When Pagan Discourse Becomes Reality TV

I’ve been transfixed by a particular reality television show on Netflix. I’m not typically a reality TV kind of guy, save for a few of the more hands-on creative shows. And the ones with drag queens, of course.

This show documents the Olympic-like achievements of super-couponers, who, if you don’t know, are people who stockpile mass amounts of food through the meticulous, methodical use of coupons. These stockpiles are worth thousands of dollars, but the couponers accumulate them for next to nothing.

I watched six episodes in my first sitting. My train of thought looked something like this:

Wow — are all couponers southern?

And Christian?

How is there this parallel between Christianity and stockpiling food? Is that biblical?

They are really going to extreme lengths to stockpile that Mountain Dew.

Everyone looks so unhealthy. Sure, you can fill six refrigerators with frozen food, but what is in that frozen food? Is that really something that supports your body’s health?

Do they ever think about where there food comes from, I wonder. Is that a privileged way of thinking?

They’re broke. They’re feeding families of eight on less than $100 per month. I shouldn’t judge.

But how do you just have eight kids? My god, straight people have a lot of sex.

All of these products in the stockpile are the lowest grade available. The detergent is probably the worst kind that could go into the water supply, the soaps are made with petrochemicals, the boxed foods are packed with preservatives — they’d have to be, if they’re going to sit on those shelves forever, and the plastic — the plastic — there is so much plastic.

Wow, they are really getting a savings, though. She’s keeping her family alive. There’s something to be said for that.

In some earlier time, these people would have been farmers. This lady with the two binders of coupons, who spends 30-60 hour per week riffling through the newspaper inserts and online forums would have, in some pre-agribusiness world, been concerned with the soil. She would have had a seed stockpile. She would have canned. Her kids, who sit next to her at the dining room table and help cut coupons, would have been in the field picking vegetables. And the food they ate, it would have been real food. It would have been food of the earth, more than food of the lab.

But those savings…  look at those savings…

The show leaves me conflicted. I do get a little rush when I see the woman score $1,000 worth of food for a penny. It’s like a consumer triathlon. She’s a champion.

But I watch them cart away the bottom of the barrel (in terms of quality) food, and I feel bad for them. I feel like their bodies are being robbed of nutrition, and that their success in frugality merely reinforces the system which pumps toxic chemicals, preservatives and plastics into their bodies.

I sit on my couch, and I make observations. I judge them, I root for them, I analyze them, and ultimately, I dehumanize them. It’s what reality TV is made to do. I watch them shop, and I think about how I shop. I look at their choices, judge them a little, and then think about how I make my choices.

I hold court in my living room.

The medium allows me to dehumanize them, to turn them into an idea, a concept, a symbol of what is wrong about the American food industry. Our social media and blogging networks make possible a similar behavior, and I feel like there’s a parallel here with the conversation that’s been going on around Star Foster’s decision to back away from Paganism.

Photo by Andrew Bowden
Photo by Andrew Bowden

Star has been a blogger for a while, and bloggers share a lot about themselves. Some of Star’s readers have sat back and rooted for Star and others have been her chorus of naysayers. But all of us who took the opportunity to use Star’s public, but personal, choice to hold court from our couches — myself included — are participating in a kind of reality TV of our own.

We’re making each other into symbols, into characters in a grocery store, into something to champion or something to criticize. These symbols we become represent our fears about our collective future, our hopes for something better, our doubts and suspicions and reservations about one another. This act of symbol-making, easy as it is to fall into, might be substituted with something more productive.

What if, for example, as a community, we spent the same amount of time and energy that we used to discuss Star’s choice to unpack the definition of the “pagan sensibility” that Jonathan Korman wrote about in his December 30th post, which he defines as:

The pagan sensibility sees the divine in the material world … and so regards the human as sacred.

The pagan sensibility apprehends the Cosmos as composed of a multiplicity of different interconnected forces … and honors all of those forces.

Would it be, I wonder, more beneficial for us to have a thriving, active dialogue about what “Pagan” might include, rather than what — or who — is not a part of it?

[A public note to Star: If my sharing of your post led to an unwanted onslaught of attention and judgement, I apologize. As I wrote in the comments of your post, I do wish you the best on this journey — however that journey is defined by you.]





20 responses to “When Pagan Discourse Becomes Reality TV”

  1. Daniel Grey Avatar

    Teo, I admit that I didn’t give this story much more than a passing glance when it first broke. I don’t know Star, nor do I read her blog, so when I heard that she no longer identified as Pagan I couldn’t see how that was possibly my business. The negative reactions I’ve seen – confusion, hurt, betrayal, even anger – have left me feeling sorely uncomfortable. My stomach’s been in a twist today as I’ve read my Twitter feed and skimmed a few blog responses, and I think I’ve finally pinned down what’s been bothering me.

    I’m genderqueer – I’m not sure if you knew that, Teo, especially since we started conversing after I adopted my male monicker for most of my online Pagan life. I feel comfortable as a Daniel, but that’s not the only label that fits me. I still go by my birth name irl; I still use female pronouns with many folks; I have actually become more comfortable presenting as femme and have experienced /less/ gender dysphoria since embracing the “Daniel” part of me. However, I still have dysphoria. I’m still not /cis/. And at a certain point, all I can do is shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know what a woman is exactly, only that I’m not that.”

    But what is a /woman/? What is the definition of a woman? We know it’s not biologic, or physical, or genetic. We know it’s not just being socialized as a girl. There are as many definitions of “woman” as there are individual who identify as such – and there are plenty of definitions that include people like me. I have the body. I have the upbringing. I pass as woman. But I’m /not/.

    When we’re talking about people – especially the squishy, wibbly-wobbly bits like gender, or religion – then this is how definitions work. There’s a polyvalent logic which says that gender is not binary, that religion doesn’t have to be black or white. Things are complicated and paradoxical and incredibly, ultimately personal. Just because someone similar to myself embraces the label “woman” with open arms and finds that label wonderfully affirming doesn’t negate my own experiences of not-woman-ness. Just because I do call myself Pagan and consider the term very open and loose (and not at all equivalent to “just Wicca”) doesn’t mean that I don’t respect folks who have declined the label for their own use.

    What bothers me most about the fact there’s even a controversy around Star’s statements is that whether or not one agrees with her definition of Pagan is, in my opinion, completely irrelevant. Part of the core of my social justice philosophy is that people deserve to have their personal agency respected and protected. It doesn’t matter if I disagree with what they /do/ with that agency (until they start interfering with someone else’s agency) – what matters is that it’s /theirs/. We have the right to protect our own sovereignty and have that respected. And if someone doesn’t respect that… well, that’s really, really problematic.

    1. Morag Spinner Avatar
      Morag Spinner

      This. A thousand times this.

      Really, when we’re talking about how we relate with each other, the definition of “pagan” that should hold the most sway is “self-identifies as”. The fact that so many folks have been clinging to other definitions and trying to force those same definitions on Star really reveals how little regard we have for each other, even when we profess to be “on the same team”.

  2. Heather J Avatar

    Michael Stipe said it best: “Labels are for tin cans.” That said, we humans tend to find labels useful in that they help us understand one another. A polytheist that’s not Pagan? Hindus could also be in that category, or they could be, as Bonewits would say, Paleo-Pagans. At any rate, we are all free to label ourselves as we wish, or not at all. I wish Star well in whatever pursuits she goes after.

  3. Colleen Sorbera Avatar

    Why are people moving away from the term pagan when we could reclaim it with pride as other minority communities have done? Christians don’t call themselves monotheists, do they? It’s kind of like saying hello, I am a primate. Doesn’t really give you any real info. If you’re a Buddhist, say that, if you’re agnostic, say that. People seem to forget that we face true oppression and we need to band together, not go running off in fear and trying to be separate. There’s enough separation in the world. I’m sorry I know it’s easy to say we should all do whatever we want. but there is responsibility here to make our world safer and better, not just for pagans, but for the bigots who need to be exposed to the fact that pagans are humans, capable of as much good as anyone else. This will give them the opportunity to become better people.

  4. Lori MN Avatar
    Lori MN

    Star – I wish you all the best.

    Mega Couponers – If they were donating this to food shelters and the such, I wouldn’t have anything to say. But who needs 50 tubes of toothpaste? or 30 cartons of laundry detergent. or all that soda. or etc, etc.
    They are so determined to get as much as they can for as little that they don’t seem to care about What they get, just that they Get.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for the comment, Lori.

      There are some who do donate food. Others are stockpiling so that in the event that their one household income dries up, they have food. I did get the sense from some (and part of this is editing, of course) that they were willing to get a deal, even if they didn’t have a use for the product.

  5. Heather Greene Avatar

    I just had a discussion about how the psychological satisfaction of “getting a good deal” is sometimes more attractive or coveted than the satisfaction or need of the actual item(s) being purchased. Its a very sad commentary on consumerism in America. “WOW! I just got this 50% off..don’t know what it is but I saved 50%.” Of course that doesn’t speak to your point…

    I don’t believe that symbol making is necessarily a bad thing if we don’t lose site of the meat and potatoes behind the symbol. Some media lends itself to detaching from its core. (TV is one) But some don’t … music, novels, painting and even some films. Blogging, hmm? (My short opinion on a very fascinating topic)

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for the comment, Heather! I agree with you that making a symbol isn’t inherently a bad thing, but there’s something in the symbol-making that takes place through our screens that makes it very easy to disassociate ourselves with the flesh-and-blod person. You make a great point that some media, including blogging, lend to a deeper level of engagement with the person.

      As least, that’s my hope. 🙂

      Thanks again for the comment.

      1. Heather Greene Avatar

        There are two types of symbol engagement that degrade our ability to maintain a connection to meaning. One is visual and the other is “mass produced.” Now I could go into more detail but I won’t…. I have an advanced degree in visual media so its hard for me to talk about this concisely.

        I am not so sure where Blogging fits yet.

  6. Derek_anny Avatar

    ++Would it be, I wonder, more beneficial for us to have a thriving, active dialogue about what “Pagan” might include, rather than what — or who — is not a part of it?++

    I think that would be just another form of symbol-making. Symbols are how we interpret our relationship to the world. There’s nothing wrong with trying to come to an understanding about the symbols we’d like to share, like the word Pagan. Any kind of discussion about what something IS will, of necessity, include what it is not.

    I think a lot of the drama is coming from the difference between the implied and perceived definitions of Paganism. While it does include a wide variety of practices, ranging from religious witchcraft through cultural polytheism and non-religious magic, because the vast majority are wiccish, they stand as the norm. They often have a tendency to not realize the wide variety in Paganism, much as many Christians do not realize the variety in Religious America. Considering Ceremonial Magicians are often included in Paganism, and that it is intertwined with Christian mysticism, I don’t think there is anything that all Pagans have in common, other than they choose to use the word Pagan as their primary descriptor.

    1. zendodeb Avatar

      Whether you focus on what’s in, or what’s out, you are still defining the boundary. Maybe that is just a part of human nature. We love to divide things into categories.

      1. Derek_anny Avatar

        The Aneristic and Eristic Principles.

  7. Nicole Youngman Avatar
    Nicole Youngman

    I’ve said this a couple of places so sorry if I’m being repetitive across fora here, but the idea of being “polytheist but not Pagan” kind of hurts my brain. From my perspective, polytheists are Pagan by definition, so it seems like maybe “Pagan” is getting conflated with “Wiccan-type stuff” here. Help? (In any case, I am hardcore in favor of letting people choose their own categories/labels and respecting how they want to use them, even if it confuses the hell out of me sometimes. :))

    1. Derek_anny Avatar

      I look on it as people choosing polytheist as their primary descriptor over pagan. It’s a case of semantics. They’re ‘not pagan’ in terms of not using that label, not ‘not pagan’ in terms of it doesn’t apply to them anymore.

    2. Cara Schulz Avatar
      Cara Schulz

      Polytheist is a larger group. There are many polytheistic religions that are not Pagan or would not call themselves Pagan.

      Think of how monotheist is a larger designation than Christian. It would be wrong to say that all monotheists are Christians in the USA, even though the majority of monotheists in the USA are Christian.

      1. Dave Avatar

        One thing I’ve been curious about. Do you feel it’s fair to say that Pagan and polytheist are overlapping communities, both with parts that don’t overlap? Such that there would be non-Pagan polytheists, Pagan polytheists, and non-polytheist Pagans?

  8. Eric Riley Avatar

    I feel these conversations get dragged up in every community in a
    cyclical way. The never ending, and ever boring, conversation of who is
    and who isn’t a this or that might as well have an egg timer on it.
    Someone inevitably does something to poke the hive, and the hive buzzes
    out with their pet theories.

    My question: Is it really about Star, or is it about her definition? I know that the two in fairly deeply intertwined, because our faith traditions and our definitions are so close to our hearts. But I didn’t see the conversation in your Facebook stream as directly attacking or judging her ad hominem, but rather looking and dissecting the definitions as she laid them out (and they were kinda fuzzy). What Star is doing is far more subtle and nuanced. While she is dropping the word “Pagan” she is retaining some of the spiritual technologies and theological spirit. Admittedly “Pagan” comes with baggage, and I can’t really fault anyone for wanting to distance themselves from that.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      You make a good point, Eric, and thank you sharing it here. I think that the thread on my FB page was by-and-large focused on the idea, not Star. That said, I saw a number of other threads, posts, and tweets that were less objective.
      I wonder if you might elaborate on your comment from the FB thread, the one about the parallels to other communities of identity. And, do you have thoughts about this idea of “pagan sensibility?”

      1. Eric Riley Avatar

        Sure. I’m big on seeing patterns and analyzing between things. It’s just one of those things that my brain does. Maybe it’s my library background.

        In the queer community I see a deepening understanding of individual identity, and the importance of recognizing and affirming that identity, both among the individual, but societally as well. Remember the “Genderbread Person?” That tool takes these boxes that we’re so used to “Male-Female” “Straight-Bi-Gay” and breaks them into spectra. Maleness and Femaleness become several sliding scales within which you find yourself. This kind of thing started with Kinsey, breaking down the sexual orientation into a sliding scale, but in the 21st century we’re pushing it into micro-level dimensions.

        I see the same thing happening within the context of the Pagan community. We’ve all known that Paganism is not a monolithic entity that can be easily defined. What we’re looking at now is how these subtle factions and fractures are growing and individually relevant theological perspectives are leading to people wanting to define themselves more granularly.

        The interesting thing is that we often times assume that other monolithic ideas are true, when they are equally as spectrum driven. Christianity cannot be easily defined, nor can Islam. Each person’s individual experience, and their micro-level religious beliefs don’t coalesce into a coherent faith vision either. It’s all illusory.

        So, what we’re doing right now is reconciling our definitions, and it feels like a rippling entropic effect across the whole of identity bands. We are finally realizing that we all are really stars, and naming ourselves accordingly.

        As for the definition Korman puts out, I feel like it’s a decent attempt but I quibble with the language. I feel it singles out “human.”
        It almost feels contradictory in the context of his first statement. I
        feel that the Pagan sensibility is that the human is no more or less
        sacred than anything
        else, as it focuses on the interconnected forces in the second
        statement. I also don’t like the use of “apprehend” because it carries
        the baggage of criminality. I understand why he chose the word, but I
        believe that a word like “views” expresses the same sentiment of
        observation, without the baggage. It also moves between magnitudes of
        scale in unusual ways. I would work either from large to small or
        reverse. Rewrite:

        pagan sensibility views the Cosmos as composed of a multiplicity of
        different interconnected forces, and honors all those forces. As such
        we see the divine in the material world, including ourselves.


        pagan sensibility sees the divine in ourselves, and the material world.
        We see the Cosmos as composed of a multiplicity of different
        interconnected forces and honor all those forces.

  9. Sabrina Bowen Avatar

    I’ve been attempting to learn how to extreme coupon. But since 90% of the stuff they have coupons for is chemically infused, prepackaged, GMO or otherwise toxic food, cleaners & personal products, I just can’t do it.

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