Diane Winston —
Monsters We Love: TV's Pop Culture Theodicy

Amoral zombies. Loving vampires. Righteous serial killers. And lots of God. That's all in the new TV season — a place where great writers and actors are telling the story of our time — playfully, violently, soulfully.

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Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Her media and religion blog is called "the SCOOP."

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24Reflections

Reflections

Shows such as Dexter, True Blood, and the Walking Dead are bringing out a deep sense of meaninglessness and divine absences. Morality is turned inside out. These TV shows bring out the darkness of the world. Most shows question where God is throughout all their sufferings. I absolutely love Dexter. I own every season, and stay up to date on the new season weekly. I love the show because of its relation to God. Dexter's main purpose is to try to lead himself out of the darkness that has enveloped him since he was a child. Dexter must make his way to the light. Shows such as Dexter take our questions of God to the extreme. They help us to question things that some are too scared to question. These TV shows bring out a dark reflection on humanity. The TV shows make us view the souls of the people being portrayed. It makes us take a look at actions and consequences. Shows like Dexter are needed, so that we may look at the negative in life. It helps to question the things that so many of us are afraid to.

I loved this episode. I've reflected on the spiritual aspects of programs like The Walking Dead, and have written on it, and some have thought it a stretch. But it's affirming to find others who see similar elements, thus allowing me some credibility on such things. For some additional thoughts on the episode "What Lies Ahead" on zombies in church and the symbolism in the program, see my post at TheoFantastique.com: http://www.theofantastique.com/2011/10/19/the-walking-dead-goes-to-churc.... You might also be interested to learn of our forthcoming anthology "The Undead and Theology, co-edited by Kim Paffenroth and myself (Wipf & Stock, forthcoming): http://www.theofantastique.com/2011/09/03/the-undead-and-theology-to-be-...,

It was enlightening to hear that although we have now turned from watching murder and sex crime dramas to vampires and zombies, they are addressing serious questions of existence and morality.

As a Catholic, I look for Catholic truth in TV shows and I'm interested in how religion and God are portrayed. I found the series of movies 'The Matrix' to be the most profound reflection on the person of Jesus and the meaning of the Crucifixion and Resurrection that I've ever seen. It was inaccurate in small parts, and Jesus in reality did even more than Neo does, but it's close. Too bad we have to see it in these other scenarios and can't find it in the Bible, in Mass, in prayer.

But this is in a long tradition of Biblical themes, reality, in different settings, see for example The Lord of the Rings or the Narnia series, and others. In 'Lost', the golden place they finally find - of peace and joy - is a relocation of Eucharistic Adoration for Catholics to a natural cave or cove. (It's not there, but the desire and sense that it exists somewhere is real.)

As a Catholic, I have no interest at all in zombies or vampires, etc. (See the book '23 minutes in hell' where the creatures the man saw there were reptilian.) These characters have no relationship with God, by definition and in reality, so they are of no interest to me. Man without God is not much. And God is not an idea, but a Person, three Persons, who lives with us. As Pope John Paul II said, 'Jesus is the answer to every human question'.

On the other hand, that we live in a world where we can't find God, have to live without Him, it reminds us of the dereliction of the Cross, where Jesus suffered the loss of God, though He was and is God, and the eventual resurrection - 'He trapped all in disobedience, so he could have mercy on all', as St. Paul tells us, so this loss of God can be a prelude to the dawn of God's mercy.

One last thought would be that we are a very seriously sinful culture - abortion, euthanasia, etc., and this sin makes us ask 'Is a vampire still human' in the sense of 'Am I still human given what I have done?' Sin, as in Lady MacBeth, leads us to ask serious questions because we don't know what will become of us or what we have become, or whether there is hope for us.

Religion, the Catholic faith, but other faiths as well, even if partial, as the man found with the prayer rug, is the answer, but we seem to not to be able to get there. But the hunger is still there, so let's keep up the hope.

So the only station I watch is EWTN.

I just finished listening to Krista's unedited conversation with Ms. Winston and I loved it! I was a little suprised that as far as reality shows were concerned, Sister Wives wasn't mentioned. In my opinion, the show does a very good job of discussing the Mormon religion and doesn't just use the family's poligamy for plot value. Another reality show that I find informative, [but may be too new ro be mentioned,] is All-American Muslim. The show profile's Musslim's who range from Conservitave to exteremly Liberal. They have a segmant on the show were they discuss issues that are considered Controversial. Would you consider discussinf these shows on a future radio program? Another show that I love [and was curious as to whether Americans know about,] is a Canadian dramady called Being Erica. It's in it's last season and is similar to Enlightened. Erica woeks in a dead-end office job and has trouble with her family and realtionships. She tries to commit suicide but is brought back to life by a man named Doctor Tom who wants to help her. After Erica chooses to live, Doctor Tom bcomes her terapist and sends her back in time so that she may fix her past mistakes. Eventually Erica becomes a Doctor herself and has to help other people in the same way. I a;m sorry for writing so much, but I just wanted to tell you about thes shows you might've missed.

Hi thank you for your show I find enlighing and thoughtful. The idea of how soirtaulty has seem to be playing a larger role in media is always a good issue. There have been many shows and movies that have done this. Im glad to see this change in media. Mostly because it give a deeper understanding of the charactors and the story. The influnce of one faith has always played a role in life and history.

First I enjoyed the conversation. I seem to enjoy the openness of "maybe it means this, or maybe that"; that this show dealt with what many average people are experiencing right now; and that it was only minimally constrained by the need to defer to or comply with any ancient dogma. I was most interested in the conjunction within one program of a traditional all-loving God and and also a God with something in common with monsters, of script writers and actors professing to experience God and then having something very bad happen. This leads to my belief that people understand God, if there is a God, about the way that worms understand people. We can not reconcile Japan getting nuked once by the U.S. Air Force and then again by a tsunami, or The Holocaust, or the fact that right now this very second people are being tortured to death in various prisons around the world, always have been, and there's no sign it will stop, with a benevolent God as we understand "benevolent". So as far as we actually know we're here alone in nature, where in general the strong eat the weak, and with science and the evolution of systems of law and justice we have made some progress, but now, with our planet in real danger, the anti-scientific religious allies of the lords of greed in this country had better shut up so we can pass some carbon emissions control legislation. China and India? I don't know much about them but if New York and LA are under water they'll be in trouble too, so they had better do the same.

As a Muslim, it bothered me that Diane Winston, an educated professor and presumably ecumenical actor, would jump to the conclusion that she did as she watched the episode of "Homeland Security" that revealed that the hero veteran was a Muslim convert. Especially with this kind of show (though I confess I have only seen the first episode, I do not consume a lot of television) that seemed to demand of the audience to question its assumptions. Regardless of how the show turned out (and it would be devastating if the veteran turned out to be guilty of treason), the mentally disturbed state of the show's female protagonist would seem to me to be an allegory of the US public mind set post 9/11. A Muslim saying his prayers in the normal universe is just that, a Muslim saying his prayers. But as I recall, post 9/11, a member of the president's secret service traveling while off duty was hauled off an airplane because he was reading a book that appeared to be written in Arabic.
Krista, thank you for your perspective.

I found today's conversation amusing and enlightening. I never knew the difference between a zombie and a vampire. While I don't watch the programs discussed, I saw that it is possible to take away human lessons from these fantasy stories much in the same way we did from Star Trek and other science fiction.

What troubled me about the conversation was the repeated reference to human sacrifice in all religions, particularly in Judaism with the Akeda, or sacrifice of Isaac. It is a troubling story, but in the end, Isaac was not sacrificed. We know that human sacrifice was common among ancient Middle Eastern societies. The Akeda was a lesson to humankind that God does not want human sacrifice. That is why the angel of God stayed Abraham's hand and let him substitute a lamb for his son.

Thank you for your interesting and thought-provoking programs.

I am not a big TV watcher, a typical week for me consist of less than 10 hours of viewing time. I find it rather difficult to watch shows as I feel that many aspects of life in these programs have either been overly romanticized or void of meaning, that is why I found this particular broadcast very fascinating. I really appreciated the discussion on themes of: meaning, God, morality and re-enchanting the world that current shows are tackling.

Whenever I first decide to watch a TV program I initially ask myself, ‘does the show provide a potential learning opportunity for me?’ If my conclusion is yes, then after viewing the first episode I ask myself ‘how does this show’s commentary about society appeal to me?’ Shows where existential ploys are utilized to affirm complex and disconcerting aspects of societal experiences are rather intriguing.

One of the shows that I have a strong proclivity for and meets my criteria is one that was mentioned in this broadcast, True Blood. The allegory is quite powerful in my opinion. I really am drawn to the underlining commentary that is made on discrimination and its relationship as the instigator of individuals’ feelings otherness. What I love about True Blood in particular is that every group feels marginalized in some way shape or form. Just in this last season, I really felt for characters such as Antonia, Marni and the group of Wiccans that were accosted by vampires; I could relate to their struggle and their urge to defend themselves.

While critics have often commented that the vampires of True Blood are stand-ins for the current issues within Gay Rights or an allusion to the Civil Rights movement, I think what the show says on a large scale goes much deeper than that. There is this profound impenitence towards the lack of morality and ethical values in society as a whole. You often hear Bill Compton in these melancholy multifaceted laments about the lost of one’s own humanity. It is often followed by an incessant contrition regarding his many contributions to this epidemic. That is just so powerful; it makes me understand the seriousness behind a much need introspective look within ourselves that our civilization needs to have.

There are a two big questions that this show appears to ask; for me those are ‘whether or not one’s struggle is more profound and important than another and can their be complete truth in a one sided view of life?’ I have come to the conclusion that fighting between to opposing ends is nothing more than a truth in discord. Is anyone truly ever right or wrong? Truth is what you believe it to be, it is indeed a relative state of thinking and if we are to overcome our own personal turmoil that ravage the greater good of humankind and our own humanity we must recognize a collective need to be active participants in our own stories against adversity. Or as Bill Compton so metaphorically and brilliantly put it so at the Festival of Tolerance in Episode 45, “How can you have an event in honor of the living dead without any living dead? It’s like having a civil rights protest without any black people.” Until we engage ourselves compassionately in the collective struggle, can we get anywhere?

I think it is interesting why we like these shows, with vampires and bad guys who are good guys(in a sense). I have only seen a few of the shows they talked about. Dexter, for example, is one I have seen. I only watched the first episode and it was pretty disturbing. I'm considering giving it another chance....
One of the interesting things I took from the show was the more in depth look into the symbolism of the characters and the symbolism of their progression throughout the show. I usually watched for face value and didn't look any deeper. For example, the vampire shows depicting the vampires as those who are different and how they try to fit in. I think that is a very important point. Another reason for these shows could be to try to understand how people come to be that way(as in Dexter or Breaking Bad). It's so easy to judge someone on what they've done, but to see how they got to that point is a whole different story. It's make the plot more believable and the characters more human.
We are always searching and sometimes we find small parts of ourselves in these shows. Whether it's good or bad, we learn something about ourselves from it.

Thought it was a really interesting comment made that our search for meaning has not always come from inside religion. Your discussion was really inspiring, makes me think of Simon and Garfunkel's words in the song, The Sounds of Silence:

"And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls ..."

I enjoyed this broadcast. Most of the TV programs that were talked about I have seen at some point and I do watch The Walking Dead.

I like when they said in The Walking Dead the living actually become the walking dead. They truly do become the walking dead, they are thrown into terrible situations where they have to become numb to all the evil around them and they almost end up dead inside themselves. The Walking Dead is a very dark view of life or how life could be. I agree when Rick, who isn’t a religious man, comes upon a church and asks god for a sign of hope and then his son is shot in a hunting accident, it is similar to Abraham and Isaac. Not the sign of hope Rick was hoping for and it added even another struggle to his story but he is stronger for feeling the potential loss, having prayed and his son survived against the odds. There is hope.

I do think some of today’s programming is this generations was of asking, where is god? The programs find the good and bad in people and not all heros are righteous. Even the good guys have flaws and don’t always do the right thing, very similar to biblical stories.

Some thoughts after this show:

I would have found it interesting to hear you talk about a show like Bored to Death and comedies in general. Bored to Death's premise is that a fictionalized version of the author Jonathan Ames solves his writer's block by solving mysteries, film-noir style in Brooklyn.
Ostensibly, the genre is one of fear and uncertainty, but rather than a world of monsters, the show places its neurotic characters in a world in which things are basically ok, and the characters can find safety in each others' company. For those of us young adults (young men specifically) who sometimes find modern, urban life scary, not comforting, and, yes, boring, I appreciate a show that celebrates an urban space like Brooklyn and puts intimate, loyal friendships between men of different generations front and center. Indeed, it's interesting that the show also shows the listlessness of middle-aged success in the character portrayed by Ted Danson... who has run out of ideas and yearns for adventure and connection.
This broadcast of On Being, like the last with Diane Winston, focuses so much on the, admittedly quite wonderful, very dark and gritty television shows being produced right now. With the short discussion of reality TV and Enlightened, what else do some of the light-hearted programs currently being produced say about society. What about a show like Glee which I don't care for but which is its own kind of phenomenon. What about women-lead sit-coms like 30 Rock and Parks and Rec?

Lastly, just an interesting note: Mike White and his dad Mel, who Winston references in the interview, are reality show superstars. They were a team on two seasons of the Amazing Race and shared their unique story throughout.

My take on the recent trend of TV shows and movies with supernatural characters (zombies-vampires-werewolves) is that they are less about spirituality and more about how we deal with the "other". I think it's important that the creatures in these shows share two characteristics:

1) They are formerly human and/or can easily be mistaken for human. These are not "Aliens" type monsters.

2) They exist in large numbers and have their own social groups and social structures. These are not one-off monsters like Dracula or Frankenstein's monster or The Mummy.

The combination of those two factors means that they dwell among us and need to be dealt with on an ongoing basis. They can pass as human. We don't know what they're really like until they show us their fangs or fur. Or they used to be human -- our friends, our neighbors, our family -- until they turned into something else. So how are we going to deal with these creatures? Are we going to "take them out" or are we going to learn how to live with them, understand them, or even love them?

Consider the fragmentation of American society and all the opposing groups we see around us today: left vs. right, 99% vs. 1%, gay vs. straight, Christian vs. Muslim vs. secular. Regardless of which side of those divides we're on, when we encounter the "other" are we going to see them as a "monster"? Are we going to take them out or learn to live with them, understand them, or even love them?

This particular pod cast was very interesting. The direction popular culture has leaned toward the supernatural is not only a success for the shows themselves, but also a huge influence to people, today. There are many shows that bring imagination to life, with death. As viewers of shows like "Dexter," "True Blood," and "The Walking Dead" can see, these dramas are the new entertainment of our recent time. As humans, we see life in ways like abstractly, realistically and a lot of times, tangibly. When we add concepts of human life alongside zombies that used to be our loved ones or righteous serial killers that kill for the "right reason" or even supernatural beings torn between morality and survival, we look at how would we react to these characters or plots that intertwine reality and really creative fiction. How do we define what is right or wrong when everything we know as right, goes wrong? What does it take and how long does it take human nature to re-establish these lines of virtuous conduct? How these characters in these shows are portrayed is how the viewer can "stay in-tune." When Krista Tippet draws the question of "Why vampires?," Dr. Winston states that they have something that is a draw for many people; sex, money, and existentialism. When there has always been a sort of charm with vampires, a way with seduction, people build a fascination around the concept of, are vampires still capable of being human or having human tendencies? Is there life with death?

The pod cast also brings to light shows like "Homeland." When they talk about "Homeland," the premise is that an American prisoner is taken hostage in Iraq after eight years of being held hostage and now, returns home, as a hero, where he may be suspected as a terrorist. This show is a good connection between the correlation of suspicions we have as a western culture and the Islamic religion and their intentions against us. The point that Krista Tippet makes toward the show strikes Dr. Winston as something she had not thought of yet. She brings up the point that, this man was a prisoner for eight years in Iraq, comes home and becomes a hero, and with this heroism, he takes with him to pray in an Islamic fashion. Is he a "soon-to-be" terrorist? Or, does he use his Islamic connection as a way to keep his faith in America?

These creative fictional shows tie in realistic perspectives that we all can relate to. Whether we have direct significance toward the subject that the plot portrays, there is some emotional connection we can find. As Dr. Winston and Tippet talk about, "What is it to be human?" "What is morality?" These are concepts we can toy with in TV but are also concepts that humans have pondered for centuries.

This movie was definitely one of my favorite movies that we've watched in this class. It really brought into focus many ethic issues. There were definitely some good ethics and there were definitely some bad ethics. I really respected Jeffery Wigand, because he had the courage to step forward about the tabacco company and the increased nicotine addiction in cigarettes. I think anybody would find it hard to go up against a pwerful company after signing a confidentiality agreement. What really surprised me was that sixty minutes pulled the plug on the broadcast about the nicotine enhancement. I think was sixty minutes did was in conflict with truth and loyalty stated in the code of ethics. I say truth, becasue even though they weren't lying, they were with-holding the truth that people should have known, which brings me to why sixty minutes was in conflict with the loyalty ethic. Even though, to be loayl to their viewers, they should have aired the episone revealing the nicotine enhancement, they did not. And they did not, becasue they were more concerned about how this would affect them, and not what they should be doing for their viewers. So, once again, this movie is just another prime example of how broadcasting companies are really actually concerned about themselves and what they can do to bring in money, and what they can avoid so they don't lose money.

This was a very interesting broadcast. I feel like it definitely applies to a lot of people, because watching television is such a big part of everyone's lives. The shows they touched on are also really big. The only one of the shows I have watched is Dexter. I personally really like this show. I do notice parts in the show that seem to be ironic. For instance, there has been episodes where he struggles with God. Basically the Is there really a God out there, and why would he make me this way if there were? I think this is pretty big question that many people struggle with. I think it is part of humanity to question God and his exsistance. I don't necessarily believe that religious pieces are put in these shows for marketing. I think it's just such a normal part of life that it would almost seem weird to not incorporate it in the show. I'm sure if you watched any show, violent or not, religious pieces would come up. Most of the time you probably wouldn't even notice since it is such a normal thing. I did find it interesting in the broadcast when they stated it was easier to watch Walking Dead or True blood because they aren't real. So apparently it is better to watch some zombies sitting before a crucifix versus a real human being. I just thought that was weird. If a religion is being demoralized in any show, weather zombies are involved or not, I think it has the same emotion on the viewer.

Monsters We Love TV’s Pop Culture Theodicy Being interviewed in this week’s subject is Diane Winston. Shows such as Dexter, True Blood, and the Walking Dead are bringing out a deep sense of meaninglessness and divine absenceness. Morality is turned inside out. These TV shows bring out the darkness of the world. Most shows question where God is throughout all their sufferings. I myself absolutely love Dexter. I own every season, and stay up to date on the new season weekly. I love the show because of its relation to God. Dexter’s main purpose is to try to lead himself out of the darkness that has enveloped him since he was a child. Dexter must make his way to the light. Shows such as Dexter take our questions of God to the extreme. They help us to question things that some are too scared to question. These TV shows bring out a dark reflection on humanity. The TV shows make us view the souls of the people being portrayed. It makes us take a look at actions and consequences. Shows like Dexter are needed, so that we may look at the negative in life. It helps to question the things that so many of us are afraid to.

Being interviewed in this week’s subject is Diane Winston. Shows such as Dexter, True Blood, and the Walking Dead are bringing out a deep sense of meaninglessness and divine absenceness. Morality is turned inside out. These TV shows bring out the darkness of the world. Most shows question where God is throughout all their sufferings. I myself absolutely love Dexter. I own every season, and stay up to date on the new season weekly. I love the show because of its relation to God. Dexter’s main purpose is to try to lead himself out of the darkness that has enveloped him since he was a child. Dexter must make his way to the light. Shows such as Dexter take our questions of God to the extreme. They help us to question things that some are too scared to question. These TV shows bring out a dark reflection on humanity. The TV shows make us view the souls of the people being portrayed. It makes us take a look at actions and consequences. Shows like Dexter are needed, so that we may look at the negative in life. It helps to question the things that so many of us are afraid to.

I listened to the December 4th broadcast of On Being. The topic was: the monsters we love, dealing with the popularity of monster stories in media today, particularly television. I found this broadcast to be very interesting as I watch many of the shows that were discussed. The main points of discussion were the moral implications in monster stories. I have heard it said that you can tell what a culture fears from the kinds of monsters it creates in its stories, vampires were born out of fear of rich foreigners coming to Western Europe to steal land and women from its citizens, and Godzilla was born out of post-world war two Japan’s fear of nuclear weapons. One of the points brought up in the broadcast was how popular zombie stories have become. This led me to think, “What does it say about our culture that zombies are our monster of choice?” It could stem from a fear of increased homogenization amongst people due to the effects of mass media. I would be interested to know what others think.

I enjoyed your discussion last weekend about morality and contemporary television shows like "Breaking Bad" even though I hadn't watched the shows. I made a point of watching "Breaking Bad" after your interesting discussion.

I would like to hear a similar discussion using quality modern movies, plays and literature--e.g., "The Iceman Commeth," Glengarry Glen Ross," "Sophie's Choice," "Kramer versus Kramer," "Doubt," "Death of a Salesman," and, going back a bit, "The Brothers Karamazov" (As I recall, one of the brothers, Alyosha, was a Christ figure.), "Before the Devil Knows you're Dead," and so forth. Serious movies speak more directly to me on moral issues than anything in the Bible.

“There is no right or wrong”. Despite this being a quote from a media production, I believe that is still applies to what we as a society are coddled into accepting as normal. Ambiguity is what opens the door to the spread of moral depravity. What’s most troubling is that what was once considered moral depravity is what is considered normal and modern.
Krista said that zombies are essentially bodies without souls. We relate to this thought most strongly when we feel that the lives we lead are less conducive to being expressive individuals and more about going through the motions. While I understand and appreciate the logic behind the appeal of watching shows or reading books about monsters such as zombies and vampires, I think it is our cultural preoccupation with these topics that is creating zombies. People are watching lives unfold on a screen after coming home from work instead of going out and living their own lives.
The interview touched briefly on reality television. Entertaining at times, disgustingly scripted and pandered at others, it draws the focus outward on storylines that have nothing to do with the average person. There is a great parody of Snooki on a segment of Saturday Night Live. Snooki (or rather a portly man with a spray tan and bad wig squeezed into a cheetah-print dress holding a red party cup) delivers this little jem: “I’m like a basketball – I’m orange, leathery, and get passed around by sweaty guys”. Watching reality television ‘stars’ make bowel movements into refrigerators is not normal; it’s stupidity.
The escapist attitude that permeates or culture is what is most disconcerting. All of these shows about darkness are a great escape; however, people escape into darkness. Art imitating our poor little dark lives makes it too easy to become passive. Life has always been tough – labeling it as dark implies that we need to escape to some sort of light. Every day we get up and are able to breathe and have a meal is light. Routine and constancy do not make us zombies; they make us normal. Perhaps then it’s the adventurers and travelers and thrill seekers and celebrities are the real monsters, not us. Until we wake up enough to make a change or start a movement, living vicariously through Sooki Stackhouse is the only means of after-work adventure we are going to have.

This conversation interested me because it is about many of the shows I enjoy watching like The Walking Dead, Lost, Breaking Bad, etc and how those shows pertain to faith and beliefs. They bring up many universal questions that people have always had, but in a much more dramatic way that is very fascinating to me and many others. Questions like where is God in my suffering, and what happens to morality during a crisis? These questions have been asked countless times over the centuries by people, so people can relate when T.V. shows bring out extreme scenarios that ask and somewhat answer these questions in their own way. The majority of peoples’ faith or beliefs teach of being a good, moral person, which tend to be easier to do when times are good. These beliefs aren’t really tested until a time of crisis, which happens often in these shows. People like to watch them and hope that they would be the brave person doing the right thing, and these shows bring out both the good and bad sides of people in very difficult times.

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