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maxresdefaultThoughtful Christians have long encouraged discernment and worldview analysis when watching films or television or reading books.

  • What is the message here? 
  • What is the filmmaker's vision of the good life?
  • How does this message line up with what Scripture teaches?

Some Christian leaders have wondered if all this "worldview" talk may interfere with a Christian's ability to simply enjoy a film without looking for its hidden or surface messages. That is a good caveat. A work of art is not something to be dissected merely for its "propositional truth message," for the form is indeed part of the message. We will have an impoverished understanding of worldview analysis of cultural products if we try to reduce them in this way, and this is one of the reasons many Christian attempts at filmmaking come up so flat.

Still, it is likely that in the coming years we will need to raise our discernment antennas, not lower them. Why? Because the next round of popular entertainment will veer into the territory of propaganda, not just art.

The Art of Propaganda

Take, for example, the Amazon Prime television show, Transparent - a show that has won Emmys and been lauded by Trans Rights activists for its portrayal of an older man who transitions to a female persona.

For all its trophies and acclaim, Transparent finds itself squarely in the realm of propaganda. It is a heavily biased attempt to promote and publicize a political cause. The producers have deliberately and delicately crafted it so as to challenge the gender norms of American society.

In choosing the word "propaganda" to describe this show, I am not joining the ranks of conspiracy theorists who believe there is a secret plot to mislead the American public. I am echoing the word the producers themselves use.

“Propaganda Squads” for Artistic Activism

In a lengthy profile of the show and its creator (Jill Soloway), The New Yorker describes the writers as a "propaganda squad." All of the writers (except one who had experience in television beforehand) hail from the academy where they participated in writing and theater and queer activism. "You are creating propaganda for you," Soloway says.

The "propaganda squad" needs help to ensure faithfulness to the Trans Rights cause. So, they turn to other activists for support. "Every decision on the show is vetted by Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker, trans activists and artists... 'We monitor the politics of representation - if we catch things in the writing stage, it's kind of optimal because then there's time to shape it.'"

The New Yorker affirms Transparent's artistic activism, describing it as a show that "both reflects and advances" the trans "agenda." The cast of Transparent describe themselves as a "wonderful cult." Soloway doesn't go that far, but she does call herself "seditious" and the name of her production company is Topple, meaning "topple the patriarchy."

Entertainment in Service to the Gender Revolution

In describing Transparent, words like "propaganda," "agenda," "monitoring," and "seditious" do not come from alarmist talk show hosts or conservative bloggers. These are the words the show's creators use to speak about their work. They have a revolutionary perspective on what it means to be human, and they are pushing it unapologetically.

"We're asking the whole world to transition with us to a less binary way of being," Drucker says. "It's the next step in the fight for gender equality: removing the habit of always qualifying a person as a man or a woman."

Not surprisingly, the show's producers are excited about the evolving nature of language, from "gender reassignment surgery" to "gender confirmation," from pronouns like "he" and "she" to plurals that no longer indicate any gender at all. Soloway likes the idea of a person containing more than one self or gender. "Part of it is just the fiction of being alive. Every step, you're making up who you are."

Stalin’s “Enlightenment Through Entertainment”

Propaganda can be a powerful tool in the hands of revolutionaries. It worked for Joy Davidman, the future wife of C. S. Lewis. The 1934 film Chapayev, a Soviet piece of propaganda, enthralled Joy with its artistic sensibilities and powerful message. The film was "hailed as a masterpiece of modern cinema" and packed the house at Manhattan's Cameo Theater for ten weeks. Abigail Santamaria writes:

"Stalin was seductively deceptive. The dictator and his filmmakers did not hesitate to advertise their movies as enlightenment through entertainment, a way of educating the people... To make those philosophies accessible to all, Stalin built thousands of theaters."

Entertainment continues to be one of the primary drivers of societal change in morality--both reflecting and directing public consensus on what progress entails. Vice-president Joe Biden was not off-base in crediting the popular television comedies like Will and Grace (1998'2006) and Modern Family (2009') for the public's rapid embrace of same-sex marriage. Those shows aren't pure propaganda in the way Transparent is, but they are clearly educating people regarding social norms.

Look for the Agenda

Let's be clear. The producers and writers of Transparent have every right to push their perspective through the medium of television.

But when political and social revolutions are promoted powerfully through their presentation, and when they use the word "propaganda" to describe their work, it is wise for Christians to see it for what it is. Furthermore, it is paramount for Christians to view much of our culture's entertainment as propaganda, some more and some less.

Our society's songs, movies, and books don't just communicate a message; some of them they may actually be specifically designed to promote a political cause. The ability to recognize propaganda and analyze it from the lens of a biblical worldview is more necessary than ever before.

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9 thoughts on ““Transparent” and the Art of Propaganda Squads”

  1. Philmonomer says:

    I find that this is an entirely apt analysis.

    It also reminds me that nearly every thing produced by the Evangelical Christian subculture (think the movie “God’s Not Dead.”) is propaganda too, insofar as nearly all of it consciously “reflects and advances the Christian agenda.”

    1. Remington says:

      Propaganda isn’t merely a bias or presenting information from a certain point of view. In that case, every person who makes an informative sentence is engaged in propaganda… and clearly that’s not what we usually mean by the term. Rather, propaganda is defined as presenting *misleading* information for political purposes.

      Under this definition, does ‘Transparent’ qualify as propaganda? I would say yes because it attempts to mislead us about the facts of people suffering from gender dysphoria in order to push a political agenda of a cultural embrace of the phenomenon as completely normal and something which needs to be protected by legislation and courts.

      But does the movie ‘God’s Not Dead’ qualify as propaganda? I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t say for sure. Does it present misleading information? Does it present this misleading information in order to achieve some political purpose? For instance, it’s easy to see that normalizing transgenderism is directly related to bathroom legislation around the nation. But what policy is directly tied to Gods Not Dead’s argument from theism?

      Maybe both works constitute propaganda… But if they do it’s not simply because both are trying to advance an agenda. Propaganda is more than that.

      1. Trevin Wax says:

        I’m not sure “misleading” is necessary to qualify as propaganda. The dictionary definition I was working off does use “biased” and “misleading” – but other definitions use terms like “one-sided,” although they are all in the service of a political agenda.

        On a side note, my reference to Stalin’s use of propaganda in no way should communicate a moral equivalence between the creators of “Transparent” and one of the worst, most violent regimes of the last century. The point is that all revolutions rely on propaganda, and that the Sexual Revolution is following in a long line of other revolutionary ideas. Now, one can trace aspects of the Sexual Revolution back to their Marxist origins (back through Herbert Marcuse’s advocacy of “repressive tolerance,” and to Wilhelm Reich’s application of Marxism to sexuality, etc.), but that is not the point of this post.

      2. Philmonomer says:

        Good point about the political nature of propaganda.

        I suppose I was thinking of it more in a colloquial sense. If I (an atheist) say to my atheist friend: “Don’t bother going to see ‘God’s not Dead,’ as it’s pure Christian propaganda,” I’d say that 1) he would know immediately what I was talking about and 2) that is, in fact, an accurate description of the movie.

      3. Ryan Groene says:

        As a Christian who agrees with the basic message of God’s Not Dead, I would argue that it does qualify as propaganda. It’s not really advancing any particular political position per se–at least directly, but I did find it to be one-sided and misleading. Almost all of the characters in the movie are stereotypes that seem exaggerated and unrealistic, and every character in the movie that is not a Christian (plus the main character’s professedly Christian girlfriend who dumps him after 6 years because he wants to defend his faith) is portrayed as having pretty much no redeeming qualities at all. There’s the completely self-centered businessman who is angry with and wants to break up with his girlfriend because she tells him he has cancer (seriously, who does that?) There’s his girlfriend, the stereotypical liberal. Then, we have the Muslim, the Asian, the compromising Christian, and, of course, the atheist professor who hates religion and is (of course) a complete jerk. Oh yeah, and his Christian girlfriend who is somehow (inexplicably) dating somebody who actively despises Christianity. So, all of the characters are one-dimensional, and, of course, the plot also feels very unrealistic as it involves a college student with no background in philosophy humiliating his philosophy professor before the classroom. Then, the professor (who we find is really just bitterly angry at God) gets hit by a car and becomes a Christian at the last minute as the Christians go out to celebrate victory at a Newsboys concert, and the audience is advised to text “God’s not dead” to all of their unbelieving friends (which seems much more triumphalistic boasting than anything like true evangelism).

        Sorry for the rant. I feel like I could go on and on. But my point is that what can be considered propaganda comes from pretty much every perspective (Christian, atheist, conservative, liberal, etc.)

  2. Doug says:

    I disagree that this show has a right to be shown.

    Toward the preservation of society, God has established government to restrain evil. This includes the restraining of corrupting video. This was affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States in MUTUAL FILM CORP. v. INDUSTRIAL COMMISSION OF OHIO, (1915)

    As Wikipedia points out:

    “The state government of Ohio had passed a statute in 1913 forming a board of censors which had the duty of reviewing and approving all films intended to be exhibited in the state.”

    In 1915, SCOTUS ruled in Ohio’s favor. The SCOTUS opinion said:

    “Films…may be used for evil, and against that possibility the statute was enacted. Their power of amusement, and, it may be, education, the audiences they assemble, not of women alone nor of men alone, but together, not of adults only, but of children, make them the more insidious in corruption by a pretense of worthy purpose or if they should degenerate from worthy purpose.”

  3. James Needham says:

    I watched 5 min of this show and saw through the bias and rhetorical purpose.
    I would point out that the TV industry is always engaged in propaganda – the most obvious being advertisement – but still there in most programming . It encourages us toward materialism, self-image based on cultural norms that support materialism, rationalism, self-interest, and hedonism. Trans is more “sexy” to criticize but it’s no more dangerous to our soul. In fact, it may be less, both because it usually impacts others and a much smaller percentage of people than those that positively depict breaking most all of the other commandments.

  4. Nate says:

    Whether someone admits what he or she is disseminating is propaganda doesn’t matter; every proposition (however it is expressed) is based in (and claims) some sort of anthropological, sociological, and/or theological norm. (As Chesterton said, “You cannot evade the issue of God. Whether you talk about pigs or the binomial theory, you are still talking about Him.”) Therefore, I am confused as to why anyone (especially as a Christian) would be concerned with thinking getting in the way of entertainment. I understand a warning against overanalyzing media (indeed, as the cliché goes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar), but I am confused as to what examples of media exist as mere entertainment. Certainly, many will claim this is possible, but the only way this is possible is if the viewer so aligns with the ideological basis from which the entertainment comes that he or she knowingly or unknowingly concludes that analysis is not necessary.
    Everything speaks. Our analysis, or lack thereof, is more telling about who we are rather than who the speaker is.

  5. Emily says:

    “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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