Catholic Colleges & Pop Culture
Predictably, spring brought the annual tussles about whether or not The Vagina Monologues ought to be performed at Catholic colleges and universities. I understand those who think the content and rhetoric of the play is inappropriate for a Catholic campus, although in the end I don’t agree. The people I don’t understand are those who think the play will morally corrupt students. In my view, students are routinely exposed to far more seductive and therefore more formidable entertainments, such as Sex and the City and Entourage, two series produced by HBO that are very popular with Catholic college students.
Sex and the City is about four single women seeking love, sex, success, and happiness in Manhattan, while Entourage is about four single men seeking sex (love seems secondary), money, and adventure in Hollywood. Sex and the City’s protagonist is Carrie Bradshaw, a sex-and-relationship columnist for a New York newspaper who bases her writing on her own experiences and those of her friends. Entourage’s central character is Vincent Chase, an up-and-coming movie star from New York City who brings along his lifelong friends for the ride to fame and fortune. In a sense, the two series are the same show, with one version aimed at young women, and the other at young men.
Unlike the characters dramatized in the Monologues, who are broken, bruised, and socially ostracized, the characters in the two HBO series are glamorous and well connected. No one in her right mind would want to go through what the characters in The Vagina Monologues go through. But young women at Notre Dame have been known to discuss which character on Sex and the City they most identify with—the ladylike Charlotte, who wants a husband, children, and a house in the country, or the ambitious Miranda, who aims to be a successful lawyer. Entourage is a bit simpler; my guess is most young men want to be Vincent Chase, but fear they have more in common with Turtle, Vincent’s aptly nicknamed gopher and driver.
Unlike The Vagina Monologues, which makes an appearance on campuses once a year, Sex and the City and Entourage are constant enticements. Although Sex and the City ended its original run in 2004, it is broadly syndicated (a film based on the series is now in production). After four seasons on HBO, Entourage shows no sign of wearing out its welcome. Both shows are also widely available on DVD. In short, a Catholic college couldn’t ban them without banning cable TV, Netflix, and the Internet.
What you can’t ban, however, you can engage. It’s easy to highlight the fantasy aspects of the shows; for example, no one on either of the HBO series seems to spend very much time working for all that money they throw around. It’s harder, however, to engage the moral vision animating the two series in a manner helpful to students. It’s easy enough to point to the Catechism’s list of sexual sins in order to condemn the characters. But that strategy simply makes the students’ eyes glaze over. They’ve heard it all before—or so they think.
It seems to me that the key to engaging students about popular culture is to start with appreciation, not condemnation. Why do young people find these characters so attractive? If you strip away the glitter, what you will find in each case is something that is enduring: deep and committed friendship. The main characters celebrate each other’s successes and commiserate over each other’s failures. They can reveal themselves to one another without fear of rejection. Moreover, if a friend’s welfare is on the line, they count on one another to tell the truth, not simply to say what the other wants to hear. The women on Sex and the City are sisters to one another; the men on Entourage are brothers.
But engagement should also mean challenge. While the characters on both shows have interesting and varied sex lives, they do not, as a rule, successfully combine sexual relationships with deep friendship. Their lovers are fascinating and sometimes all-consuming, but they are not good friends. So the ultimate existential question raised is whether it is possible to combine friendship and romantic love in a lifelong partnership. Many students at Catholic colleges hope for just such a relationship. Given the high rate of divorce among their parents’ generation, many young people fear it might not be possible. One reason these shows are so popular, it seems to me, is that they grapple with the right questions.
Christian thinkers have long pondered the relationship between different sorts of love, particularly between agape (deep compassion and concern) and eros (desire). Thomas Aquinas thought that marriage was not merely meant to ratify an erotic bond, but also to create a lifelong friendship. Philosophy is fine, students might say when pointed to Aquinas, but what about reality? In response, one might turn first to fellow Americans, rather than to Catholic exhortation. At the moment HBO happens to be presenting a wonderful series about the passionate friendship and enduring marriage of John and Abigail Adams. I suspect just such a relationship is what young Catholics want for themselves. And if they do, then what do they need to do to make it possible? What sort of vision of sex, love, and commitment could sustain it? So constructive dialogue between Catholic sexual ethics and popular culture is possible—if we abide for a time with the questions, before we begin pointing to the answers.
Read more: Letters, June 6, 2008
Related: Be Not Afraid: 'The Vagina Monologues' on Catholic campuses, by Cathleen Kaveny