Religion

Atheists: Stop Freaking Out About Atheists on TV

This morning, I saw that Hemant posted a meme complaining about the portrayal of atheists on (American) television.

The image shows the following characters with the following labels:

Temperance Brennan from Bones, “ROBOT”
Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, “EMOTIONLESS”
Dexter Morgan from Dexter, “MURDERER”
House from House, “MISANTHROPE”
Perry Cox from Scrubs, “ASSHOLE”
Britta Perry from Community, “PESSIMIST”

It then reads, “That’s Hollywood’s portrayal of atheists in television. Time for a change.”

I admit, I may have injured myself when my head hit the desk.

atheist_TV

Three of the pictured characters are not only the protagonists of their respective shows but they actually lend their names to the shows. They are the shows. They are complex and dynamic characters, which means that yes, they have interesting flaws that make for entertaining viewing. Would House, MD have been a better show if House was a perfect, lovable, friendly pal? Would Dexter have been a better character if he was a Christian, or an atheist who didn’t murder murderers?

The idiocy of the meme becomes extra-obvious by the end, when the best worst trait the creator could think of was to label Britta Perry as a “pessimist.” A pessimist, really? Britta, if anything, is an idealist. She wants to be seen as a progressive who is constantly fighting for the disadvantaged, but she’s too shallow and ignorant to do anything right and too flaky to stick to a cause for long enough to do anything. She has a thousand flaws but is incredibly lovable, and hilarious, just like every other character on Community.

So to sum up: it’s easy to cherry pick “bad” characters, and it’s even easier to cherry pick “bad” traits about specific characters, especially when those characters are well-written. To illustrate, here’s an identical meme about Hollywood’s portrayal of Christians:

christian_TV

Here’s my list:

Bill Henrickson from Big Love: “POLYGAMIST”
Shirley Bennett from Community: “PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE HYPOCRITE”
Ned Flanders from The Simpsons: “ANNOYING ASSHOLE”
Hershel Greene from The Walking Dead: “KEPT ZOMBIE FAMILY IN A BARN”
Caleb from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “MISOGYNIST SERIAL KILLER”
Casey from The Mindy Project: “TERRIBLE DJ”

Do you know what was the hardest thing about making that meme? It was thinking of six Christians on good TV shows. The vast majority of characters on US television are atheist by default, because most shows don’t touch religion with a ten-foot pole. Whenever religion is discussed, the most interesting and complex characters tend to turn out to be atheists, like Lindsay on Freaks and Geeks.

Obviously we atheists have a long way to go to get the majority of Americans to trust us (here’s yet another poll about atheist presidents), but the way to do that isn’t to present nothing but unrealistic atheist angelic do-gooders. This is something that marginalized groups have struggled with repeatedly in the past, as in disagreements between African American intellectuals of the early 20th century who disagreed on whether to portray black characters as shallow but positive stereotypes or as three-dimensional humans with complex thoughts and feelings and possibly negative and violent actions, as with Richard Wright’s Native Son.

I lean toward the latter, and because of that I’m happy to see atheists represented on television in a variety of ways, from Britta Perry’s loving but dim-witted activism, to Perry Cox’s sarcastic tough love, to Temperance Brennan’s logical approach to being an awesome mother and partner.

Ah, well. On the bright side, it’s nice to see a meme showing atheists that includes a whopping 1/3 women represented.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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14 Comments

  1. No mention of Laverne from Scrubs? She sometimes passes judgment on other characters, and is quite the fatalist: “Everything is part of God’s plan.” On the other hand, she’s a very maternal mentor to the younger nurses.

      1. I don’t know. “Misogynist serial killer” is a lot worse than “tell people their relative died because God’s plan”, though the latter doesn’t help with something nurses are drafted into doing by circumstances a lot, grief counseling. (Seriously, I think “God’s plan” is more to preserve theism than to help people cope with loss.)

        Oh, in last year’s Magic: The Gathering block, there’s an entire race of atheists on Theros, anthropomorphic lions called leonin. Which is weird, since Theros actually has gods, though it’s implied they’re concepts that have become anthropomorphized by the way the plane works. But Brimaz and the other cats refuse to worship the gods because, well, some of them are jerks. (Considering Heliod is a mixture of Zeus, Helios, and, judging by the ending of Godsend, the Demiurge, yeah.)

  2. Bones is not a robot. Bones is very complex women who has trouble accessing her feelings, recognizing their relevance(and existence), and communicating with people whose brains don’t work like hers. In other words, she is my own personal representation in the media, and my hero.

  3. Yeah, I guess you could tag House as a misanthrope, rather than a genius who saved scores of lives. Or Brennan as a robot, rather than a…genius who saved dozens of lives and brought closure to hundreds of others. Ugh.

    But, still, you say, “kept zombie family in a barn” like it’s a bad thing.

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