If "Representation" is the Issue, Where Are Pixar's Religious Characters?
Culture war can be a Cold War, too.
Look: I know that a posture of constant reactivity to secular society is bad for evangelicals. Of all the things I want this newsletter to be, a running commentary on how terrible non-Christians are is not one of them. I also don’t want to engage culture from behind, waiting for media organizations to set the agenda for my thoughts, prayers, and opinions. For that reason, I hope you’ll receive this post in the spirit it is intended.
In the new movie Lightyear, Pixar has now given an onscreen protagonist a same-sex partner, referred explicitly to their relationship, and featured an onscreen kiss. This will mean very little to most audiences. For people like me and my family, however, this is a big deal. I’ve had to come to grips with the fact that my kids (5 and 3 right now, with one on the way) are going to grow up in a Western culture where homosexuality and same-sex relationships are tied into mass commercialism in a way they never were when I was growing up. Anger does not achieve the righteousness of God, and it won’t even “protect” the children of millennials from this. This is where society is and where it’s going, and if the future of life in America looks more like Paul’s Corinth than Andy’s Mayberry, we can only confess that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
So my most important question in times like these is how to cultivate an ethic of Christian perseverance rather than reactivity. But that perseverance has a public-facing aspect, and to that end, I think it’s important to point out that these landmarks of media depiction of LGBT relationships are besotted with poor reasoning. It’s one thing to say that today’s kids are growing up in a post-Obergefell world; it’s another to say that of all social realities, sexuality is the one that merits dramatization in the world’s biggest producer of children’s media. Why, one might reasonably ask, is a character with two grandmothers more authentic and germane to a children’s fable than, say, a character with an alcoholic or incarcerated parent?
We are reliably informed that this issue here is representation. Including LGBT people in these stories matters for the flourishing of children who need stories they can identify with. Thus, Chris Evans, the star of Lightyear, tells Yahoo, “The goal is that we can get to a point where it is the norm, and that this doesn’t have to be some uncharted waters, that eventually this is just the way it is. That representation across the board is how we make films.” Anyone familiar at all with social justice-themed conversations in pop culture recognizes this kind of description of representation. Representation is worth controversy, it’s worth commercial headwinds, because representation is the media expression of equality. Representation, we are told, is the imaginative measure of equality in culture.
The problem, though, is that representation is talked about not only as an enactment of equality but as a reflection of real life. Debates about representation always center on socially identifiable categories, like race, gender, and sexuality. It’s possible to find writers who will complain about representation of personalities in media, but these complaints don’t typically rise to the surface, and they surely don’t make a media company confident enough to risk controversy the way representation in race and sexuality does. This brings us to the question: is the connection between representation and real life genuine?
No, I don’t think it is, and the biggest reason I believe so is religion. Religion is the biggest and most meaningful social category that advocates of representation in pop culture absolutely, steadfastly will not touch. Vague religious references can work if they are quick and tertiary, but trying to find a character in a studio-produced film who is explicitly motivated by a religious faith that in turn benefits others is quite difficult. (Note that I’m not saying such movies don’t exist; they do, but most likely they are independently produced and not intended for multiplex audiences.)
Pixar’s role as a family-oriented storyteller makes their religious avoidance especially noticeable. It’s hard to imagine how a studio committed to representation could make so many films about middle-class protagonists, including nuclear families, and somehow end up with characters that are uniformly non-practicing, if not agnostic. Statistically speaking, the odds are very good that Mr. and Mrs. Incredible are more religiously observant than than their childless friends, but they do not appear to be. Likewise, Pixar fails to represent religious communities even in their narratives about death. This is doubly confusing given how much pagan piety is on display in pre-Christian films like Brave.
Pixar is certainly not spirituality-adverse. One film that could be suggested as a defeater for my argument is Soul, a story which arguably comes closer than any other Pixar entry to a sustained reflection on heaven and the afterlife. But in terms of representation, Soul proves my point. Its Unitarian sentiment could be passed off as representation perhaps a century ago, but not now. Now, Soul’s eschatology is understood to be representing no faith and no faith community at all, unless you count Oprah as a faith. That Pixar’s writers show both an awareness and a sensitivity toward spirituality-qua-spirituality does not make their avoidance of explicitly religious protagonists more understandable. It makes it hypocritical. It undermines the idea, sold aggressively now with Lightyear, that representation plays a decisive part in the kinds of stories Disney is willing to feature. Either this is simply not true, or Disney does not consider religion to be meaningful enough to represent. If the latter is true, why should audiences believe Disney when it says that sexual orientation is meaningful enough to represent?
The point here is not that Disney is an evil company that wants to groom your children. The point is that the privileging of sexuality over religion is itself a philosophical commitment that betrays Disney’s (and social justice politics’s) stated commitment to pure representation. Lightyear does not feature a lesbian character because lesbians are real and part of society, it features a lesbian character because the makers of Lightyear believe that these kinds of identities and cultures are worth thinking about. And the reason no Pixar movie to date features a devout Catholic or Protestant character is the same, but in reverse: The writers do not believe that kind of identity and culture is worth thinking about.
That’s a kind of culture war. Pointing it out is not.