A Service of AMERICAN ATHEISTS "For Reason and the First Amendment"
17 April 1999


Television's two leading kick-ass female fighters of evil have new opponents, and find themselves under attack -- not from vampires, evil war lords or demons -- but from religious interests. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and "Xena, Warrior Princess" are both taking flak for their occult overtones, or how they portray various mythical figures and supposedly "insult" religious sensibilities.

In February, Hindus became upset when Xena -- a Greek goddess-like character who fights evil with the help of female warrior associates -- supposedly invoked the help of Krishna to rescue two friends from Indrajit, King of the Demons. The American Hindus Against Defamation criticized the show's producers, Universal Studios, for allowing their television heroine to call upon Krishna, arguing that any fictional portrayal of one of their major deities was a great offense. The group charged that the Xena episode, "The Way," was produced "in a way that equates Krishna with the gods of Greek and other mythology. It thus cheapens and trivializes what is in actuality something held sacred to almost one billion Hindus."

"Creating (a) fictional role for Lord Krishna is akin to the creation of (a) fictional role for Jesus Christ or Prophet Mohammed," the organization noted in a press statement. "Krishna is real! Krishna is the Supreme Lord, not a fictional, literary character who can be played with for mundane entertainment."

"Hindus will be deeply offended if the producers run this show. Many devotees will boycott products produced by the advertisers if the show if offensive to (the) 1 billion strong Hindu community..."

The Xena episode reverberated with Hindu organizations around the world. An unsigned opinion article circulated by VNN, the Vaishnava News warned, "Hindus and Vaishnavas have voiced concern and are planning a variety of protests at the 'fictionalization' of Krishna." Another objection focused on the alleged lesbian aspects of the popular television series starring Australian Lucy Lawless as Xena, and Renee O'Connor as Gabrielle. Since Xena's sidekicks were "female warrior types," noted VNN, "There is genuine concern that having a fictionalized Krishna help Xena save her girlfriend will be seen as a promotion or endorsement of the homosexual lifestyle by Lord Krishna, who helps them become reunited."

Another article circulating in the Hindu press charged that the program is "communicating to the non-Hindus of the world that followers of the Vedas (Hindus) are superstitious, foolish people. Obviously, increased discrimination against Hindus will be a natural result of this."

"Xena is giving ammunition to those who feel it is their duty to liberate India and Hindus from backwardness," charged the writer, adding, "Many Westerners already consider Hinduism to be the cause of India's economic backwardness... India will increasingly be seen as a nation held in economic and social bondage by a superstitious, backward religion and who (sic) therefore must be liberated from its shackles." Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, "Western, hedonistic culture," Universal Studios and "its openly homosexual power broker, Mr. Diller" were all taken over the coals for this attack on Hindu sensibilities and belief.

In New Zealand, Hindu activists denounced the Xena program for enlisting Lord Krishna in an effort to "save her lesbian lover." A spokesperson fore the World Vaishnava Association, Tusta Krishnades, said that the episode insulted Krishna first by fictionalizing his existence, and then suggesting that he and the Vedas approved of homosexuality. "This is an absolute outrage since Vedic scriptures, the scripture of yoga, rejects homosexuality as a perversion. It is a slap in the face of all Hindus and an obvious attempt to misrepresent and undermine Vedic religion..." A local Indian Association official agree, insisting that any fictional or mocking portrayal of the deity would "offend and hurt any Indian person." According to the Dominion newspaper, local Hindus had attempt to stop the Xena program from airing in that country.

The portrayal of mythical Hindu deities on other programs has attracted similar outrage, though not on the scale of the Xena episodes. Internet postings and articles appearing in various Hindu publications lament that Krishna and other supernatural beings are "treated disrespectfully or made out to be flawed characters."

Meanwhile, Christians Attack Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Somewhere between the bubble gum rock genre of Hanson and Melrose Place is a teen audience captivated by adolescent angst, and drawn to programs like "Dawson's Creek" (which has an openly-Atheist character) and "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" which stars Sarah Michelle Gellar. Other networks, hungry for ratings, have jumped in with comparable programs such as "Sabrina the Teen Age Witch" and "Charmed." The popularity of these shows -- and the fact that they employ occult and news age themes -- is causing considerable debate in America's fundamentalist subculture.

One example is the wide circulation given to an article in The Watchman Expositor ("A Magazine of Christian Discernment") by Jason Barker, titled "Youth-Oriented TV and the Occult." The author admits that "The trend of blending the occult with mass media is not new," and cites the long history of the horror genre, including "The Exorcist," "Friday the 13th," "A Nightmare on Elm Streets" and other cinematic efforts which have, to varying degrees, already established themselves as classics of the form. "Buffy" comes in for special treatment, though, because it supposedly targets a younger audience, and reaches nearly 4 million households. Nothing new here, though; while "The Exorcist," based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, was targeted for a general, mature clientele, "A Nightmare on Elm Streets," and the seemingly endless sequels of "Friday" were all considered teen movies which blended themes having to do with horror, teasing sexual messages and midrange special effects.

The premise of "Buffy" is based upon the pop-mythos of the vampire. Every century there is born a girl who as a single teenager becomes the "Slayer," and has the task of killing vampires and other supernatural demons. The "Slayer" is found and trained by a "Watcher," who is part of an international secret society. In the case of "Buffy," the vampires seem to have chosen a high school venue in a mostly white, middle-class community called Sunnyvale. Despite the presumably robust property values, there is plenty of room in Sunnyvale for cemeteries, ghoulish dungeons, and even the entrance to Hell itself. Gellar-"Buffy" has incredible karate moves, would put the most proficient Romanian gymnast to shame, and in the process of devastating and dispatching legions of vampires never seems to lose her composure, break out in a sweat, or reveal too much flesh. Naturally, it's the younger generation that "knows what's really going on" in Sunnyvale. Buffy's mom has only recently become aware of who her daughter really is, and the Watcher is a bumbling, shy and somewhat out-of-place character with the appropriate name of Rupert Giles. "Jeeves" would have been too aristocratic a moniker.

"Is it inherently wrong for Christian youth to watch 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'?" asks the Watchman piece? The answer is a strong, probable "yes," and for a number of reasons. "When you spend that much time watching something...," says Dick Rolfe of the Christian Dove Foundation, "you have just developed new role models and a new window on life. During the time a Christian spends focusing on plots concerning subjects that are condemned by God, that person is tacitly following the occult rather than God."

The fact that occult themes have found their way into many quarters of youth subculture also annoys many Christians. A cause-and-effect relationship is hinted at strongly when The Watchman piece quotes a study by the Kentucky Herald-Leader newspaper which grew out of the murders of two people in November, 1996 by a supposed "vampire cult" led by a local teenager. The youth, Rod Ferrell, claimed that while a child he was "exposed to occult rituals and human sacrifices by his father and first stepfather." He was also presumably lured into the occult lifestyle by playing role games such as "Dungeons and Dragons," which has been under attack for years by some Christian groups. The more critical will recognize that this is reminiscent of similar claims, many of them unfounded, espoused by "ritual abuse victims" during the height of the "Satanic panic" of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Also criticized is the "Goth" lifestyle that has some teens dressing up in black costumes, dyeing their hair, and avoiding the local tanning salon. A posting on alt.goth describes the genre as consisting mainly of devotees who are "pale-faced, black-swarthed, hair-sprayed nightdwellers, who worshiped imagery religious and sacrilegious, consumptive poets and all things spooky." British theme bands like Cure and Depeche Mode established a "pop-Goth" musical genre which naturally spilled over to fashion, behavior and spending patterns. Less edgy was Brandon Lee's character in the 1996 movie "The Crow."

Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and "700 Club" program have become regular forums for claims of rampant, and dangerous, teen interest in the occult. This past week, for instance, CBN News carried an installment, "Teens and Witchcraft." The segment warned that "It appears that more and more young people are showing a fascination with witchcraft," and cited the popularity of a book, "Teen Witch," described as a "sinister opening to the occult." Ron Rhoades, author of "Reasoning From the Scripture," advanced the claim that teens were being "indoctrinated" into the occult without even the knowledge of their parents. Rhodes compared the access which youngsters supposedly have to books or programs -- "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" and "Charmed" were cited -- as comparable to putting "a loaded gun" or "pornography" into the hands of children.

"Teens and Witchcraft" also interviewed a woman identified as "a former witch" named Valerie Duffy. She claimed that "by the time I was nine, I was casting spells successfully..." Duffy also described teenage children as "targets, especially in spiritual matters."

The controversy over "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is similar, but not identical to the Hindus protestations about "Xena." In both cases, religious or supernatural themes are coopted by the equally fantastic medium of television, incorporated into the manifold layers that make up popular culture, and, ultimately, used to attract viewers and sell products. From a bottom line perspective, this is the equivalent of Pope John Paul II's recent Papal Tour in Mexico which was underwritten by 26 banks and manufacturing conglomerates, and exploited in order to sell everything from financial instruments to potato chips. All of this transports the "sacred," rendering it so much flotsam and grist for the fantasy mills in Hollywood, or, in the case of India, "Bollywood."

Whereas "Xena" is criticized for "insulting" Hindu beliefs -- not a far cry from Muslim objections to Salman Rushdie's novel, "The Satanic Verses" -- programs like "Buffy" are considered more subversive. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights finds abundant examples of where religion, specifically the Catholic flavor, is insulted, questioned, or disdained. Movies like "Priest," which dealt with homosexual themes in the church, or "The Last Temptation of Christ" are perceived as purely anti-religious, or anti-Catholic propaganda by a Hollywood which has supposedly lost its ethical moorings.

"Buffy" and similar programs allegedly do more. Many Christian fundamentalists take the worst-case scenarios as reported in the news -- as witnessed by the reference to the Kentucky (of all places!) vampire killer cult -- and attempt to find a causal source in the abundance of "occult" programming which boosts the ratings of major networks like the WB or UPN. A similar example is quoted by Barker, the case of an Arizona boy who allegedly wrote to his grandparents prior to committing suicide: "...please forgive me but tonite (sic) is the night I give my life to Satan. I am going to sacrifice myself ... God told me to skin you alive..." Even Barker, though, is forced to admit that a "relatively small number of youth" are currently involved in "occultic activity," but "the growing movement should be a source of concern for Christians..."

Or should it? If anything, one might argue that the teenage fascination with occult motifs such as witchcraft and vampirism exists because it is relatively safe -- something acted out through the gyrations of Ms. Gellar and her stunt-doubles -- and is tied to other themes such as generational rebellion, emergent teen sexuality and other icons of the period. It is also escapist. Those fundamentalist Christians -- and their Hindu and Islamic counterparts -- forget that people like to be scared, at least when they know that are relatively safe at the time. Audiences were thrilled by early examples of the horror genre, but seeing "Frankenstein" in the movie house -- or even reading the book -- did not send teenagers or adults into the cemeteries in hopes of building their own reanimated monster.

The danger, of course, is that as religious groups find more evidence of movies, books, clothing or anything else which (supposedly or actually) trivializes, fictionalizes or "insults" their gods, doctrines and beliefs, civil liberties as well as the richness of popular culture will suffer. No one is forced to tune-in "Buffy," or "Xena," but rarely do religious groups simply ask people not to watch these programs. Instead, they pressure studios to not air a particular feature, or destroy copies of a movie as was proposed with "The Last Temptation of Christ." Islamic militants wanted Viking Press to stop printing copies of Salman Rushdie's novel, and they insisted that book sellers clear their shelves of the offending tomes. It is not sufficient to politely suggest that people abstain from viewing a particular show or reading a certain book. And barring successful pressure on media companies like Universal or, more recently, Disney-Miramax, well, the government is often sought as the censor of last resort. India is well ahead of the United States in the legal effort to protect the sensibilities and doctrines of religious groups; after all, it banned "The Satanic Verses" before Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran pronounced the book to be sacrilegious, and condemned its author to violent death. Indian censors remain very much in business, making sure that foreign and domestic movies or programs avoid the display of too much flesh, or certain political or sexual themes including homosexuality.

Fundamentalist vexation over teen flirtations with Xena, Buffy, or the occult in general may betray stereotypical general fault lines. Adolescents today certainly grow up in a world vastly different from that of youngsters fifty or a hundred years ago; the world is different, and so is the notion of entertainment. Rather than being the entrance to hell -- even in Sunnyvale -- images of vampire-fighting vixens, or athletic heroines may be positive role models suggesting the changing role of females. These images may also appeal to a generation doing what it is supposed to do, namely, test the limits of familial and social authority, seek out an identity, and navigate the tumultuous seas of coming of age.


AANEWS is a free service from American Atheists, a nationwide movement founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair for the advancement of Atheism, and the total, absolute separation of government and religion.

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