US-based pop culture is heavy with Christian themes, often so deeply embedded that people aren’t really consciously aware of their presence. This nation was founded by Christians who sandwiched their values into the founding documents and social agreements of society, who expected that the US would remain a Christian nation and proceeded accordingly; this is a country where Christian precepts and attitudes are such a part of daily life that people engage in and echo them without really thinking about it or evaluating it.
Redemption and atoning are classic examples; very rooted in Christian ideology, they are also critical themes in pop culture in the US, the idea that it is both possible and necessary to atone for a bad past. What’s not explored as deeply is the Christian reality behind this concept, that ‘bad past’ is code for ‘past sins’ and that people have a moral obligation to atone for their sins to go to heaven. Redemption isn’t so much about what you accomplish in this life, but about getting right with G-d so you will be prepared for Heaven and all that awaits there.
The reiteration of themes of redemption and atonement sends a strong regular message to consumers of pop culture. On the surface, it’s not necessarily a bad message: if you have harmed people in the past, you should try to make it up to them. If you have done harm in general through your business practices or other behaviour, you should attempt to undo it, or to mitigate it in some way; if you owned a company that used child labour and later realised you were uncomfortable with that, perhaps you would convert your labour practices and donate funds to organisations that work to fight child labour and child trafficking.
Making good on past harm should be about the here and now, rather than the possibility of an afterlife, though. And it should be about the general balance of good in the world rather than your personal benefit; apologies, and addressing your harm in the face, aren’t about deriving a personal reward but rather about breaking down harmful structures and admitting your complicity in them. Themes of redemption and atonement often don’t touch upon this in pop culture. It’s about the character’s personal journey and characterisation, about who the character is and will be rather than about society at large.
Par for the course in pop culture, where the goal is character-driven media that compels viewers to get attached to individuals and see their journeys through. The concept of an immense personal journey that may include both internal and external challenges is ancient, as evidenced by works of art and culture from all over the world. Not for nothing do epic poems from the ancient world endure to this day. They touch upon something inside of us, the part of us that wants to search for greater meaning in life and see people prevail over what could be insurmountable circumstances.
Yet, there’s something troubling about this aspirational depiction of redemption that goes beyond the fact that it’s a Christian presentation wrapped up in an entertainment package (the Church has showed great deftness when it comes to repackaging Christian moral lessons and teachings to turn them into cultural touchstones and tools for conversion, after all). It’s the fact that in pop culture, redemption is often depicted as a purely masculine pursuit, something men do as they interact with the world, something in which women are only passive observers or tools for men to use, rather than their own independent agents. Or, for that matter, people with their own pasts they need to grapple with.
Women in pop culture get tragic and awful pasts they must confront in order to move forward and be stronger people. Men, on the other hand, get pasts in which they’ve performed misdeeds and they need to make good on those pasts to get right with themselves and feel better about their relationships with the world. In this setup, women are passive victims while men are actors, and men are the only ones who seem to experience intense transformational journeys as they relate to their own pasts and admit that they have been involved in horrific things.
Take, for example, Joss Whedon’s show Angel, which revolves around the larger story of Angelus/Angel, first introduced in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Angel’s entire story is about the devastation he wrought as Angelus, when he had no soul and cut a swath of pain and suffering, destroying the people around him, killing indiscriminately and becoming known as one of the worst of the worst. As an ensouled vampire, Angel spends his entire life trying to make good on what he did, backed up by women like Cordelia and Fred. They both aid him and serve as tools to show how far Angel has come.
For that matter, Angel and Buffy also provide opportunities for Spike to redeem himself, and <em>Buffy</em> offers Riley a chance to make good on his misdeeds and the harm he did to Buffy. The only strong redemption narrative for a woman in either show is Faith’s journey as a slayer, and it’s notable here that Angel has to effectively ‘tame’ her before she comes around and realises that she needs to reform and become a better human being.
All of these redemption narratives are, on their own, very interesting. The characters are complex, there are some fascinating thematic elements going on, and the stories are well-told. Whedon is somewhat unusual in that he includes a woman’s redemption, albeit a somewhat clumsy one. But Angel and Spike’s redemptions both mirror the pop culture trend that sins, and redemption, are for men, not for women; women have no agency, and therefore apparently lack the ability to commit sin, or the desire to identify harm and make it right.