John Paul II and Chick Flicks

The man who would become  Pope St. John Paul II, Fr. Karol Wojtyla, devoted much of his pastoral work as a priest to the study of love between man and woman.  His reflections grew to full maturity during the series of Wednesday Audiences that would become the Theology of the Body.  Although, as George Weigel describes it, Theology of the Body remains “a theological time bomb set to go off some time in the twenty-first century,” it is one of his earlier works, Love and Responsibility, which is most culturally relevant.  It offers a remedy to the wounding effects of the portrayal of love between the sexes in movies and television shows.  Fr. Wojtyla devoted a significant portion of his discussion examining the anatomy of attraction.  If we perform a “Psychological Analysis of Love” with the future John Paul II, we will understand how Hollywood exploits this attraction and better defend ourselves from its soul crushing effects.

When one speaks of being attracted to someone, it primarily means that attraction is a response to the perception of some value in the other person.  This attraction initially involves the senses, emotions and desires (or collectively, the passions), but in order to be integrated into an authentic human response it must involve the mind and the will as well.  Only when this happens can the emotion that we refer to as love be drawn up into a truly human love in which one wills the good of another.

The natural attraction that men and women have toward each other is governed by what Fr. Wojtyla refers to as the “sexual urge.”  This tendency to seek out the opposite sex is experienced specifically as a bodily and emotional attraction to a person of the other sex.  While the other person is the object by which these attractions are stirred, they are also a subject.  If they remain on the level of object then the risk of using the other person as a “something” rather than a “somebody” is ever looming.  For Fr. Wojtyla the opposite of human love is not hate, but use.  In order to avoid falling into the trap of using other people he posited that all human interaction, especially between the sexes, ought to be governed by the principle that “a person is a kind of good which does not admit use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end.”  In its positive form, the “Personalistic Norm,” is stated as a “person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love”

Fr. Wojtyla used the terms sensuality and sentimentality to refer to each of the physical and emotional attractions respectively.  Because these attractions are on the material level, they do not occur in the abstract but are always directed towards a particular human person.  Because the object of these attractions is also a subject to whom the only “proper and adequate attitude is love,” these responses only serve as the raw material for love and are intended to be integrated into a love that involves a total gift of self to the other that is unique to married love.  The manner in which the media operates makes the road to this integration treacherous at best.  The producers in Hollywood seek to stir these responses in viewers and manipulate the viewers into thinking them authentic experiences.  By examining each of the two attractions and the manner in which they are manipulated this essay attempts to serve as a roadmap to point out the pitfalls that the media consistently places in the path of true love.

Sensuality is the attraction to the body of the person of the opposite sex.  Sensuality is stirred when we encounter a person of the opposite sex and find value in their body as an object of personal enjoyment. Because this is a passive response on our part, it must be drawn up into the intellect and the will.  At that point we can choose to continue to see that person only as an object of sexual value or choose to raise the value to the personal level.  The habit of raising the emotional response to the personal level is the virtue of chastity.

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Nearly every prime time television show and movie have as one of their goals to stir sensuality.  Through the use of gratuitous “love scenes” the actors deliberately allow themselves to be viewed as objects with the intent of stirring up sensuality in the viewers.  On the other hand, when sensuality is stirred in the viewer it is impossible to integrate the emotion into a truly human love.  There is only the object and no subject present.  Obviously this happens most perniciously in pornography, but even so-called “soft-porn” that now can be found regularly in prime-time television does this.  With repeated exposure we become conditioned to love the feelings that are stirred within by sensuality.  Even if we encounter real flesh and blood persons of the opposite sex a “consumer orientation” leaves us with only the ability to see them as an object to stir sensuality.  We become blind to the truth of the other person as a subject to be loved.  Well aware that chastity arms the viewer against the abuse of sensuality, Hollywood mocks those who show it.  How many “coming of age” dramas are produced each year with exactly this intent?

Sentimentality is the emotional attraction to the sexual value residing in the whole person in the form of their masculinity and femininity.  It seems at first that this is a much “safer” emotion than sensuality because it attaches value to the whole person.  Because of the intensity of the feelings attached to sentimentality there is a tendency to avoid the truth about the other person by idealizing the person “out of all proportion” to whom he or she is in reality.  Love then becomes directed at the idealized values imputed to the others and the other is used for the emotional pleasure derived from idealizing him.

Nearly every “chick-flick” (and there is no shortage of them) is accurately marketed as the “feel-good romantic comedy of the year” because they are meant to stir sentimentality.  The movies rarely deviate from the same theme—a lonely girl meets a masculine guy who is a real jerk, she finds herself surprisingly attracted to him (because she has idealized him), he reveals the truth about himself and they split up, they get back together because he shows traces of the reason she idealized him in the first place and they live happily ever after.

As promised, the viewers “feel good” during the movie, but they often leave the theater more empty and disillusioned than before.  They begin to think that the ideals they value will never be found and instead think that they should settle for someone with whom there is “chemistry” like the girl in the movie.

Fr. Wojtyla suggests that men are often more sensual than women and women more sentimental than men.  Although the prevailing culture insists there are no differences between men and women, when it comes to Hollywood they are quick to exploit this fact.  According to a 2010 study released by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, women in the movies are 7 times more likely to be seen in sexy clothing and 3.5 times more likely to be partially naked than men.  Likewise as the name suggests, “Chick-flicks” are marketed specifically to women because of their sentimental tendencies.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once commented that “if the human heart does not have enough love in it, it seeks out those who are in love.”  For many people the place they turn first is to the movies and TV.  Because of the manner in which Hollywood manipulates both sensuality and sentimentality, it leads to a culture that has forgotten how to find true love between the sexes.  Only with a proper understanding of these two emotions based on the teachings of John Paul II in Love and Responsibility can we begin to hope to heal the wounds the culture has inflicted on the relationship between men and women.

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