Yesterday was one of those days where the news seemed directly targeted to me and I wanted to shout at it to shut up while I finished being busy doing a bunch of entirely different stuff. Two of the big stories directly related to my research interests: religion in the media, and fans of Cliff Richard – and I’m slap bang in the middle of writing a lot of things that mean I can’t give either story much attention. Still, I have a blog, so I can write something quick and rough and ready instead – and it’s some very weird kind of (divine?) coincidence that two big stories featuring Christian singers and sexuality broke on the same day.
Yesterday morning I woke to my Twitter and Facebook feeds sharing the story that Vicky Beeching, Christian singer/songwriter and media personality had come out as gay in an interview in the Independent. I met Vicky, albeit only briefly, at a religion and media conference at the BBC a couple of years ago, and in person she seems quite sweet and unassuming, and I wish her all the best as she straddles her burgeoning media career with the demands of PhD study and the polarised reactions she’s going to get from her announcement. Whilst for many people, her coming out won’t seem remarkable, it will certainly have an impact on the public discussion of sexuality in certain parts of the Christian sphere both in the UK and USA – and probably elsewhere, too. It’s interesting to see how the media have covered this story so far. The Indy put the original interview as a cover story on yesterday’s main edition and on the i paper, whilst today’s cover features a follow-up on the positive response she’s received. The Mail leads on the ‘exorcism’ aspect of the story, whilst the Telegraph covers it both from the celebrity angle via a supportive column from Alice Arnold and from the in-church fighting angle, reporting on the “debate” on Channel 4 news last night with a vehement anti-gay American pastor. The Guardian is remarkably silent on the subject, despite it being the kind of story that would be right up its street normally. I wonder if this is because both Vicky Beeching and Patrick Strudwick, who interviewed her, have both written for the Graun in the past and it’s got the hump that the story went to the Indy. Diva and PinkNews also covered it, as did Premier Christianity, Christianity Today and the similarly-named Christian Today, amongst other outlets.
What is interesting to me about the coverage of this story is how it connects with other media narratives about religion – in this case Christianity in particular. When I did my PhD, I looked at how religion, spirituality and non-religion were portrayed in factual British television in the first decade of the 21st Century. One of the repeated themes was the relationship between religion and homosexuality – this was particularly true in programmes looking at Christianity, although it was also fairly common in programmes about Islam. Protestant Christianity was largely portrayed in one of two ways: traditional-but-liberal and evangelical-charismatic-and-anti-everything. The former category was good ‘British’ (or mainly ‘English’) CofE faith, whilst the latter was often seen as influenced by the USA or Africa – and therefore was excessive, problematic and dangerous. I’m not going to expand on that here – there’s a huge thesis you can read if you want to. Of course these are ridiculously simplistic caricatures. Christianity in the UK, as in the rest of the world, is much more diverse than that and much more politically complicated. ‘Evangelical’ and ‘Charismatic’ are not one and the same, and ‘liberal’ and ‘traditional’ often don’t go together. Even in churches that more broadly fit one of the stereotypes, you’ll find a wide spectrum of political beliefs and leanings. However, the way US Christianity is portrayed in British media is even less nuanced – it’s all right-wing, Bible Belt, anti-abortion, god-hates-fags, snake handling, charismatic, devil-obsessed, child-preaching weirdness. (As you might expect, the church in the US, as in the UK, is massively diverse, but you wouldn’t know that from the telly). Good British values, according to these programmes, by the way, are those of liberal tolerance and ‘moderation’.
I have recently written a paper on the way newspapers covered the appointments of Pope Francis and Justin Welby, and whilst they still covered the same key themes as TV, their coverage was often more diverse than TV coverage, which had very similar approaches regardless of channel. The papers generally also saw these men as being progressive and as having the potential to make the established churches more accepting of women and gay people – where they differed was on whether or not they saw religion as a positive or not. Therefore, it’s interesting to me to see how national newspapers (and C4 news) are covering the Vicky Beeching tale. There was also radio coverage of the story today on several stations, but I haven’t had time to listen as yet. C4 news did the classic thing of putting a crazy extreme Mercan bearded bloke against a lovely, white, blonde, liberal British woman. I think we all know how that one was going to go. The papers also replay familiar themes – they contrast the Bible-belt and charismatic camps with the liberal acceptance of Justin Welby and his daughter towards Vicky, who, like Welby has been, is portrayed as someone who could be an agent of change in the church, with the emphasis in-particular being on the CofE perhaps becoming open to same-sex marriage. As in TV coverage, ‘bad’ religion is characterised in the news narratives of this story as excessive, frightening and damaging. Of course, I’m not suggesting they would be likely to portray things in any other way – something I discuss in a lot more detail in my thesis if you want to plough through it – I just find it interesting that British media narratives about faith in the 21st century remain so… samey.
Nevertheless – all credit to Vicky for making what is a very bold move – there are still few out gay public women as it is, and to be both Christian and single as well make this a much more vulnerable act than many might realise. When she speaks in interviews about her fear some churches won’t play her music, this is not an irrational fear – however, with her raised media profile I suspect she won’t have to worry about her income too much. It will be interesting to see where this takes her (although I can’t help but expect a few more slightly dull and repetitive documentaries about sexuality and faith – but then the majority of people don’t have the fatigue I have towards these things after watching approximately eighty zillion of them) – and I wish her all the best with finishing the PhD, especially whilst she’s under such scrutiny.
The other story is much harder for me to respond to in many ways. It shouldn’t be – I am the same age as Vicky Beeching, give or take a few months, I have met her, we have had some similarities in upbringing and experience in our youth, we both have some similar interests. On the other hand, I am not the same age as Cliff Richard, I have never met him, our lifestyles, interests and experiences are different. I teach about celebrity culture, and scandal is a key part of that. This story should be right up my street and I should be wanting to dig right into the coverage of it. But…
I have worked with Cliff fans on research projects twice now. I have spent hours poring over their emails and fan postings. I have a chapter in press on them in a book launching next month (ouch, timing) and was about to start another piece on older female fans which was going to include Cliff fans (and now may not – although there are other fan groups I was planning on studying alongside them…). I know how they feel about him. I know what the news about him is doing to them. Now, I wasn’t as shocked as some have been by the story breaking yesterday – I know about the conversations that take place in the darker recesses of the internet. So I got over my shock months ago when I saw his name among many others who’ve been linked to scandal online but have not yet been discussed in mainstream media. And many of Cliff’s fans, whilst upset, were prepared for this – they’ve debated these rumours for a while now, because, well, the internet, and even though they say they don’t believe them, they were expecting something to become public eventually. But because I ‘know’ these people, however limited that connection is, and I know their investment in him, it is hard to know how to respond to this story right now. I’m a curious person, I love interrogating things and I’m sure this could be a fascinating fan study in time – but at the moment, I’m just thinking about these lovely people I have ‘met’ and I don’t want to ‘go there’ – at least not right now.