A publicity poster for Eat Pray Love features Julia Roberts as Liz Gilbert in Italy, sucking contentedly on a spoonful of gelato next to some nuns also tucking into the stuff. In the film, she sneaks a glance at the adjacent abbesses and enjoys them savouring their gelato, but doesn’t engage them in any conversation—even though you might assume that nuns might be more than qualified to comment on ‘prayer’ and ‘love’ in a film so named.
But Liz—spiritual seeker and author of bestseller Eat Pray Love—hasn’t come to the Eternal City to pray. That’s reserved for the next destinations on her itinerary: India—where she and other disaffected Westerners meditate at an ashram—and Bali—where Liz consults a medicine man who teaches her that practicing the art of smiling will set her on the path to inner peace and balance. For Liz, Italy—the home of the Vatican, one of the oldest religious institutions in the world—has nothing to offer in the way of spiritual guidance. Instead, Italy is relegated that role of the Italian mother who keeps refilling your plate of pasta.
Eat Pray Love isn’t only a judgement on the irrelevance of Western forms of organised religion for some contemporary Westerners. It’s also a revealing portrait of how those same Westerners tend to seek spiritual satisfaction these days. ‘Religion’ is out of favour because it’s regarded as institutional, rule-bound, uptight, and stifling. But ‘spirituality’? So hot right now, especially because it’s more intuitive, less concerned with laying down the law than with giving you a set of principles to take or leave at will. The result, among those who still hunger after some notion of God, is the general belief that he/she/it/the Universe/whatever is not to be found in a church, but at the feet of a guru—preferably a non-White one in traditional dress with leathery skin and broken English. It’s easy to deride this belief, but it reminds us that the Church has some way to go in order to address this perception.
And what truths are such spiritual seekers finding? According to Eat Pray Love: that life is all about you and your happiness. I’m not convinced Liz’s real-life gurus would be all that thrilled to hear their messages summarised in such self-indulgent terms. Especially when such expression gives rich, White Westerners more reason to ponder, hand-on-heart-style: “What do I really, really, really want?” (That question was suggested by Liz Gilbert—the real author—to Oprah’s audience as a kind of step-by-step guide to their own self-realisation.1 Apparently, the thrice uttered ‘really’ is vital to the magic, because anything less shows “you don’t believe it”.)
Still, scoffing at the navel gazing of privileged Western women is all too simple. Easily dodged is the fact that women simply don’t think about themselves because they typically rank their needs and desires secondary to those of others. So it’s not hard to understand the appeal, for many women, of Liz’s determination to concentrate on her own happiness by spending a year doing whatever will feed her soul. For women for whom a year-long journey of self-discovery is just out of the question (and that’s virtually all of us), Liz offers an attractive, vicarious experience of escape, adventure, and love. In this light, the question ‘what do I really, really, really want?’ is perhaps not so much ridiculous as radical. And it begs another question: what’s the reason behind a lot of the mud flung at Eat Pray Love (including my own)? Is it all that outrageous to think that women are creatures of desire and need?
Liz’s experimentation with Eastern belief systems constitutes a half-hearted rejection of some of the hallmarks of Western culture
Moreover, Eat Pray Love captures a particularly Western penchant—one that isn’t confined to the habits of the fairer sex. Liz’s experimentation with Eastern belief systems constitutes a half-hearted rejection of some of the hallmarks of Western culture. Half-hearted because while she casts off its forms of organised religion, she remains committed to an ideology to which those of us in the West are, on the whole, exceedingly faithful: consumerism. Liz’s quest to find herself lives out the consumerist preoccupation with individual happiness and fulfilment. This is a very familiar Western story and in the case of Eat Pray Love, one that has racist overtones as well. In the film, Eastern wisdom and culture are sampled at will and non-Westerners aren’t so much characters in themselves as they are spirit guides who facilitate the self-realisation of the White (wo)man. The result? While Eastern philosophy is often characterised as a corrective to Western indulgence, the way the former is used in Eat Pray Love represents rather an extension of the latter.
Spiritual seekers seem, on the whole, disillusioned with the traditional Western Church, or Christianity as an institution. Fair enough. But perhaps a reconsideration of the fundamentals of the Christian message wouldn’t hurt, for its gospel of other-directed love, service and sacrifice is attractive and one that I think counteracts the self-fulfilment, self-absorption, and self-realisation that often characterises Western appropriation of Eastern philosophy and wisdom. Eat Pray Love being a case in point.
I happened to re-watch Zoolander the other day—a film that at first glance appears to have little in common with Eat Pray Love. But then there’s the character of Hansel (‘so hot right now!’), the vacuous, blond upstart who challenges Derek Zoolander as the world’s most celebrated male model. Hansel is rebellious and relaxed, the poster child of the ‘just do it’ generation. A skateboard ramp in his trendy warehouse is adorned with Hindi script and paintings of Indian women. He entreats a great spirit’s guidance before he faces off Zoolander on the catwalk. Hansel is seen saluting to the sun against the ocean, he mingles with Maori tribesmen, Finnish dwarves, and has his own personal Sherpa. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine him, like Liz, sitting a spell in an Indian ashram or learning from a Balinese guru.
In Zoolander, like all the male models depicted, Hansel is an object of (affectionate) scorn—so derided for his vanity and self-absorption. In Hansel’s particular case, his vanity project mixes-and-matches ideas, philosophies, habits, and accoutrements from non-Western cultures in order to realise a glorious creation: himself. Zoolander, however, is largely recognised as a satire. Who would have thought that in 2010 such a similar character to Hansel—Liz from Eat Pray Love—would be held up as a messiah for the (New) Age?
Dr Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and lectures in Cultural Studies at Macquarie University
This article first appeared at the ABC Religion & Ethics Portal