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Friday, January 15, 2021

Bridgerton's Dilemma: Netflix Exposes Leftist Failings On Race, Class, Feminism, Art, and Ethics


Bridgerton's Dilemma

Netflix Exposes Leftist Failings On Race, Class, Feminism, Art, and Ethics


Netflix premiered Bridgerton on Christmas Day, 2020. Shonda Rhimes' Shondaland company produced the series. Bridgerton is based on bestselling author Julia Quinn's 2015 romance novels of the same name. Like Jane Austen's novels, Bridgerton takes place during England's Regency Era. George III, who once reigned over the American colonies, became mentally ill. His son, who would become George IV, ruled as his regent. The Regency Era is known as a time of elegance, luxury, and refinement.


Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) debuts as a marriageable young woman by being presented to Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel). By the end of the eighth, hour-long episode, Daphne is happily married to the handsome, passionate Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page).


Bridgerton has a 92% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Critics call it "sharp-witted," "fizzy and fun," "a hoot," "glossy, glorious escapism, a jolt of joy and romance," "handsome, lavish, and appealing," "sexy," "a Christmas delicacy," "brilliant," and say it offers "a heady cloud of pleasure and true love set in an idealized, more inclusive milieu … few fantasies are more inviting." "Bridgerton Has Been a Top 10 Show in All but 1 of Netflix's 190 Countries," reports The Wrap.


Viewers will immediately note that Bridgerton is different from previous Regency romances. A&E's 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has long been considered the gold standard. I don't remember any nudity in that series and very few kisses.


The viewer is all of three minutes into Bridgerton when the first scene of simulated sexual intercourse occurs. Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) is Daphne's oldest brother. His bare buttocks flex as he penetrates his mistress. She, grunting in ecstasy, is pinned against a tree, in broad daylight, in a pasture. Cows moo behind her. A liveried servant looks on impatiently.


There are naked chests, breasts, and digital stimulation – "Do you like this?" the recipient is asked. A man gives a young woman detailed instructions in masturbation; later, she throws back her head, opens her mouth, and grasps her silky bedsheets in one fist. He asks for a full report of her progress in self-pleasure. Characters say the f-word and the b-word. Simon practices coitus interruptus and mops up spilled bodily fluids. At an orgy, two men have sex with each other. Later, one of the lovers gives a speech about how much courage it takes to be gay. A duchess begins a coy strip tease in front of liveried servants; servants listen in to their masters' groaning. A man performs cunnilingus on a woman draped over the wooden steps of a spiral staircase. Blood pools between the spread legs of a mother who dies in childbirth. Here's something I never expected or needed to see in a Regency romance: a close-up of a bloodied menstrual cloth.


While watching the sex scenes, I wondered if Regé-Jean Page eats nothing but skinless chicken breasts and egg white omelets. He is as toned, defined, and fat-free as a gay porn model. Dynevor, as Daphne, writhes above Page. Each one of Dynevor's abdominal muscles moves with the power and sleekness of a snake progressing leglessly across sand. Does she do Pilates? I didn't feel arousal or involvement. "Muscles, beauty and gratuitous sex do not chemistry create. Personality is sexy. Originality is sexy," protests one of the most popular reviews of Bridgerton at the International Movie Database. Another reviewer dismissed Bridgerton as "Lightweight lowbrow trash … the sheer quantity of gratuitous soft porn sex scenes ... maybe works in a certain segment of the market, but I doubt that it will please a more discerning audience."


Bridgerton did wring honest tears from me in one, very brief scene. Queen Charlotte is summoned to dine with her husband, King George. The pain of having a loved spouse who has gone mad is evident on her pensive face. At first George converses lucidly, but he asks Charlotte about their daughter, Amelia. In real life, George was disconsolate after Amelia died of TB and erysipelas at age 27. In the TV series, Charlotte reminds George that their beloved daughter is dead. George flies into an incoherent rage. It's a heartbreaking scene.


There are gowns and cravats, squeaky boots and lorgnettes, horses and carriages, gooseberry pie, suckling pigs, and lady fingers – the cookies, I mean. Interiors feature gilded wallpaper, ceiling frescoes, chaise-lounges, Persian carpets, and marble statues. I paused one scene just to drink in window treatments and paint colors. Online discussion records viewers' obsession with sumptuous period detail. One protested anachronistic "riding boots with zips and snaps!" Another protested "what is definitely the cheap, plastic, four-hole buttons you can get on sale at Jo-Ann's Fabric stores!" Another was "bothered by the white icing on the wedding cake and the white dress. As they should very well know white dresses were only really brought into fashion by queen Victoria" – and the cake icing should have been marzipan, not buttercream.


Bridgerton hands the car keys to women and never asks for them back. Females and their needs drive the plot and dominate screen time. Queen Charlotte, not King George, is the most important monarch. Lady Whistledown, a female gossip columnist, is the puppeteer controlling all of "the ton," that is, London high society. Who just got engaged? Married? Pregnant? How can we meddle and scheme to fix or sabotage our friends or enemies? In endless balls, Daphne lives out female fantasies to be the envy of every girl, and the desire of every man. Men drool, duel, and fight over Daphne.


As in many romance novels, Bridgerton depicts warm, respectful, mutually beneficial relationships between older women and highly desirable young men. Adjoa Andoh (Lady Danbury) is 57. She is Simon's rescuer and mentor. Lady Bridgerton is played by a 54-year-old actress. Her husband is dead, and she must partner with her handsome eldest son, Anthony, who is a father / husband surrogate.


Bridgerton endows Daphne with superpowers. Nigel Berbrooke, a rotter with dirty hair, baggy eyes, and gray teeth, makes inappropriate advances. Dynevor stands five foot five and weighs 110 pounds. She is 25 but looks 12. She punches Berbrooke, knocking him flat.


There is a controversial marital rape scene in Bridgerton. Simon reluctantly accedes to Daphne's demand that they wed. He stipulates that he will never father children. She agrees. Daphne climbs on top of him, and, against his wishes, rapes him. As he realizes what is happening, panic flickers in his eyes. He struggles to free himself and she is able to pin him down with a touch of her hand. After it's over, real pain crosses his face. She climbs down, "Daphne, Daphne, Daphne," he cries out, first in confusion and then in anger. "What did you do? How could you?" he asks, his face contorted. Daphne sneers at him and launches into a verbal assault, condemning Simon for refusing to impregnate her. Simon pleads for her love. She storms out. And yet all this ends happily. Daphne is Simon's teacher and savior. She coerces him into both marriage and parenthood, and manipulates him into enjoying both. Quite the message for young, female viewers, presumably the show's target audience.


The scene from the book: "Looming over him … Daphne felt the strangest, most intoxicating surge of power. He was in her control … He was asleep … drunk, and she could do whatever she wanted … His eyes pinned upon her with a strange, pleading sort of look, and he made a feeble attempt to pull away. Daphne bore down on him with all her might." Reverse the genders and tell me how that scene plays.


Black and Asian actors play major and minor roles, including Simon, Lady Danbury, and Queen Charlotte. Charlotte's multiplicity of powdered wings include one with tight, cornrow-style braids, one with dreadlocks, and an Afro.


Colorblind casting and cross-gender acting are not new. Italian-American Espera de Corti and German-American Heinrich von Kleinbach both famously played Native Americans. Charlie Chaplin played a woman and Mary Pickford played a man. Bridgerton, though, is part of an effort to use colorblind casting as an ethical statement and societal corrective.


Golda Rosheuvel, who plays Queen Charlotte, played Othello in 2018. In that staging, Othello was a lesbian. Playing Othello, Rosheuvel said, was "important to me as a black, gay, female actor. Some men have a terrible fear of women, particularly powerful women. They would prefer not to see change, and this Othello is part of change. She is a woman who has power over all these men, all that testosterone. How does she negotiate that? Then she goes further and brings her lover – Desdemona – into that arena. It’s a scary thing to do." Rosheuvel had previously played Shakespeare's Mercutio, another male part.


Adjoa Andoh, a woman, has played Shakespeare's Richard II. Andoh is a reader (a lay preacher) in the Church of England. In a Facebook video, she says, "As in theaters, so in churches." One can hear this to mean, "What happens in pop culture finds its way to, or becomes, religion."


Andoh is the mother of a "transgender son." When her child looks in the mirror and sees "a girl's body," "he" knows it is "the wrong image," Andoh says. "He is, indeed, a boy," and has been a boy "since earliest childhood." What makes Andoh so sure that her child is a boy? Her child has always liked football, Spiderman, and constructing "complex Lego transformers." When she hit puberty, her daughter fell into a deep depression. After watching a documentary entitled "The Boy Who Was Born a Girl" she realized that she is really he. Andoh described the torture her child endured when asked to wear the regulation uniform skirt to a private school. It would be like asking a man to wear a skirt, she protested. Andoh cited institutions that helped her, including the Tavistock Clinic, that has since been mired in controversies and allegations of harming children by rushing them to transition. Keira Bell, a former patient who underwent medical procedures to transition from female to male, has since sued Tavistock.


Andoh bemoans "middle-aged, middle-class, white men's" domination of culture. She wants more women and POC in the arts. She advocates for this because being a woman is important and being a woman brings a unique contribution. At the same time, she insists that a human being with XX chromosomes, breasts, womb, and ovaries, and no penis or testicles, is not a woman, but a man. Andoh advocates for humanity to become "colorless, classless, tribeless, genderless." She asks, what if "markers of belonging were meaningless?" Identity, she insists, exists only to fuel the "transactions of capital and global power." "We have been raised to supply the market" Conversely, when Andoh attended her first meeting of children identified as transgender, she said, "My son has found his people." And, as mentioned above, she condemns "middle-aged, middle class, white men" dominating the arts.


Andoh is saying contradictory things. Some identities matter, and some don't; some identities are elevated, and some denigrated. It would be an abusive act to refer to her child as "she." Asking her child, a student at a private school, to wear a regulation skirt would be as horrific as asking a man to wear a dress. And yet gender identity is fluid and merely a result of capitalism's brainwashing. We must defy this by crossing gender barriers and becoming "genderless." Her playing Richard II – and wearing men's clothes – helped bring about this future golden age.


Her child's adopted identity as male is all-important. The identity of the "middle-aged white men" who purportedly dominate culture is all-important. Those white men cannot represent women. And yet her daughter can represent men. And yet we are to become so "colorless, classless, tribeless, genderless," and live in a society where "markers of belonging were meaningless" that Othello can be a lesbian, King Richard can be a woman, and Queen Charlotte can be black. But her son is allowed to have "his people." Identity doesn't matter. Identity is all important. Which is it?


Some do claim that the real Queen Charlotte was black. Given the many portraits of her, this seems transparently untrue. Charlotte did not meet her husband, King George, until their wedding day. Even so, their marriage was happy and monogamous, as well as productive; they had fifteen children. King George opposed abolition and during his reign 1.6 million enslaved people were taken from Africa to the English colonies. It's hard to believe that the loving husband of a black wife would have resisted England's active and ultimately successful abolitionist movement.


I thought that ahistorical casting might take me out of the story. It didn't. Regé-Jean Page is handsome and charismatic, with the body of a fencer, a raspy boudoir voice, and a plummy accent. Page fits, as hand in glove, his role of an aloof, aristocratic bachelor, sex god, and cad transformed by Daphne into a Sensitive, New Age Guy. He cast that spell that actors can conjure that suspends your disbelief and gets you lost in a story. It was the ideology behind the casting choices that troubled me.


NPR's Ailsa Chang interviewed Page. He made clear that Bridgerton wasn't just about entertainment, but about improving society. Part of that improvement was the introduction of black actors as aristocratic Englishmen; another part was advancing women and lowering men. Page said that Simon is like Clint Eastwood, Mr. Darcy, and Heathcliff. "All these men are hugely emotionally stunted. That is their redemption arc." That is, they are macho, and a woman comes along and fixes them.


As Page put it, "Where are we at with discussing masculinity? How can I contribute to something of a feminist lens to this? Part of that is bringing in this conversation that we have contemporarily of masculine vulnerability and where the strength in that lies and where the redemption in that lies and where what's appealing about that in a romantic hero and what we're looking for in our lovers in the 21st century. I think we're at a point in history where, generally, people consider themselves to be feminists … I kind of tried to find my lane and do my part."


Of Bridgerton's colorblind casting, Page says, "It's incredibly important that when we are indulging ourselves in these kind of great, big Cinderella fantasies, that everyone gets to see themselves as worthy of status and glamour and love and redemption … where you can see yourself as rich, attractive and admirable is important for absolutely everyone." Bridgerton, Page said, is "bringing in 21st century perspectives to whatever it is they're doing and try and kind of, you know, put some vitamins into pop culture."


So, Bridgerton doesn't want just to entertain. It wants to improve us as people. It will do so through colorblind casting. All that sex and wealth is not there just to boost Netflix's ratings. It's there to preach us a sermon.  


My mother was born in a river as her mother took a break from working in the fields. Mom grew up in a rough-hewn house her shepherd father built by hand. After arrival in this country, my mother, one of the smartest human beings I have ever known, like so many of her impoverished Bohunk fellow immigrants, cleaned houses. When I got sick and could not go to school, she took me with her. I saw the difference between the house we lived in and the houses of the rich, the foods, the educations, the available respect. One hundred fifty-five years ago, after the American Emancipation Proclamation, peasants like my family were finally "liberated" from serfdom in czarist Russia.


A quarter of a century ago, a boom in Jane Austen film adaptations began. Back then, I was part of an online film discussion group. My forte were Golden Age Hollywood flicks that featured tough working class girls who clawed their way up through wit and grit. I'd watch anything starring Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell, or Irene Dunne. My fellow discussants urged me to watch A&E's 1995 miniseries Pride and Prejudice. I griped that I had zero interest in watching a bunch of rich, privileged Brits whine about trivialities. My friends told me that the problem wasn't with Pride and Prejudice; the problem was with me. Art might do what I had not allowed my religion to do: it would expand me, so that I could appreciate a story about persons unlike myself. My friends cited big, literary names like Sir Walter Scott, George Henry Lewes, and Henry James. These authors rejected the idea that Austen was writing about "trivialities," but, rather, insisted that her artistry was in penetrating the subtleties and consequences of real life as lived by women like herself.


Chastised and competitive, I forced myself to watch Pride and Prejudice, all five and a half hours of it, three times. On the third viewing, I got it. Yes, rich Brits, just like poor Bohunks, also have feelings. Yes, rich people's heartaches matter. Yes, rich people, just like poor people, can feel trapped in their lives. Watching Pride and Prejudice expanded my ability to feel compassion for persons unlike myself.


A&E's P&P also expanded my aesthetic ability to appreciate quiet artistry that captures moments of life that I had dismissed as "trivial." The first time I watched it, I kept waiting for something to happen. I saw no action, no sex, no plot. The Regency England of P&P is one of suppressed emotions and rigid social strictures. Slowly but surely, I came to realize that something as simple as two people's eyes meeting can have shattering consequences. There's a scene in P&P that every fan adores. A girl plays piano, a woman mentions the name of a man who hurt the girl's feelings years before, and Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine, goes to the girl and turns the page of her music book. That doesn't sound like much, but, to those sensitive to all the implications, it's a heart-melting scene. It took concentration for me to appreciate the strength, courage, and kindness exhibited by that heroine.


The ability to appreciate quiet art is key to real feminism. Most women do live lives that are more domestic, more internal, and more about feelings. Jane Austen's focus on the small, the quiet, the quotidian, is truly feminist. Daphne punching and raping men is not.


I still have a chip on my shoulder, and when I watch Regency-Era films, I don't focus on the buttons or the zippers or the cake icing. I focus on the legions of poor people on whose heads the wealthy characters of these films walk. In scene after scene, the rich inhabit rooms where silent servants stand at attention, staring into space, waiting to fulfill their master's every whim. Less visible, but no less present, are the farmers working land from which the aristocrats profit. In most films, the African slaves whose bodies provided Regency England with much of its wealth are unmentioned.


Now Bridgerton comes along and fixes all that. The male lead and the queen are both black. This "solution" reminds me of the phrase "Black Lives Matter." We have learned the hard way that those words do not mean what they say. In fact only some black lives matter, that is, the black lives that can be exploited to serve a Marxist, anti-Western narrative. BLM shed zero tears for David Dorn, a veteran black police officer killed by a black looter while Dorn was attempting to shield his friend's business. BLM demonizes anyone who tries to talk about the astronomical number of blacks shot by young black men.


White supremacy elevates skin color to a virtue. Affirmative Action does the same, thus damaging poor white and Asian college applicants. Any real solution to college accessibility would address all disadvantaged college applicants, not just those with the preferred skin color. Ironically, wealthy and foreign-born blacks are often the ones who benefit from a focus on skin color alone.


Just so, there is no real liberation in Bridgerton's colorblind casting. Rich English aristocrats in Bridgerton still live their lives surrounded by poor people who must treat them as godlings. "Her happiness will be your greatest concern," Daphne is assured about one of her servants. A bored Queen Charlotte watches a contortionist attempting to entertain her by assuming a painful-looking balance on her twisted neck. Another servant mentions something about a scullery maid. Charlotte protests, "I don't care about a dish wench. I want to be entertained."


Years ago, my friend Francesca and I were leaving the Paramount theater in Oakland, California after seeing the 1954 Bing Crosby musical White Christmas. Seeing a classic on a big screen in a refurbished art deco theater was heavenly. Francesca was subdued. I asked her what she thought. "There was no one like me onscreen," she said. She's black.


I wanted to say, but didn't, "Francesca, identity politics renders all white people the same. You assume that I look at a goddess like Vera Ellen and see myself. I'm taller than many men and I have the shoulders of a football player. Big, strong girls have never been the heroines, and we never will be. We are the villains, the laughingstocks, the object lessons in how not to be female. There is a tall, big-nosed woman in White Christmas. She's a meddling housekeeper who sabotages the lead couple's romance. Has any respectable female lead in a big-budget movie before The Apartment's Fran Kubelik had a Slavic last name? So, no, Francesca, there's nobody like me in this movie or many others. But I can still enjoy it. That's how art works."


Regé-Jean Page says, "It's incredibly important that in these Cinderella fantasies, that everyone gets to see themselves as worthy of status and glamour and love and redemption." That's hogwash. Bridgerton's servants are always older or plumper or taller or have larger noses or smaller breasts than Phoebe Dynevor. Dynevor weighs sixty pounds less than the average American woman. The bad guys in Bridgerton are who the bad guys always are in popular entertainment: the ugly people. The bad family in Bridgeton is made up of overweight, big-nosed, tackily-dressed, relatively lower class gingers, that is, redheads. Yes, ginger abuse is a thing, and there are mountains of research that testifies to the price women pay, socially, economically, and emotionally, for being fat. The villain of the series (Nicola Coughlan) is a fat, redheaded girl who destroys her entire family out of a fit of selfish pique. Lord Rutledge (Michael Culkin) is referred to as a "walking spittle factory with very large teeth." Rutledge is the fattest, oldest, ugliest character in the series. His hair is conspicuously dirty. He's balding and has wattles. He's bad. Why is he bad? Because he's old, fat, and ugly. Really. There is no other character development. His physical unattractiveness is enough to render him a monster.


The desperation of poor whites is every bit as okay to the Woke as it is to those who praise Bridgerton as a liberatory breakthrough. Just so, "Black Lives Matter," but when black leftist Van Jones said that leftists should act as if poor whites' lives matter as well, leftists pilloried him for it. There is a scene in Bridgerton that made me wish I could throw a copy of Das Kapital at Shonda Rhimes. Mrs. Featherington takes Marina, played by a black actress, to a slum. Marina is pregnant without a husband and is resisting those husbands that Featherington has chosen for her. The slum visit is a warning. You could end up here. Poor whites slog through a filthy puddle. Rats crawl across the street. Children starve. Ramshackle dwellings sag. That was the reality of life in Regency England: nasty, brutish, and short. Life expectancy was 35 years. Poor people exist in Bridgerton to serve the rich, as servants, and as object lessons of how bad life can be.


What, then is the solution? How can Shonda Rhimes create high-quality Marxist art that will kick the revolution into gear and liberate the masses? 


Just as human nature gets in the way of Marxism per se, human nature gets in the way of Marxist art. I don't want to see a face and body like mine dance with Danny Kaye over a pretend oceanside dock. I want to look at Vera Ellen, a woman so thin it's falsely rumored that she killed herself with anorexia. I don't want to see a movie that realistically depicts the life of a cleaning woman. I've lived that life. I want to watch pretty people in fabulous clothes acting out my fantasies of romance, wit, and success. I don't watch narrative films to be lectured by my betters. When peasants gathered in huts across pre-modern Europe, they didn't tell fairy tales that reflected their limited lives. They told tales of Jack, a poor boy who, through pluck, won a giant's fortune. Cinderella began in ashes and ended a queen.


Human nature dictates that we crave narrative entertainment through which we vicariously live lives of power, privilege, and superiority. We don't want to watch Soviet films about collective farmers. We don't want to watch movies based on Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel, The Jungle, depicting Polish immigrants being turned into sausage meat in Chicago's meat-packing plants. Put three strangers in a room and they will determine who is the best looking, the smartest, the fittest, and the richest. Marxism will never rescue us from hierarchies. We want art that allows us to imagine ourselves at the top of the inevitable hierarchy. Bridgerton does nothing to challenge the hierarchy. It just changes the tint of one man at the top. That's not revolution; that's not ethics. That's window-dressing.


Golda Rosheuvel said that casting her as Queen Charlotte was "clever" because "Putting a person of color at the top of the triangle allows you to expand the boundaries." Not at all, Golda. There have always been powerful people of color. Mobutu Sese Seko, the Duvalier family, the Aztecs, the Incas, Chinese emperors, Indian Brahmins, are just a few. It was African royalty who facilitated the sale of the African poor into slavery – and indeed it was Polish aristocrats who profited from the enserfment of my ancestors.


The "triangle" Rosheuvel refers to is a pyramid structure. Such structures are an unavoidable part of the human condition. Lucinda Elliot claims that 1.5 percent of the British population was gentry; only 300 men, out of a population of nine million, had titles. Bridgerton wants us to care about and identify with its aristocratic leads, and to regard the surrounding servants frozen in obedience as mere wish-fulfillment fantasy. "Wouldn't it be cool if I had maids to cater to my every whim?"


Art, no less than political movements, that attempts to defeat human nature will always feel didactic and alienating. Rhimes knows this truth and lives this truth. If she really wanted to make Revolutionary art, she could have adapted Longbourn. Jo Baker's 2014 novel tells P&P from the point of view of the servants. But Rhimes didn't give her viewers a realistic view of the life of a black person in Regency England. Rhimes gave her viewers a long, hot bath in lust, gluttony, narcissism, greed, and materialism, with no redeeming virtue whatsoever. Watching Bridgerton is the aesthetic equivalent of swallowing a pillowcase full of Halloween sugar. I do not begrudge her or her viewers their wallow. What bugs me is her team's insistence that sticking Regé-Jean Page, a gorgeous black man, into the lead somehow makes Bridgerton high-minded art. Rhimes, like a calculating Regency debutante, flaunts virtue as just another showpiece for sale.


This version of ethics reminds me of a sorry theater that took place on Facebook after George Floyd's killing sparked national outrage. A few of my rich, white, liberal Facebook friends suddenly stopped posting about their extensive gardens, their vacation cruises, their award-winning endeavors. "I am so sad for black people! I am so angry at bad, bad, bad white people!" They were lauded for humanitarianism. None of them, as far as I know, posted about actually doing anything to advance any black person. These Facebook posts, and Bridgerton's colorblind casting, are a way to use a black skin as a badge of virtue, without any personal sacrifice to earn that badge.  


Leftists like to bash Gone with the Wind as a Confederate Lost Cause relic. They are partially correct, but Gone with the Wind is also a masterpiece. I couldn't care less about the Confederacy, and I skim through those passages quickly. My Gone with the Wind tells the gripping tale of a spoiled coquette who, through war, siege, death, and her own clueless self-sabotage, loses everything she loves, and yet learns how to take care of others and bounce back from catastrophe. The only lesson Daphne learns is how to masturbate. The same folks uncomfortable with the affectionate relationship between Scarlett and Mammy are not protesting Bridgerton's poor white servants who announce that pleasing Daphne is their life's goal.


Regé-Jean Page says that Bridgerton is feminist. "You are a man therefore you have everything. A woman has nothing!" Eloise whines to her brother. Eloise is meant to be an adolescent girl, but she's played by a thirty-one-year-old actress with a husky, Tallulah Bankhead voice.


Daphne's domination of Simon isn't feminism. It's merely the photographic negative of features feminists protest in men. Men rape – so Daphne can rape. Men tell women what to do – so Daphne can force a man to be a husband and father, though both are the last thing he wants.


Simon says to Daphne, "I do not want to be alone. I know that now. And what I do not know is how to be the man you need me to be, the man you truly deserve." Daphne generously instructs Simon in how to be the man she truly deserves. Now put those words into the mouth of a female character who allows herself to be manipulated by a man. The lines would become notorious; some would boycott the program.


1995 saw five major Jane Austen adaptations. This began a stampede, including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. P&P depicts a world where, to have access to sexual contact that produces legitimate heirs, men must pay attention to women, look at and listen to women, and even dance with women. That women flocked to Austen products in the nineties was a slap in the face to the Sexual Revolution. Women were tired of Erica Jong's "zipless f---s." They wanted art that conjured a world geared to women's intimacy needs. The fantasy world of A&E's P&P, the silent, chaste courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy, met that need.


Bridgerton is less revolutionary than A&E's P&P. Daphne, the upper class, pretty heroine, is indeed courted chastely. She loses her virginity only on her wedding night, in the sixth episode. Not so for lower class women. There are prostitutes, mistresses, and nude models. They smile while servicing their upper class clients. One could conclude that they chose that life. Marina, the girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock, is treated horribly by Bridgerton. She is miserable, alone, and humiliated again and again. After multiple frustrations, she is forced to marry a man she does not love. She might as well be wearing a scarlet letter. Siena, Anthony's mistress, is a conniving, heartless nymphomaniac. Bridgerton has as much contempt for loose girls and poor "working girls" as any religious fanatic.


Jane Austen was a Christian. See here, here, and here. Her books are not overtly religious, but Christianity is the ethical background. In A&E's P&P, Elizabeth Bennet constantly wears a ruby cross pendant. You can purchase a replica. Christianity is absent from Bridgerton, except for Daphne's brief church wedding. Bridgerton's virtue is found in its identity politics.


The left focuses on identity politics so intently that any choice a filmmaker makes re: race is open to attack. In Bridgerton, an abusive, absentee father is black, a girl pregnant out of wedlock is black, and a man who grew up without a father is black. A normal person will understand that there is no message in those casting choices, but those obsessed with identity politics are not normal, and they will see a malicious pattern at work. So, no, colorblind casting has not spared Bridgerton from criticism. Three of the main "black" stars are actually mixed race, and relatively light-skinned. The identity police have noted this, and they are angry.


Simon's abusive father is dark-skinned and the "worst person in the show," protests Carolyn Hinds, a black film critic. Will, played by a black actor, drops out of the plot. He should have had more screentime, even though he's only a secondary character. White people purposely selected light-skinned blacks because white people, including the people who made Bridgerton, are all racist and can accept only light-skinned blacks.


The black actors have "Eurocentric features." Daphne is nothing but a "white savior," rants another critic. And more: "The only Black leads allowed are light-skinned. Their colorism problem is exhausting." "Sprinkling in light-skinned blackness isn't enough."


What would be enough? Nothing. Cultural critics Douglas Murray and Tom Holland, both atheists, have observed that with Christianity as cultural background, we had two tools to deal with human failing. Original sin said that everyone was a sinner. No one could pretend to be superior to another in this regard. Confession and divine forgiveness offered a route back into society after one had done wrong. Woke does not allow these features. Whites are always guilty. We must all be aggrieved all the time; we must all shame and browbeat each other; we must all hang our heads.


Bridgerton has been lambasted for having only a quick scene with gay sex, without offering a more developed gay subplot. Bridgerton "lacks meaningful representation" of gay characters. Such representation, of course, would also not be enough. As an IMDB reviewer put it, Bridgerton "is not that bad after a few glasses of wine. I enjoyed watching a period piece with a racially diverse cast. However, if you're going to get rid of racism why not also get rid of misogyny, bigotry, and classism?" A Woke-ster's work is never done.


I extend this invitation to those who insist that casting black actors in Bridgerton "injected vitamins" into pop culture. Make a series as costly, lavish, and heavily promoted as Bridgerton. In this new series, cast a white actor as an enslaved person in the antebellum South. If identity really is suddenly infinitely malleable, as Andoh and John Lennon's "Imagine" propose, then let's prove our commitment to the cause. The antebellum enslavement of a person with majority European, Caucasian ancestry would not be ahistorical. See these photos. Millions of Europeans were enslaved by African and Eurasian Muslims; see here, here, and here. If the real message of colorblind casting is that skin color is meaningless and viewers should accustom themselves to getting past it – a message I wholeheartedly endorse – then let's apply it when telling the story of slavery. If it is important to have a woman Othello, then let's demand a high budget feature film that depicts rape and its aftermath. The lead can be played by a man playing a woman.


Again, I'm not protesting colorblind or gender-crossing casting. I'm protesting hypocrisy. Identity doesn't matter, till it does. Playing with Legos doesn't make a girl not a girl, until it does. We should respect all genders and races equally, except, of course, straight white men.


Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery



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Friday, January 1, 2021

Yeaning for a Believers' Christmas


St Francis Church, Haskell, NJ, December, 2020

Yearning for a Believers' Christmas
2020 Taught Me How Much the World Has Changed


Toward the end of 2020, a difficult year for many, I found myself feeling something I'd never felt before. I yearned for a believers' Christmas. By "believer" I mean anyone, including non-Christians, who recognizes the Christian roots of Christmas, who respects and participates in the impact of that tradition, who knows that there is more to this life than the material, and who feels part of a community formed by Christianity, and wants that community to continue. In 2020, I yearned for the public, shared, communal Christmas I remember from my childhood. That Christmas was significantly contributed to by Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Atheists, gays and straights. Now I know that that Christmas is gone and will most likely not return in my lifetime.


In this essay, I will talk about my own faith, not to proselytize anyone. Rather, I want to invite the reader to ponder the impact of our society's departure from its foundational narrative. Bart Ehrman is a former Christian. On Christmas Eve in 2017, Ehrman posted a powerful essay. He spoke of how, though an atheist, he still loves Christmas. "Christmas embodies for me most of the things in life that I think of as inherently good … The God of Christmas is not a God of wrath, judgment, sin, punishment, or vengeance. He is a God of love, who wants the best for people and gives of himself to bring peace, joy, and redemption." What happens to a society, once founded on that belief, when it surrenders it?


For decades, activists like the Freedom From Religion Foundation have agitated aggressively against any mention of Christmas in the public square, insisting, for example, that Madison, Wisconsin city buses should not be allowed to display signs saying "Keep Christ in Christmas," and also insisting that public places should include displays mocking Christmas. In a 2019 poll, 65% of Americans identified as Christian. Though that 65% is still a majority, it is but one data point on a rapid and steep decline. In 1960, over 92% of Americans identified as Christian.


In spite of America's secularization, Christmas is still a very big deal. Christmas decorations start appearing in stores in August. As of November 6, 2020, eighty popular radio stations had already started playing Christmas carols. Christmas is a national holiday and the entire country shuts down. Why, then, am I yearning for anything?


Here's a couple of things I don't mean. I'm not a Puritan, a Quaker, a Jehovah's Witness, or a member of any of the other denominations who denounce Christmas. We Catholics practice a "smells, bells, and spells," full-body faith. We see, hear, smell, taste and touch Catholicism. The same is true for Christmas. The smell of fir trees and frankincense at midnight mass, the sound of a language reserved for the sacred in lyrics like "Adeste fideles, laeti triumphantes, Venite, venite in Bethlehem," the glow of Christmas lights transforming the longest nights of the year into a hint of what the Bible means when it says that God is the "light of the world," the taste of sugar cookies, the confounding feel of shiny paper and scotch tape as you try to wrap a present perfectly: we believe that our bodies require full involvement in our spiritual lives.  


Jesus performed his first public miracle at a wedding, that is a traditional, ritualized, communal feast – something like Christmas! Jesus turned water into wine. Those six stone jars contained dozens of gallons – much more wine than a wedding party would be able to consume. Jesus provided not just wine, but good wine. "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now," the Bible quotes a guest as saying.


Scholars say that the six stone jars of water bespeak the wedding hosts' focus on ritual purity. Leviticus 11:33 places clay containers on a lower purity rung. Stone was closer than clay to ideal purity. The water that those six stone jars contained would be used for ritual washing purposes. It's hard not to interpret Jesus' first miracle as a big thumb's up to celebration, and a diminished emphasis on ritual purity.


Jesus and his family were observant participants in rituals, feasts, and holidays. Jesus' parents had him circumcised and offered a pair of birds in sacrifice. Jesus observed the Feast of Tabernacles, and Hanukah, and at least one commentator argues that Jesus observed Purim. Jesus' last meal before his crucifixion was a traditional, ritual meal, the Passover supper. I interpret all this to mean that Jesus was pro-holiday, pro-celebration, and so am I.


There's a popular misconception that Christmas is nothing more than a Pagan holiday with a thin veneer of Christianity. Jehovah's Witnesses say this today, and Puritans made this accusation in the past. Sadly, folks who oppose Christianity have picked up this "Christmas is Pagan" theme and run with it. Too many Atheists repeat this canard. Modern-day Pagans insist that Christians "stole" "their" holiday. The claim that Christmas is a Pagan holiday merely disguised as a Christian one is not true. See Atheist Tim O'Neill's December 23, 2020 "Pagan Christmas" blog debunking "pseudo historical nonsense about the pagan elements of Christmas." YouTube's "Inspiring Philosopher," Michael Jones, goes back to original sources, centuries-old, in this December 22, 2020, puncturing of the "Christmas is Pagan" canard.


So, no. I'm not anti-holiday or anti-Christmas. I just yearn for the believer's Christmas of my youth.


If you live alone in an apartment, one of your constant tasks is keeping the number of your possessions trimmed. You don't have a garage or storage space and you, you alone, are responsible for moving, upkeeping, and cleaning every single thing you own. I don't keep an artificial Christmas tree in storage, and my budget doesn't allow the annual cost of a fresh-cut tree. On Halloween, I make a jack-o-lantern; they are cheap and easy and don't take up much space. On Fourth of July, I break out my mini American flag. Rolled up, this flag doesn't take up much more storage space than a supersize magic marker. On Thanksgiving, I do cook stuffing on the stovetop. Christmas trees are just too hard.


The spectacular aspects of Christmas, the lights, the trees, the wrapped presents, the choirs singing: I absorb them by basking in the wider culture. I enjoy the landmarks of the season by walking through malls, attending office parties, hearing public concerts, watching Christmas movies, and driving around and looking at lights. So, yes, I am grateful when the Christmas I absorb through osmosis is one that contains hints of "the reason for the season."


I couldn't do most of these in 2020. No mall. No concerts. No office party. Because I'd been sick, I didn't dare attend mass. I couldn't be sure that I didn't have Covid-19, and I didn't want to expose anyone else to whatever I did have. My 2020 Christmas was the Christmas I got from the radio, from YouTube, and from online movies. I felt the hijacking of Christmas, the cultural appropriation of Christmas, by armies of hostile, imperialist culture warriors.


I don't have a TV and listen to the radio throughout the day, including BBC broadcasts during morning and afternoon drivetimes. My own impression is that the BBC exhibits the anti-Western flavor typical of the Politically Correct, that is, the BBC is anti-Israel, anti-Catholic, and soft on Islam. I haven't done the research to support these assertions, but others have; see here, here, here, and here.


It astounds me that bestselling Christian author C. S. Lewis was actually allowed, during World War II, to broadcast his beliefs via the BBC. Those broadcasts became the book "Mere Christianity." Air Chief Marshal Sir Donald Hardman wrote, "The war, the whole of life, everything tended to seem pointless. We needed, many of us, a key to the meaning of the universe. Lewis provided just that … I am sure that he deserved the high decoration that was offered to him by Winston Churchill." It isn't just amazing to me that a Christian was able to voice Christian ideas via the BBC. It also astounds me that the BBC cared about its audience's need for meaning in life. I can only imagine today's hip, woke, postmodern audiences scoffing at the very concept of meaning in life.


It also astounds me that Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen won two Emmy awards, and that mainstream networks broadcast him, on the radio and then on TV, during primetime. I recently watched, on YouTube, Sheen's 1956 "True Meaning of Christmas." I can't imagine such an overtly Christian message during primetime from a major American broadcaster today. Of course not only has the reception of such messages changed since Sheen's day, the concept of "primetime" and "major network" has also changed. With streaming and hundreds of channels, we, the American public, no longer watch the same shows at the same times. Society has not just secularized since 1956, it has fragmented.


The believers' Christmas I could access from the wider culture in my childhood was not a pure, pious, exclusively Christian Christmas. It was warm and all-embracing. It was a Christmas that Jews, Atheists and sinners could and did participate in and contribute to. Bing Crosby, in song and onscreen, was one of the unavoidable characters in this American Christmas.


Crosby was one of the biggest stars in world history. Crosby was also a devout Catholic. Crosby, like you and me, was an imperfect person who struggled to live up to his religious beliefs. Crosby drank, he cheated on his wife, he gambled, he consorted with Mafiosi, and he abused his children.


There is a depth in Crosby's work that transcends his personal imperfections. Crosby sang America through the Depression and World War II. His voice didn't say "It's all okay." In Crosby's voice one could hear the darkness, the difficulty, the struggle, the gaping void we all confront. Crosby had been there, and come back, and sang "White Christmas." Crosby's voice traces the encounter of a flawed human struggling to reach a divine ideal. His voice resonates with the wisdom, depth, humility and joy that that encounter engenders.


One of New York City's top radio stations, WLTW, plays Christmas music in November and December. Along with Mariah Carey, Paul McCartney, and Meghan Trainor, Bing Crosby is one of the most frequently played artists. Crosby had his first hit ninety-two years ago. He's been dead for forty-three years. And yet audiences today still need what Crosby offers. Will anyone be listening to Cardi B's "sex positive" "WAP"  ninety years from now?


Crosby's voice epitomizes the believers' Christmas: a liminal time, a ritual doorway that offered a charged opportunity for the most flawed seeker to encounter the sublime. Crosby played Father O'Malley in "Going My Way" and "The Bells of Saint Mary's." You didn't have to be Catholic to love these very human movies. See this scene for a taste of their humor and universality, even when treating overtly Christian themes. These films' director, Leo McCarey, was a Catholic who smuggled religious material into box office hits – no easy aesthetic feat. John Ford, one of the most successful and acclaimed Hollywood directors, limited his cinematic Catholicism to  subtleties. When Ford tried to make a more overtly Catholic film, 1947's "The Fugitive," it flopped.


"An Affair to Remember," Leo McCarey's 1957 film starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, offers a perfect example of the kind of public, shared, take on Christmas that used to be found throughout American popular culture. McCarey's early forte was comedy. He directed the Marx Brothers in "Duck Soup," their "masterpiece" and "best film." McCarey brought Laurel and Hardy together and helped mold their schticks and concoct their chemistry. Peter Bogdanovich tells, at the end of this clip, a great story about McCarey's work with Laurel and Hardy. McCarey also made a series of Yiddish "dialect comedies" with Max Davidson, whose career was built on a "comedic Jewish persona." The great French director Jean Renoir said that "Leo McCarey understood people better than any other Hollywood director." Some say McCarey is less celebrated today because of his politics. He made the anti-communist 1952 film "My Son John." Being anti-Communist did not help him in mostly left-leaning Hollywood.


So, no, McCarey was not a pious, one-note director who made only religious films for religious audiences. Like you and me and Bing Crosby, McCarey was no plaster saint. He abused alcohol and painkillers. He was not always faithful to his wife. He didn't allow his imperfections to push him away from his faith, and his faith is visible in his films.


In "An Affair to Remember" Cary Grant plays Nicki Ferrante, a gigolo about to marry a rich woman who will support his lavish lifestyle. Deborah Kerr plays Terry McKay, a singer who depends on her square-jawed fiancé to support her.  Nicki and Terry meet onboard a cruise ship and, though they are both committed elsewhere, they begin a flirtatious shipboard romance, a mere amusement before they return to their real lives.


Everything changes during a shore excursion. They enter a small chapel. Terry kneels and prays in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Nicky is confused. He looks at her, as if asking, "What the heck is going on?" He's not sure how to interpret Terry, a fun flirt, kneeling in prayer. Not sure what to do, he kneels as well, and attempts to make eye contact with Terry. Terry drops her head and communes, not with Nicky, but with the divine. She silently invites Nicky to do likewise, and he attempts to pray. Previously, Terry and Nicky were connected by their mutual attraction. Now, Terry, Nicky, and the infinite are a triangle. Yes, two people can fall in love, but for their love to last, they need a third focus, a mutual commitment to something larger than themselves.


The scene is completely silent. Later, onboard ship, Terry says, "We're heading into a rough sea." Nicky concurs. "We changed course today." Before, it had been about fun sex. Now, it was about love. They realize that they can't support each other financially. As their cruise ship arrives in Manhattan, they plan to separate from each other temporarily. They will try to do something new – earn their own livings at salaried, work-a-day jobs. If, in six months, they have been able to be self-supporting, and if they are still in love with each other, they will reunite atop the Empire State Building.


Nicki breaks up with his rich sugar momma and takes a job as a sign painter. Terry breaks up with her fiancé and takes paying work. When the six months are up, she rushes to the Empire State building and is hit by a car. She loses the use of her legs. Terry decides not to tell Nicki of the accident because she wants him to have a happy and fulfilling life rather than devote himself to a woman who can't give him everything that another woman could. This self-sacrifice theme warms the cockles of my Catholic heart. I have never been able to watch this movie without crying. The 1993 Nora Ephron movie "Sleepless in Seattle" riffs on "Love Affair"'s ability to wring tears.


Nicki, through a series of fortunate coincidences, discovers what happened to Terry. In the scene where he insists he still loves this now physically marred human being, there is a modest, table-top Christmas tree in the background. Any Atheist or other non-Christian could enjoy this movie, and millions have. But to me, "An Affair to Remember" has a big, fat, Catholic heart. It's all about the redemption of a gigolo and a kept woman, who cast aside their lives of hedonistic pleasure. He commits to a woman who might not even be able to have sex any more, and she graciously offers him his freedom. That Christmas tree, glimpsed so briefly in the background that you could miss it, is not just decoration. It's the reason for the season and the ultimate source of the real love in this Hollywood love story.


Terry says that she was hit by the car because, "I was looking up. It was the nearest thing to Heaven. You were there." This line echoes what occurred in the chapel. The erotic, the sexual, in "An Affair to Remember" is animated not just by lust. Lust is fun, and good, but "An Affair to Remember"'s love is something infinitely more powerful. It is divine.


Director Mitchell Leisen was probably gay, and I don't know anything about his faith life. Screenwriter Preston Sturges once wrote to his first of four wives, "Though I believe in God, I don't believe in religion for everybody. Some people who are a little weak and don't want to shoulder any responsibility need Catholicism … I think a powerful conscience is worth all the religions put together … I do not believe Christ was the son of God." Though neither Leisen nor Sturges was overtly religious, they produced one of my favorite Christmas movies, 1940's "Remember the Night."


Barbara Stanwyck, the queen of fast-talking dames, plays Lee Leander, a professional jewel thief. Fred MacMurray is John Sargent, the assistant district attorney who will do anything to send her to prison. After a series of madcap adventures on a cross-country road trip, culminating in a Christmas visit to John's family in Indiana, Lee voluntarily chooses prison to protect John from himself. He wants to bend the law, and sabotage his own career, in order to keep her out of prison. It's "The Gift of the Magi" onscreen. Two people love each other so much that one is willing to sacrifice her freedom, and the other is willing to sacrifice his career, to protect the other. For all this sermonette aspect of the film, "Remember the Night" is no less funny, irreverent, or, indeed, sexy. Other than the Christmas tree dominating a few scenes, there are no overtly religious references in "Remember the Night." But its focus on self-sacrifice and redemption is core Christianity. Lee must confess her sin, and she must atone. After she serves her prison sentence, she tells John, she will be clean and worthy of his love. Maybe Leisen and Sturges were not believers, but their audiences were, and the film's focus on redemption is a reflection of what was once America's common culture. Lee and John, like Terry and Nicky, enjoy a love that transcends mere sexual attraction.


Movies didn't have to be uplifting to reflect the values of a shared American Christmas. Christmas features significantly in 1960's "The Apartment," as does adultery and a couple of suicide attempts. "Buddy Boy" C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemon) is an ambitious young drone. He seeks advancement by allowing higher-ups to use his apartment for their adulterous assignations with secretaries. Baxter has a crush on elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Baxter doesn't realize that she is being used, his own apartment, by big boss Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). There's an orgy-like office Christmas party where a secretary does a mock strip-tease atop a table. It's at this party that Baxter realizes that Fran is Sheldrake's mistress. There are two Christmas trees in "The Apartment." There's an elaborate family tree in Sheldrake's palatial suburban home. The tree is in the background as Sheldrake pretends to be a loving husband to his clueless, deceived wife and a concerned father to his inquisitive son. In fact, Sheldrake is on the phone to Baxter refusing to do anything to help when Baxter phones Sheldrake to report that Fran has come close to killing herself in the apartment.


There is a smaller, shabbier tree in Baxter's bachelor apartment. It is in front of this tree that Karl Matuschka, Fran's brother-in-law, beats Baxter bloody, thinking that it is he, not Sheldrake, who has compromised Fran. Later, Fran suspects that Baxter, who has attempted suicide before, has killed himself in front of his tree.


Those two trees are not there to redefine or culturally appropriate Christmas. Those trees are not there to mock believers or faith. Those trees are there to break your heart. Billy Wilder directed "The Apartment" and wrote the script with his partner I. A. L. Diamond. Wilder had every justification to believe that the world is a dark, twisted, hopeless place, and that the promise that Christmas trees offer is merely pap for fools. Wilder's Jewish mother, grandmother, and stepfather were all murdered by Nazis. But Wilder is not selling cynicism or nihilism. In "The Apartment," there are two very good people: Dr. Dreyfus and his wife, Mildred. Dreyfus and Mildred watch as a stream of women slink in and out of Baxter's apartment. They assume he is a reprobate. But when Fran attempts suicide, they both step in and help save Fran's life. In Wilder's "Apartment," there is light, a light reflected on its Christmas trees. The darkness never overcomes that light.


The Christmases of my youth, again, had room for everybody, not just Christians, and the "reason for the season" may have been present, but not overt. The good folk gathered around C.C. Baxter's humble bachelor Christmas tree are Dr. and Mildred Dreyfus, two Jews. Even though it has no overtly religious content, I read the 1964 Rankin-Bass stop action film "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," as a very Judeo-Christian story. The God of the Bible loves underdogs asserting their worth, even as the world rejects them. The Biblical Joseph was an unloved brother sold into slavery by his jealous siblings; he redeemed his entire family. David was a shepherd boy who conquered a Philistine giant, Goliath. Jesus was tortured to death by the most powerful empire on earth. He rose from the dead and overthrew that empire with his teachings alone. Jesus said, "The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone." The line appears in both the Old and New Testaments. It's the very essence of the Rudolph story. Not only Rudolph, the previously rejected and mocked reindeer, is redeemed in the 1964 film. The Bumble, an abominable snowman who menaced Christmastown, is also. The Bumble's great height, previously so monstrous and threatening, is now put to good use. He places the star atop the tree.


Liel Leibovitz reads "Rudolph" differently than I. Leibovitz penned the 2012 Tablet analysis, "A Very Gay, Jewish Christmas: The Rankin-Bass Animated Specials are Yuletide Staples, So Why Do They Look Jewish and Sound Gay?" Leibovitz cites 1970's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," in which "the film's villain is a Lederhosen-wearing, German-accented despot named Burgermeister Meisterburger who rounds up all the toys and burns them … a gaggle of kids, most of them dressed in tatters, look on with horror." Leibovitz calls this scene "specifically Jewish," and an "allusion to the Holocaust." Rankin-Bass Christmas specials are "about … anti-Semitism." Leibovitz says that Romeo Muller, Rudolph's scriptwriter, "might have been Jewish" and "never married and had no kids." Muller may have been gay and "Hermey" – the name of the misfit elf dentist – is short for hermaphrodite," Leibovitz theorizes.


The author of the original "Rudolph" was indeed Jewish, but I don't read Rankin-Bass features as Leibovitz does. Not only Jews suffered under Nazis, and not only gay kids are teased at school. But no matter. I am happy that Leibovitz found material that worked for him in Christmas films. That's how it should be.


So, what was different about Christmas 2020? As we secularize, fewer and fewer creators and audience members are believers of any kind, and more and more films reflect that total absence of any investment in the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its themes of light in darkness, self-sacrifice, redemption, and transcendent meaning. As mentioned above, there is a persistent, and false, myth that Christians "stole" Christmas from Pagans. The facts say otherwise. But something like that is happening now. The trees, the trappings, are all being culturally appropriated, and given a new meaning, by non-Christians.


2003's "Love Actually" wrenches Christmas out of the hands of Christians. In "Love Actually," Christmas is about two nice young folk making a porn movie. It's about a degenerate drug-addicted rocker cutting a record. There is a Nativity scene in "Love Actually," one that includes a couple of treyf lobsters, an octopus, and a blue whale. "Twee" is the word you get if you condense "Love Actually" into four letters. Twee means "excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental." The president of the United States – a Bill Clinton-esque character – sexually harasses a woman who looks a bit like Monica Lewinsky? Twee! A man cheats on his wife and the mother of his children? Twee! A widower is torn up with grief over his wife's death? Twee! Drug addiction? Twee!


This is what happens when you extract Christianity from Western Civilization. You can't allow an aggrieved widower his pain. You can't allow the woman fondled by a US president her rage. You can't allow Laura Linney to have both a crazy brother and a boyfriend. You can't allow aging, drug-addicted rocker Bill Nighy his desperation. Because when you let real grit into your story, you lose twee, and twee is the new, highest good, along with diversity and political correctness. Superstar Keira Knightly is married to Chiwetel Ejiofor, a black man! Virtue signaling so radiant you need sunglasses!


A movie with even a hint of Judeo-Christian substrate could allow real agony, and, yes, still be a romantic comedy, or even a musical. Watch, or re-watch, Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in the 1944 musical comedy "Meet Me in Saint Louis." Garland earned everything she brought to this performance. She had been devoting much time to entertaining American soldiers. She knew that these soldiers "needed to believe;" she knew she "needed to bring hope." "This wasn't just another song to Garland; this was a prayer." In the film, Garland's character is singing to a sad, frightened child (Margaret O'Brien) whose world is crashing down around her. In 1944 many people were having that experience. "Meet Me in Saint Louis" was released the day after Thanksgiving, even as American troops were liberating the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp, Imperial Japan was still winning battles in China, and the Red Army advanced on Eastern Europe. The Battle of the Bulge would shortly begin.


There are moments when the expression on Garland's face seems perfectly suited to a mortal communicating with a God the mortal loves, fears, doubts, and clings to. Throughout the song, Garland's focus appears to fly back and forth between heaven and earth, between faith and doubt, between hope and resignation, between the crying little girl she struggles to comfort and her own knowledge of how hard life can be. In the end, she commits to carrying on in the most "one foot in front of the other" manner possible, but you know that on some level she believes, and that belief gives her an internal glow that lights her path. I can't imagine such a performance being produced in a post-belief era. "The Apartment" pulls off a similar high-wire act. The Judeo-Christian narrative offers hope, redemption, and meaning. With those roads out of pain, real pain is bearable. Twee offers no such road, so everything has to be a joke.


In 2005's "The Family Stone," the cultural appropriation of Christmas is complete. The family Stone lives in a four-million-dollar, New England colonial mansion. Snow falls. Lights and evergreens festoon every available surface. Christmas songs punctuate the soundtrack. But the message of this Christmas is utterly not Biblical. At key moments, family scion Ben Stone quotes not the Bible, but Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. "Let your freak flag fly." Ben also quotes Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are."


Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker) is the film's villain. She is bad because she is "uptight," "conservative," and a successful capitalist. She lives in Manhattan and makes a lot of money in the business world. Her fiancé takes her home for Christmas. He wants to acquire an heirloom family wedding ring for Meredith. Meredith makes an awkward, but well-intentioned, comment about gay people to a black, gay man who is married to a deaf gay man. The movie, written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, who is gay, hates Meredith. She is belittled, bullied, and humiliated for most of its length. When wearing a pristine white blouse, she is doused with a sticky mixture of raw eggs. The family declares that Meredith is unworthy to acquire the wedding ring. It is given, instead, to her younger sister, a free spirit who has a job awarding grants to artists.


Scholars like Douglas Murray and Tom Holland, though atheists themselves, have commented on how the West's rejection of the Judeo-Christian tradition leaves the West lacking a road to forgiveness and redemption. The Religion of Woke is judgmental and self-righteous. Meredith must be punished for her faux pas, no matter how innocent. Redemption was possible for the thief, Lee Leander, the mistress, Fran Kubelik, the kept woman and the gigolo, and even for the Bumble. The post-Christian church of Woke allows no such redemption.


The 2020 Netflix romantic comedy "Holidate" stars Emma Roberts, Julia Roberts' niece, as Sloane, and Luke Bracey, a tall, handsome Australian, as Jackson. These two don't like each other but they date each other only on holidays. They drink to excess. When Sloane's sexually promiscuous lifestyle causes her emotional pain, she is urged to take a drug – possibly Ecstasy – to feel better. She takes a laxative by mistake, after which she has painful diarrhea. Much scatological hilarity ensues. Sloane and Jackson possibly have sex, but they have both been too drunk and drug addled to know if they've had sex or not.


"Promising Young Woman," a "feminist revenge thriller," opened on Christmas day, 2020. It stars Carey Mulligan as a woman obsessed with avenging a college rape of a drunken woman. The movie ends with a very grim murder.


Got that, guys? If your life is a romantic comedy like "Holidate," it's twee if a girl gets drunk and can't remember if she had sex with you. If your life is a "feminist revenge thriller," it's very bad if a girl gets drunk and can't remember if she's had sex with you. Oh, and let's compare the twee porn stars of "Love Actually" with another Carey Mulligan movie, "Shame."


"Shame" depicts the day-to-day life of a sex and pornography addict (Michael Fassbender) and his suicidal sister (Carey Mulligan). "Shame" has no real plot, and its ending offers zero hope. One has to assume that the lead characters will live out their lives tethered to degrading, dead-end sex addiction.


In real life, many addicts insist that Twelve Step, which asks members to rely on a higher power, has offered them release from their addiction. We are all very sophisticated now, and we realize that there is no higher power. There's another problem in our post-Christian morality. For a sex-and-porn addict to benefit from Twelve Step, he would have to judge. He would have to say, "I am addicted to sex and porn, and that is bad." The Church of Woke can condemn "uptight, conservative" Meredith to an eternity of humiliating, misogynist punishments for making a clumsy comment about homosexuality to a gay, black man at a Christmas dinner. But the Church of Woke forbids anyone from making any judgment about any sex act whatsoever, including incest. This refusal to judge slams the door shut on any hope for recovery in the movie "Shame."


There is no hope, there is no redemption, and "Shame" ends hopelessly. So, if you star in "Love, Actually," porn is twee. If you star in "Shame," porn and attendant sex addiction drive you to incest and your sister's bloody body on your bathroom floor. That's how we sort out morality in post-Christian America. By deciding what genre film our lives are.


Hey, but being post-Christian doesn't mean that we've lost meaning, right? Of course not. My local NPR affiliate, WNYC, assures me of that. WNYC is the Vatican of Woke. Religion attempts to address the problem of evil. WNYC has that question answered. White people are evil. How to live a virtuous life? Get as close to non-white people as you can.


On December 18, 2020, WNYC broadcast "food-justice activist" Bryant Terry, who "blackifies" food "as part of his project to uplift Black culinary traditions from the global African diaspora." Terry is "disappointed by the emphasis on classical European techniques." He wants to improve how people "talk about Black food." Confession: the one international cuisine I have heard people mock, and I have mocked myself, is British cuisine, a cuisine of very white people. No matter. WNYC fixed this problem I didn't know I have. On Christmas Eve, WNYC broadcast a salute to "Hawa Hassan, the Brooklyn-based founder and CEO of the Somali hot sauce line Basbaas." She discussed her cookbook, "In Bibi's Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from Eight African Countries." WNYC also featured, on Christmas Eve, "Chicano Eats," "a delicious tour through the diverse flavors and foods of Chicano cuisine," and also Alexander Smalls discussing his new cookbook "Meals, Music and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen." There was also a feature about a cooking contest in Zimbabwe. So, yes, Christmas is a big deal to the diehard leftists at WNYC. Why? Well, because, apparently, non-white people cook and eat on that day. I have to tell you, if I were nonwhite, I would feel so used by these SJWs.


The Nazis culturally appropriated Christmas. They erased Christ and inserted their own Pagan violence and hate. The Nazi lyrics to "Silent Night" begin with


"Silent night, Holy night,

 All is calm, all is bright.

 Only the Chancellor stays on guard

 Germany's future to watch and to ward,

 Guiding our nation aright."


No outside force, no invader, no pathogen, robbed 2020 America of its cultural matrix, a background belief, shared, to a greater or lesser extent, by Christians, Jews, and Atheists, in a powerful narrative, a narrative that provided hope, light, and redemption. We the people stopped going to church, stopped believing, and chose other north stars. There is a "god-shaped hole in man," according to Pascal. That hole is being increasingly filled by The High Church of Woke.


I liked living in a country where my bedrock beliefs, however much in the background, provided the foundation for cultural forms as diverse as bestselling records, screwball comedies, and dystopic views of moral turpitude in corporate offices and bedrooms. During Christmas 2020, I missed those shared a priori premises that once wove our country together. I acknowledge that my country is shifting beneath my feet, and that fewer and fewer of my fellow citizens share my beliefs, or even have any idea of what those beliefs are. I don't know the best solution for people like me. Lacking my own hopeful, well-written conclusion, I will fall back on quoting the Gospel of John.


"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."


Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery

This essay first appeared at Front Page Magazine here