Celebrity, South Park, and Scientology’s ‘Media Problem’

On 16 November, 2005, the animated television series South Park aired its ‘Trapped in the Closet’ episode on the Comedy Central network. ‘Trapped in the Closet’ embedded Scientology into popular culture’s consciousness as perhaps never before. Since then, the Church of Scientology has endured an increasing number of attacks in both traditional and new media, most notably from the hacker collective Anonymous and in the spate of recent ‘tell all’ books and films by or featuring former members.

It is notable that main satirical elements of ‘Trapped in the Closet’ do not hinge on the outing of Scientology’s OT III materials, but rather on (Tom Cruise) hiding in Stan’s bedroom closet. In doing so, (Tom Cruise) – the celebrity, as opposed to Tom Cruise the person – points to a possible disconnect between the way Hubbard conceived of celebrity in the 1950s and the way celebrity functions in the modern media environment.

The first part of this post will outline Scientology’s historical orientation to popular culture and the media (i.e. the press) of the day. The second part will look at its present orientation in a new media environment where popular culture and ‘the media’ are in many cases synonymous.

Scientology in Popular Culture and the Media

Scientology currently occupies an uncomfortable space in popular culture, yet this was not always so; the religion was initially successful because it amalgamated several elements of 1950s American popular culture, particularly those of the Cold War, science fiction, and self-help. When Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health was first published in 1950, it quickly became a bestseller. ‘Dianetics clubs’ sprung up across the United States with the purpose of applying the book’s techniques. This early success led Hubbard to establish the Hubbard Dianetics Research Foundation, which consolidated his control over the movement. Although the organization filed for bankruptcy a few years later, it provided part of the impetus for the creation of Scientology.

Dianetics enjoyed initial popular culture success, but it was less well received by the press. For example, The New Republic ran an unfavourable review, calling it ‘the most frightening proof of the confusion of the contemporary mind and its tendency to fall prey to pseudo-scientific concepts’. Later coverage of Scientology was similarly unflattering. As Brad Doherty writes in Nova Religio, as far back as 1960, the Melbourne tabloid Truth ran a series of critical articles about the Hubbard Association of Scientologists International (HASI). Doherty shares a 1965 Hubbard communiqué to his followers:

We are not interested in sensationalism, personalities, or the complexities of Scientological methodology being discussed by the general public. As a subdivision of this, we do not want Scientology to be reported in the press, anywhere else than on the religious page of newspapers. [... ] [W]e should be very alert to sue for slander at the slightest chance so as to discourage the public presses from mentioning Scientology.
L. Ron Hubbard (1965)

Continually negative press coverage convinced Hubbard early on that the media would negatively influence public opinion towards Scientology. His response was the aggressive stance that characterised much of the church’s interactions with the press through the 1990s. But Hubbard also believed that popular culture’s celebrities – film stars, but also musicians, artists, athletes, and business people – could shape public opinion in favour of his new religion. As early as 1955, Hubbard instituted ‘Project Celebrity’ through which he encouraged Scientologists to convince celebrities to undergo auditing, the process through which Scientologists discard past traumas in order to achieve optimal functioning. Hubbard believed the relationship between Scientology and celebrities would be mutually beneficial: the celebrities would enhance their already extraordinary talents through Scientology’s training, and Scientology would benefit when these influencers mentioned those results. This philosophy exists today at the Celebrity Centre International in Los Angeles, which provides specialized training courses for actors, artists, and musicians based on Hubbard’s writings.

(Tom Cruise)

Hubbard saw celebrities as influencers who could shape public opinion in favour of his new religion. Today, Scientology counts many ‘influencers’ as devotees, including famous actors such as John Travolta and musicians such as Chick Corea. The most prominent of Scientology’s celebrity devotees, though, is Tom Cruise, both because of his box-office presence and also his impassioned public championing of Scientology.

(Tom Cruise) – the celebrity, as opposed to Tom Cruise the person – provides a window through which we can view Scientology’s current ‘media problem’. Tom Cruise is an outspoken proponent of Scientology. He has, for example, lobbied for Scientology to be recognized as a religion in France and raised funds to provide Scientology’s purification rundown for New York City fire fighters after 9/11. Cruise has also for years publicly defended Scientology in print and television interviews.

While Tom Cruise the person is an ardent supporter of Scientology, it is not entirely clear that (Tom Cruise) the celebrity is an effective proponent for the religion. Sociologist of Religion Carole Cusack argues that celebrity journalism has the power to normalize New Religious Movements such as Scientology. In this view, internet reports of Tom Cruise’s marriage to Katie Holmes or Juliette Lewis’s discussions of her formerly wild lifestyle in The Guardian might inspire fans to engage with Scientology, thereby validating Hubbard’s view of celebrity. This is probably true. However, there is a flip side to celebrity that militates against the church.

Celebrities can be influential in promoting a message, yet as Richard Deyer noted in 1980, celebrity is not a person, but a circulated image devoid of fixed meaning. Celebrities are media texts, and the celebrity image is therefore always-already intertextual; it can be repurposed, reimagined, and redeployed in multiple ways, including those that run counter to an intended or original message. It is this aspect of celebrity that South Park exploits in the ‘Trapped in the Closet’ episode. The episode achieved fame for exposing the OT III materials to popular culture (although they had been circulating on the internet for several years prior), but much of the satire hinges on (Tom Cruise) hiding in Stan’s bedroom closet.

Throughout the episode, (Tom Cruise) refuses to ‘come out of the closet’ having hidden in it because Stan, who is believed to be the reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard, thinks his acting is only ‘OK’. (Tom Cruise)'s film persona is tough, cool, and masculine. Furthermore, Scientology teaches adepts not only to deal with criticism, but also how to turn it back at the criticizer. ‘Trapped in the Closet’ inverts both of these paradigms, depicting (Tom Cruise) as oversensitive, hysterical, and suggesting he is ‘closeted’ homosexual who can’t deal with criticism – the antithesis of his action hero persona and an Operating Thetan in Scientology.

The New Media Environment

When L. Ron Hubbard first articulated his distrust of the press and his admiration for celebrities in the 1950s, the lines between ‘information’ (i.e. traditional media outlets) and popular culture (i.e. entertainment) were more clearly demarcated. In contrast, today’s media environment is one in which people are just as (and perhaps more) likely to get their news from late night talk shows (or blogs about religion!) as they are from traditional news outlets.

Carole Cusak writes that the rise of the internet has eroded Scientology’s ability to control its message as its internal documents and criticism of the church now circulate freely in cyberspace. To this I would add that Scientology’s current media problems are not only technological, but cultural as well; the internet, entertainment, news, and popular culture are largely concomitant, and furthermore ‘parody, satire and irony’ are the currencies of both internet culture of late-capitalism more generally. From internet trolls to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, to ‘Jesus is my Homeboy’ t-shirts, Poe’s law is in full effect. In the memetic digital environment, celebrity is more easily repurposed than ever before, and intertextuality thrives. Under these conditions, South Park becomes not only entertainment, but also an arbiter of opinion.

In the decade since the release of ‘Trapped in the Closet’, and especially since 2010, an unprecedented number of investigative films and ‘tell all’ books from former Scientology members have been released. While they generally tell stories that are similar to ones that have circulated since at least the 1970s, they are significant both in number, and that they are packaged for popular culture consumption. In other words, producers and publishers are betting that the number of people influenced by (and, perhaps more cynically, the money to be made from) these exposés outweighs the threat of legal action by the Church. Furthermore, the fact that one former member, the television actress Leah Remini, has released both a book and television mini-series critical of Scientology is significant (you can find church’s official response here): it brings Hubbard’s conception of celebrity back full circle. In Remini’s case, her power as an influencer, the power that Hubbard initially sought to harness, is now turned against the Church.

Scientology Disconnected?

Scientology, at present, has a ‘media problem’. Although its rise can be attributed to a synergy with 1950s popular culture, its current problems can be at least partially attributed its disconnect with, or perhaps more accurately its depiction in, today’s popular culture.

Although nobody knows for sure, it is likely that Scientology’s media troubles have impaired its growth. Media has a powerful framing effect for New Religious Movements, and popular culture has framed Scientology as both sinister (in the case of the tell all books and films) and, perhaps more damningly, silly (in the case of South Park). By no means does this spell the end for the church, though; it is well resourced, both in finances and ‘influencers’. It is also adopting new public relations strategies and infrastructure that respond to the new media environment. Although its strategies are based on guidelines laid out by its founder, they are continually updated, and therefore more adaptable than many people imagine. Observing this adaptation will be interesting, not only on its own terms but as case-study for understanding the relationships between New Religions Movements and new media environments more broadly.