A Sacred Look: A Theology for an Over-Sexualized Visual Culture
With Sr. Nancy Usselmann on September 19, 2016

Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is the newly appointed director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA, a position formerly held by Sr. Rose Pacatte. Believing Christians of all catechisms can learn from each other, we're excited to feature Sr. Nancy's distinctly Catholic vision for how we can all become more spiritually aware movie-goers and how we can share that experience with the world. You can find her entire series archived here. - Editor


Cultural mysticism is about a supernatural relationship rooted in our earthly reality. When we enter into a profound experience of God we are not miraculously removed from our material existence. That gnostic-like reasoning dichotomizes the human person whereas in truth, we are unified in our physical, spiritual, emotional, sexual selves. A true mystic reflects holistically on the cultural experience in which the body, mind, and soul are engaged in this grace-filled encounter. This means that even in this highly sexualized culture, God’s truth is communicated, revealed and lived.

The Over-Sexualization of Women

There is no denying that the popular culture is overly sex-obsessed to the point where even children’s programming and movies show animated girl characters wearing revealing clothing such as Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989), Jasmine in Aladdin (1992) and Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). The over-sexualization of women in our popular films questions how women are treated in society and whether objectification has become acceptable. Consider the blockbuster Marvel comic films such as The Avengers (2012) series, with Scarlett Johansson’s character, Black Widow, in a skin-tight black bodysuit or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’s (2009) Mikaela Banes, played by Megan Fox, with her sweaty body and skimpy clothing. Even sci-fi movies, such as Ex Machina (2014) portray the female-like cyborg named Ava as a seductive robot. These all demonstrate the need for a theological reflection on the body beyond the physical characteristics that are often accentuated and trivialized. There is a desperate need in our media culture to express the beauty of the body, the gift of sexuality, without objectifying women.

Within this cultural milieu in need of transformation, there are elements of beauty that emerge, through exquisitely told narratives and portrayals of strong, feminine characters with physical and emotional integrity. Joy (2015) is a comedy drama starring Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano, the young woman, who though down on her luck in life as sole breadwinner of the family, draws on her inner strength and determination to found a business dynasty out of her household inventions. Though cheated, beaten down and demeaned, Joy never surrenders to the dysfunctional image people have of her and expresses her beauty through creativity and intelligence. Her character is not reliant on a man. In fact, most of the men in her life are dependent on her. That is a shift in the media portrayal of women. The film beautifully illustrates the dignity of the human person through fortitude in the face of adversity, perseverance before ruthless commerce, and responsibility in taxing relationships. Virtue ethics can be trendy.

Perhaps what is needed is a theological understanding of sexuality and the human body as a way of bringing a unified understanding of the human person to this highly sexualized digital media culture. It begins with a philosophical grasp of personhood and the existential longings that drive the emotions to seek completion, connection and ultimately freedom.

Philosophical Personalism

Most popular movies and television shows are about relationships, sexuality, and love. Visual arts give expression to the human experience, and one of the most powerful forces within the human person is sexuality, the desire of being united with another, of giving of oneself. It is the drive along with the euphoria, the consequences, the morality, and the guilt that the human person experiences. Sex causes some of the most dramatic emotional experiences—elation, love, joy, ecstasy and also heartbreak, disappointment, and shame. It is often a topic addressed through those mediums that seek to explain the complexities of this powerful human experience, notably in popular movies and television. We try to make sense of it through art, which by its nature begs to give expression to the inexpressible. But what does the popular culture say about the human person? What are human beings searching for through sexuality? How can a philosophy about the human person give meaning to a culture seeking true love and bliss?

The genre of film and television that often deals with these questions and the existential desires of human beings is the uninhibited sexual romantic comedies. Writer/director/comedian Judd Apatow often flips the comedic formula of a romantic comedy by focusing on the close nonsexual friendship between men, such as in 40-Year-Old-Virgin and Superbad, pioneering the bromantic comedy genre. The lead protagonists are usually slovenly, immature and unambitious males who are forced to grow up in light of the women and situations they encounter. His other comedies, This is 40, Trainwreck and Netflix television series, Love, center on building relationships. Though the scripts gratuitously communicate sexual humor, language, and visuals, there are underlying philosophical questions that beg for answers to something more than recreational sexual encounters can offer.

Karol Wojtyla—actor, philosopher, professor, bishop and pope—pondered these questions for many years especially when he worked with the young people of his time who were searching for meaning in human relationships. His anthropological personalism gives direction for this search. He opens up a positive view of the human person and human sexuality that can bring joy and hope to human living. He starts with human experience[1] and the value and dignity of the human person. His philosophy eventually developed into a comprehensive Theology of the Body which sees the human person as the place where God dwells and is present in humanity’s search for fulfillment, intimacy and love.

The personalism of Karol Wojtyla references the person as the source of all that happens within.[2] His core philosophical premise is that by acting the human person is realized and becomes who he/she really is. The act of the person, which is conscious action, expresses the person as a being who acts in freedom and responsibility. Consciousness is the core of our acting and self-knowledge.[3] For him, “action serves as a particular moment of apprehending—that is, of experiencing—the person.”[4] And so every true act of the human person is a moral act with moral value—either morally good or morally bad. For Wojtyla, awareness is crucial in this knowledge of oneself with moral responsibility.

In this act of self-knowledge, human beings obtain self-possession and self-governance, as well as self-determination.[5] This is the transcendence that is sought by the human spirit, the innate knowledge that is part of our being itself.  Wojtyla reflects that the experience of the human person is one of a self-determining agent who is realized through one’s free and responsible actions. Avery Dulles, in reflecting on Wojtyla’s The Acting Person says that, “Activity is not something strictly other than the person; it is the person coming to expression and constituting itself.”[6] In making choices between values or various options, the person determines himself and his value and so becomes, “his own primary object.”[7] There is a constant seeking for completeness and self-fulfillment.

True Freedom

In the world of popular film and television, this desire for self-fulfillment is a determining agent expressing itself in the visuals. The Netflix series, Love, by Judd Apatow, follows the stories of two characters struggling to find meaningful connection despite their various addictions and carefree lifestyles. Mickey flirts with drug and alcohol abuse while simultaneously attending AA meetings and engages in numerous sexual exploits, only to come up interiorly empty and longing for a relationship that is more than junkie trips and one-night stands. She longs for authentic connection that allows her to remain a free individual while in communion with another. Gus, too, seeks for the one woman with whom he can be his quirky self yet fulfills his longing for intimacy. His past relationships leave him empty and demoralized. Both characters seem caught in a cycle of using other people for their own needs and doing whatever is pleasurable. Yet, is this the true freedom and fulfillment Wojtyla speaks about?

In order to understand the view of the person as a self-fulfilling agent, the person who acts consciously toward self-determination and transcendence, there is a need to understand true freedom and love. Freedom is not only about the will choosing one option over another, but authentic freedom is the realization of being itself. As human beings we are by our nature free and freedom is always a movement toward the other in love. Every act of the will is a response to values or objects, which are presented as good and are an answer to self-transcendence and self-determination. For Wojtyla and later as John Paul II, true and authentic freedom, “is never freedom ‘from’ the truth but always and only freedom ‘in’ the truth.”[8]

Freedom that is self-fulfilling is never separated from love, according to Wojtyla’s personalistic norm. Love is the true fulfillment of the person. How one loves others depends essentially upon the point when a person has discovered him/herself as worthy of love and how deeply he/she accepts that.[9] Wojtyla’s personalistic norm is presented in both a negative and a positive manner. He says, “The person is the kind of good which does not admit of use, and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such as the ‘means to an end,’” and, “The person is a good toward which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.”[10]

The True and the Good

Our actions as self-determining agents have a moral value. The morality of an act reveals the dignity of the human person[11] and if it is morally good, actualizes the good, which the person essentially is. Determining the morality of an act is always based on a reference to truth, which Wojtyla explains, that in every human action the person tends toward some perceived good, but not every action fulfills the full realization of the person. Fulfillment comes not through the actual act itself but through the moral goodness of the act.[12] His philosophical personalism, then, is based on the dignity of the human person, “the primacy of the person over things…. the sense of the transcendence of the human person over the world and of God over the human person.”[13]

The moral goodness of an act is seen in reference to the truth and a dependence on truth.[14] If there is disloyalty to the truth that is when a person is enslaved. And without reference to the dignity of the human person there is moral immaturity. [15] This leads to utilitarianism—seeing the moral act for its usefulness for the person’s own attainment of happiness without reference to one’s own dignity nor the dignity of others. Wojtyla’s personalism responds to this utilitarian view by saying that a person is most fully him/herself when one is for others, that is, acts in giving of oneself out of love for another.[16]

Theology of the Body         

Sexual references in popular movies and television are not new. They have been present since the dawn of “talking” cinema in the 1920’s. However, the explicitness and/or artistic expression of human sexuality in film was curtailed by the industry’s own censoring body, the Hays (Production) Code. Regardless of the censorship systems, the human experience portrayed in films still grappled with giving expression to this most powerful force within the human person. With all the expanse of intelligence of human beings and its infinite pursuit for attainment of knowledge, this biological, psychological, emotional and spiritual aspect of human sexuality still defies total human understanding. It is perhaps because what human beings seek through sexual intimacy is the ultimate supernatural existential[17] that can never be satisfied with anything human. Humanity is “wired” for the infinite, the supernatural, the eternal, God.

Pope John Paul II, during his pontificate, provided in a systematic teaching the meaning of masculinity, femininity, the body as gift and the spousal meaning of the body in a relationship between man and woman, which he called his Theology of the Body, a particular aspect of theological anthropology.[18] His starting point is the biblical Creation story in Genesis. He reflects on human beings origins—original solitude, original unity, and original nakedness. He saw the split in the philosophical thought prevalent in his day between the person and nature, a dualism that was promoted by scientific rationalism. Wojtyla instead promotes the unity of man in his body[19], the beauty of the body and God’s original intent for humanity. 

This is the “good news” for a culture that rejects the medieval theological response to sex as a necessary evil. In the 1950’s, modern cinema challenged the “puritanical views” of human sexuality prevalent in American and European society at that time. Based on the 1950 stage play by F. Hugh Herbert, The Moon Is Blue (1953), set in a genteel, middle-class background, gives a comedic and wistful manner to a plot about seduction and virginity. This was the first time the words “virgin,” “seduce,” and “pregnant” were used in a film. A successful architect (William Holden) meets a young woman (Maggie McNamara) at the top of the Empire State Building and encourages her to join him for a drink at his apartment. His intentions are to seduce her, but she is interested only in declaring her views that men get bored with virgins and usually have mistresses. Despite her declarations she remains a virgin and even obtains a marriage proposal from the unsuspecting and admiring architect. Because of the immoral, yet likable nature of the young woman, the Production Code office gave it a thumbs down. The director, Otto Preminger, would not let it rest with that judgment. Even though his actress declares at the end of the movie that leading a moral life limits living fully, he still brought it before the New York Appeals Board. Yet, this defiance in the face of censorship continues in every decade with new artists who push the limits of social acceptability regarding sexuality.

Karol Wojtyla appreciated and affirmed humanity’s creativity in the arts. Being an actor himself, he could appreciate the passionate sense of the human person proposed by artists in their genres. In his Letter to Artists, when he was Pope John Paul II, he wrote that this is why artists, “the more conscious they are of their “gift”, are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise. This is the only way for them to come to a full understanding of themselves, their vocation and their mission.”[20] The more fully human beings live the sense of their dignity and worth, the more they grow in truth, freedom and love, the more they will respect themselves, their bodies and other human beings, seeing them not as objects of pleasure to be used, but as unique and beautiful gifts of the Creator.

The Gift of Oneself

Christianity is not about a ‘what’ but a ‘who’—“Christianity is Christ! It is a Person!” as John Paul II would say to youth. We need not have an objectifying view of the human body, but a subjective consciousness that respects each person as they are a gift. He continues by saying that, “When one becomes a gift for others that one most fully becomes oneself.”[21] No one is equal to one’s body parts. The person is not an item to be used as an object of pleasure. The person has existential worth and beauty that cannot be objectified but is to be respected and honored. Wojtyla’s view affirms the cultural artists of today who seek transcendence and fulfillment. Avery Dulles succinctly sums up Wojtyla’s call; “We cannot fulfill ourselves except through transcending ourselves and giving ourselves in love toward others.” [22] Wojtyla calls this the, “law of the gift” and gives the anthropological grounding for the maxims of Jesus in the Gospels that say we must give in order to receive, die in order to live.[23]

Popular movies and television give expression to the deepest emotions of human experience and address challenging issues of human living—the light and the dark. Artists compel us to confront ourselves, our humanness, and our sense of community, which Wojtyla would applaud. But, we cannot remain there. His anthropological personalism is the catalyst for the culture today to understand the human person more profoundly and its search for transcendence, transformation and meaning. Only by accepting the person as gift can we learn true love, joy and happiness. Human beings are most fully themselves when they give themselves in true freedom as gift…and if reciprocated it creates the fullest form of life together as persons—a communion of love.[24]

Pope John Paul II offers the culture a challenge: “love is a power…. it is thus the power given to the human person to participate in the love with which God himself loves in the mystery of creation and redemption. It is the love that ‘rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6), that is, in which spiritual joy about every authentic value is expressed: a joy similar to the joy of the Creator himself who saw in the beginning that everything ‘was very good’” (Gen. 1:31).[25]

[1] Karol Wojtyla, Person and Community: Selected Essays, Tr. Theresa Sandok, OSM, (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 188.
[2] Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person [1969], ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, trans. Andrzej Potocki, Analecta Husserliana, Doredrecht, (Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1979), 66.
[3] Ibid., 20.
[4] Ibid., 10.
[5] Ibid., 106.
[6] Avery Dulles, “John Paul II and The Mystery of the Human Person”, America, February 2, 2004, 12.
[7] Karol Wojtyla, Toward a Philosophy of Praxis, Ed. Alfred Bloch and George T. Czuczka, (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1980), 14.
[8] John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1993), No. 64.
[9] Andrzej Szostek, “Karol Wojtyla’s View of the Human Person in the Light of the Experience of Morality,” Existential Personalism Vol LX, Ed. Daniel O. Dahlstrom, (Washington, DC: American Catholic Philosophical Association, 1986), 59.
[10] Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993), 41.
[11] Ibid., 138-139.
[12] Andrzej Szostek, Existential Personalism Vol. LX, 58.
[13] John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1990), No. 18.
[14] Andrzej Szostek, Existential Personalism, 57.
[15] Ibid., 60.
[16] Ibid., 60.
[17] See, Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, (New York: Crossroad-Seabury Press, 1978).
[18] John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 3:4.
[19] John Paul II, Letter to Families, (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994), No. 19.
[20] John Paul II, Letter to Artists, (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1999), No. 1.
[21] Karol Wojtyla, Person and Community, 194.
[22] Dulles, 11.
[23] Ibid., 11.
[24] Szostek, Existential Personalism, 61.
[25] John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, 127:1.

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is a Daughter of St. Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA. She has over twenty-five years experience leading retreats, teaching workshops, and giving presentations helping spiritually-minded media creators and consumers understand media relative to their faith and vice versa. You can follow her on Twitter and read her regular musings on media on her website.

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