How conservatives lost the entertainment culture wars

By Jonathon Van Maren

Today’s conservative commentators have an enormous blind spot when it comes to entertainment. After fawning relentlessly over the vile, pornographic Game of Thrones—we now know that the producers aggressively exploited young actresses to push the boundaries of what they were willing to do onscreen—many are all in for House of Dragon. Like GOT, House of Dragon features graphic sex scenes in the very first episode. The Parents’ Guide on IMDB notes that the show is filled with “graphic orgy sex scenes with explicit and full nudity.” The show also continues to push the same boundaries as its predecessor, causing one critic over at Slate to salivate that the series “needs more incest.” (Cosmopolitan changed the title of their own column on the same subject after saying that “incest fantasies are hot.”)

Yet, conservative commentators who regularly make bank bemoaning the perverseness of Hollywood also plug these shows. Ben Shapiro couldn’t stop talking about Game of Thrones, discussing his pet theories with Christian podcaster Lauren Chen, also a devotee of the show. Shapiro has been reviewing House of Dragon episode by episode; apparently a bit of porn is acceptable so long as the plot is interesting. David French, who spends much of his time writing columns about the hypocrisy of American evangelicals and the crudeness of Trump supporters, called the show “awesome” and loved the pilot, presumably skipping over the pornographic sex-with-prostitutes scenes. (French, when questioned on how a Christian can watch a show famous for its pornography, responded: “I’ve enjoyed a Sunday night ritual that includes a glass of bourbon and Game of Thrones in all its high-def, surround-sound glory.”)

The GOT/House of Dragon obsession is just one example of how conservatives lost the entertainment culture wars: because after decades of conservative opposition to smut and blasphemy—with Focus on the Family warning parents about particularly egregious films and Liberty University banning its students from watching anything R-rated—many conservatives decided to simply abandon any Judeo-Christian standard for what they watch. In fact, the battle to keep porn and blasphemy out of entertainment has turned into a reactive culture war, with conservatives merely responding to whatever the Left is trying to cancel. Every time someone suggests that there should be a woke James Bond, for example, conservatives promptly react as if the Bond franchise is a key Western cultural inheritance that must be preserved for future generations. (It isn’t. Let it die.)

The fact that progressives hate something doesn’t make it worth defending. Two things can be true at the same time: a) a non-binary James Bond is stupid and b) the Bond films are sexually salacious stories that Christians don’t need to defend. Sometimes, everything is stupid. With centre cracking and the culture coming apart at the seams, conservatives shouldn’t waste time and energy defending garbage just because progressives said something characteristically crazy. In fact, even so-called “Christian” films have begun to abandon standards of basic decency, as was revealed by the recent release of Redeeming Love, a movie based on a Francine Rivers novel that managed to include sex scenes—Cap Stewart noted that the film “irredeemably exploits actors and viewers,” with more detail in a second review. (As Tim Challies wrote in a column on a similar subject: “Are you godly enough to watch smut?” David French, presumably, would say yes.)

That brings me to the latest front in the entertainment culture wars—The Daily Wire’s foray into films. Merely watching these films, we are told, is a blow against the bad guys—as Matt Walsh urged in his promo for one of the movies: “Let’s send the degenerates in Hollywood a message by amassing a HUGE audience for tonight’s premiere. I promise you’ll love this movie, and you’ll be sticking it to the Left just by tuning in.” So—what are these films all about? Are they stories of historical heroes; powerful human tales emphasizing great virtues; works of art that are good and true and beautiful?  Well, in their first film Run, Hide, Fight, the story of a girl who takes on a school shooter, there is plenty of blasphemy in addition to this (from the Parents’ Guide on IMDB): “Zoe is shown to have a sadistic and vengeful streak…A female teacher is forced to remove her top and bra [or a student will be shot] — there is a brief glimpse of her breasts… her nipples are only visible while out of focus and in profile.” Take that, Hollywood degenerates!

So we have a sadistic shoot-‘em-up flick with blasphemy and a twisted sexual scene. Great. “It was just brief!” defenders might say. We are now at the point where we defend things that no previous generation of Christians would defend—and this is supposed to be conservative entertainment. The Daily Wire’s other offerings thus far are Terror on the Prairie, yet another revenge flick featuring a sexual assault scene (as if there aren’t enough of those), and an equally bloody horror movie called Shut In, about a mother defending her family from an abusive boyfriend. What in the world is “conservative”—or even worthwhile—about any of this besides the fact that The Daily Wire is getting your money rather than a Hollywood producer? (A note here: DW’s documentaries have been excellent, and I reviewed both of them.)

What, exactly, is “conservative entertainment” supposed to be? That’s an honest question. I get that “Christian films” are generally Hallmark movies without the self awareness, and I understand that art is more than Sunday school lessons shoehorned into a trite story (a complaint I’ve had about much of Christian fiction, too). But surely it isn’t just slasher/horror/revenge flicks where a conservative gets the money instead of a Hollywood mogul; stories devoid of forgiveness and gratitude and fixated on the same storyline Hollywood relentlessly pushes: A good person gets pushed too far and responds by cancelling all of his opponents with bullets. That isn’t creating a counter-culture; it is contributing to the one we should be rejecting. As Matt Walsh put it in his review of Game of Thrones several years back:

[E]ntertainment is not a neutral exercise. In every instance, it’s going to be a net positive or a net negative for my mental and spiritual welfare. I am inviting these messages, images, and ideas into my mind. I am doing something that is active and purposeful, and it will either help me or hurt me in the end…Art says something to us and about us. It drives us. Transforms us. Art moves the heart and the mind in a particular direction. It can pull us closer to Him or push us further away, but whatever it does, it does something. So anytime we sit in front of the tube, we should ask: Am I progressing or regressing? Is this drawing me to God or away from Him? What am I getting out of this?

Many Christians offer up excuses for these shows that would come off as frankly ridiculous to any previous generation of Christians. As Walsh observes:

Of course, the only thing worse than the “it shows what sin looks like” excuse is the “Christians shouldn’t hide from the culture” bit. And they’re correct. We shouldn’t hide. But we shouldn’t go along with it or follow its dictates or conform to it, either. In this culture, lots of sins are considered fun, harmless, and entertaining. Do I need to actually commit them all, or watch someone commit them while I sit on my couch and cheer along, in order to not be guilty of “hiding”? Give me a break.

I’m a big fan of The Daily Wire, and I’ve written an entire essay on why I think they are an essential voice on the Right—but thus far, their attempt to create a counter-culture capable of competing with the sadistic filmmakers who created Game of Thrones has been thoroughly disappointing. When conservative commentators—and this applies to a majority of them, with notable and distinguished exceptions—praise plot-driven pornography as acceptable to watch, I simply don’t trust their discernment and their storytelling instincts. In fact, it is more evidence that when it comes to entertainment, conservatives have not impacted the culture—instead, we have been catechized by it ourselves. For those who are shaking their heads at this prudish take, ask yourself this: What previous generation of Christians would have defended that? Are they wrong, or are we wrong?

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