Seeing beyond Tammy Faye’s mascara

TammyFayeTammy Faye Messner was anything but subtle and nuanced, at least in most of her public appearances, so to hope for nuance in her obituaries may be too much to ask. Still, I’ve yet to find a story about her life and death that comes even close to capturing the spirit of this remarkably strong woman.

In the late 1980s, after the scandals at Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL network, Tammy Faye was widely derided for her thickly applied makeup, her on-air weeping and her insistent belief that PTL’s collapse was the fault of the big bad media and her brethren in the TV evangelism fold who coveted PTL’s satellite channel.

But in the 20 years since then, largely thanks to Tammy Faye’s developing a following among gays and lesbians, another character emerged. This character wore the same makeup, cried just as readily as ever and still mourned the loss of PTL. She also embraced her status as a camp figure, readily accepted the love and sympathy of her new admirers and showered them with her own inimitable style of unconditional love.

No obituary does her as much justice as the films The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000) and Tammy Faye: Death Defying (2005) and the Sundance Channel series One Punk Under God (2006). In One Punk Under God, Tammy Faye’s ex-husband speaks of her with quiet wonder and compares her to the Unsinkable Molly Brown.

This week’s obituaries covered the well-known valleys of the PTL years, and most at least mentioned her camp status in passing. What no obituary seemed able to describe was how Tammy Faye’s story ultimately was one of redemption and, even amid her copious tears, thanking God in all things.

My friend Darrell Grizzle drew a shoutout from Slate for his tribute to Tammy Faye, which includes links to the best of what mainstream media obituaries had to offer. I think the definitive obituary for Tammy Faye would be by Mark Steyn, if he were still writing in that genre for The Atlantic.

Otherwise, I commend the final episode of One Punk Under God (available on iTunes for $1.99). One of the closing images, of Jay Bakker sitting on the front steps of his mother’s former home near Charlotte, says it all.

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  • Stephen A.

    The blogger tributes at Slate are quite positive. Surprisingly so, actually.

    This is a clear case of someone erasing, or at least changing significantly, their negative public image and making it into a positive one. To have the religious left, and gays, for crying out loud, signing her praises and genuinely mourning her passing is quite remarkable and unexpected.

    I met Tammy Faye once, back in the early 1990s. I saw her in a bookstore and asked her how she was holding up. She very much appreciated it and was very approachable and friendly.

    Despite my feelings about the megachurch phonies that she and her husband helped to popularize, I do feel very badly for her family at this time of loss, and think she went a long way towards gaining trust from the public.

    As a side note, you can view some scenes from her son’s show on the Sundance channel.

    Trust me when I say you should all see Episode 4, the scene entitled “I’m Proud of You, Son.” What Jim says about his son is kind of remarkable in its humility.

  • Mollie

    This reminds me, again, of how Jim Bakker’s autobiography “I Was Wrong” was one of the best I’ve ever read. I’m totally serious.

    His confession is not about his behavior with regard to the timeshares he operated (and mostly for which he was later exonerated) but his theology. He said he realized the Prosperity Gospel he’d preached was wrong when he was sitting alone in prison, reviled by the world, left by his family, humiliated, etc. And God was with him more then than ever before.

    It’s interesting to view the lives of Jim and Tammy Faye through their changed theology.

  • Eric G.

    I haven’t read Bakker’s book, but I’ve read the autobio of his current wife and seen him in several interviews since his time in jail. He definitely seems to be a changed man, and for the better.

  • Eric W

    I would like to think that Jim Bakker is a changed man for the better, but the segments with him and his son Jay in the Sundance series “One Punk Under God” do not give me much confidence that this man is now or ever will be qualified to host a Christian TV show again, even though he is already doing it. He has serious emotional, faith, and relationship problems and issues.