is a particularly hideous example as it was produced in 1946 while Jim Crow racial segregation laws were definitely still a thing, and yet African American actor James Baskett still has the passive good-will to sing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah to some white kids.

Stuck Like Glue to My God

I can’t help but question the logistics behind the controversy in representing the Lord as a woman. Women create life all the time like it’s no big deal. And every kid knows that their mum is omniscient. Whoopi Goldberg, Academy-Award nominated actress turned daytime talk show host, is a decent enough example of female Godhead to begin with. Her role in the heavily panned rom-com A Little Slice of Heaven (and also sort of in that Muppet Christmas movie), solidified her as the leading go-to actress for the female ‘black angel’ trope. With the glorious exception of Sister Act, every role that woman has held has been essentially a motivational speech for some white dude.

Alanis Morissette is God in Kevin Smith’s Dogma, a fine choice considering her music and her own beliefs on the matter. However, throughout the whole movie she remains silent while Alan Rickman’s character speaks for her. Once again, the ideology in associating women as submissive and unable to function without a dominating male presence is evident even while said female is in the highest possible position of power. Also, this representation feels like an extension of the comedic tone of the movie, devaluing its significance pretty distinctly.

Animation Damnation

Animated shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy both use a similar formula to guarantee entertainment – a dysfunctional family featuring a fat, unattractive husband/father and a hot, skinny wife/mother who have three kids – a boy, a girl and a baby. Another thing these two have in common is their aesthetic take on Heaven and God. In shows like these, the cruder end of animated television, a lot of the humour relies on transgressions. Mostly, these are social transgressions of some kind, but these shows really do relish taking the popular understanding of a figure and bastardising it as much as possible (see: every adult animated comedy’s representation of Santa). We’re given enough recognisable aspects, white, booming voice, usually a beard for whatever reason, and then God goes and gives some shitty life advice, curses, or otherwise portrays some sort of ungodly behaviour, Homer says “Do’h” and everybody laughs. However, these transgressions can never be meaningful because the comedy relies on reinforcing the dominant, conventional way of thinking. Even if the Lord wasn’t a white male with a long beard and a big chair, the laughter would come from how strange and wrong it seemed.

Conclusion

For an all-powerful being, pop-culture God never really seems to be capable of pushing the boundary too far. Despite the women and people of colour who’ve stepped into the role over time we seem to be stuck with a white male representation of the great Almighty. Kinda says a lot about society.

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