Monday, February 13, 2017

The Case For Intelligent Entertainment

It's no secret in this house that I'm not a huge fan of comedies. Oh, don't get me wrong. When a comedy is great, it's brilliant. But all too often, comedies are simplistic and reductive, and they are feeding into a cultural mindset that's led to a political perspective that devalues intelligence.

Many months ago, I stumbled across a headline about a popular TV show. The column, How a TV Sitcom Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization, was written by David Hopkins. He dissects the underlying premise of a very popular show, and it's anything but funny when you consider the points he's making.

Hopkins expands on why Ross is a victim in the show, and the way that he's treated by his so-called friends.

...the characters of the show were pitted against him from the beginning (consider episode 1, when Joey says of Ross: “This guy says hello, I wanna kill myself.”) In fact, any time Ross would say anything about his interests, his studies, his ideas, whenever he was mid-sentence, one of his “friends” was sure to groan and say how boring Ross was, how stupid it is to be smart, and that nobody cares. Cue the laughter of the live studio audience.
Hopkins isn't alone in some negative assessment of the show.

Love it or hate it, there's no denying that EVERYBODY of a certain generation has probably seen an episode of Friends in their time - which makes the obvious sexism, homophobia and all round lack of diversity all the more interesting 20 years later.
Those are some harsh criticisms, but when you stop and think about the fat-shaming of Monica, the fact that Ross has a problem with his son playing with "girls' toys", the gender stereotyping and the way that Joey objectifies women - not to mention that lack of racial diversity on the show - you start to see an underlying philosophy that is startling.

And not all that different from the type of people who would accept alt facts and an administration that bucks scrutiny, says it's their way or nothing, levels accusations without evidence, and undermines the judicial system.

Hopkins' words got me thinking.

He was right. That show, along with others, had contributed to the decline of western culture. Perhaps one might argue that it reflects changes that were already underway. That may be true also, but the problem is that when those views are reflected through the lens of humor the audience is conditioned to accept them and become comfortable with them, to laugh at them.

I'm not going to say there weren't times I watched Friends and laughed. There were. Just as there were times I laughed at Seinfield, Frasier and many other comedy classics. I might be the only That 70's Show fan in the house.

But as I've been on the "family-must-watch-the-same-fricking-show-every-single-time-and-never-try-new-shows-and-sure-as-hell-never-watch-a-drama-with-an-ounce-of-intelligence" journey through the latest selected comedy, I've had moments where it's really grated on me. There are moments with the current show (not Friends) that I've been appalled at the sexism, the stupidity, and I've noted in this show the same tendency that Hopkins accused Friends of. It isn't cool to be smart. And how boring do things get when people actually enter a committed relationship. What's fun is the pursuit of the one-night stand and the playbook for how to trick some tits and ass into bed with you; women aren't people, they're objects.

Should I be surprised that a lot of women across this country were not bothered by Pussygate and donned shirts consenting to Trump grabbing their pussy?

That's really how stupid we are, and comedies have contributed to establishing a norm that conditions people into thinking that this is acceptable.

Now, I've been re-watching CSI. I started when we got Scout. I had a lot of sleepless nights doing the puppy training, and I always pick a show I can just let run and don't worry about falling asleep to. Say what you want about formula. As a procedural junkie I know it doesn't follow procedure properly. But it had at it's core a character who was smart. He was not emotional and did not find it easy to navigate personal relationships. The show's core centered on a scientist who valued intelligence and process over intuition and acting like a cowboy. While Grissom's departure from the show may have shifted that focus a little bit, even in season 13 the team is admonished constantly not to get ahead of the evidence. Not to let emotions override logic. Not to go rogue and be out of control.

Imagine that.

I've been thinking about this a lot since the election. One of the things I've seen mentioned a number of times on social media is to lament how so many seemingly intelligent people can ignore facts that are right in front of them.

I don't think it's quite that simple. Everyone has their agenda. I think a lot of people held their nose while they voted, on both sides of the aisle. But I do think that the culture of stupidity is something that's being woven into our society, and that it's contributed to a political and intellectual blindness that is dangerous.

So I'm here today to make the case for intelligent entertainment. I see post after post about "what can we do?" to safeguard the rights people have fought for decades for - gay marriage, a woman's right to choose - and talk about donating to organizations. I completely agree with that, and with supporting good news organizations. We've added subscriptions ourselves.

But there is something else we can all do. We can all invest our consumer voice into supporting intelligent entertainment. I'm not saying never watch a comedy. But we need shows that resonate with intellect, that don't treat women like sex objects, that don't ridicule the smartest guy or girl in the room because they have a brain and can use it.

We need to make choices that reflect a desire for substance, and part of how we do that is with our consumer voice.

Lately, we've been watching The Newsroom. Sorkin was genius with The West Wing, and he's genius with The Newsroom too.

What feels like a lifetime ago, I studied communication theory. One of the books I read back then was Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death. I've referenced it before, and I've quoted from it elsewhere online over the years.

Postman establishes how television has contributed the decline of intelligent discourse. Maybe it's just because they're at a certain age that I hear it all the time from my stepkids, but they don't want an explanation when a question is asked. When they suspect it'll take more than 10 seconds to hear the answer they back down from whatever the question was. To be raised in a home filled with books, to be rewarded for doing the summer reading program, to be encouraged to study and to explore and discover and be given intelligent toys that could open the door to so many possibilities... And to be so indifferent to actually learning something. Year after year it's not the process they want to learn so they can do the math homework. It's just enough so they can get this sheet done and forget about it.

And how many times have I heard a serious statement uttered that, once addressed, is dismissed as a joke? Except so many of the things said have nothing funny about them at all. That was the substance of four years I spent working in hell.

Some might say I'm overreacting where the teenagers are concerned. I look at the current state of American society, the fact that the outcome of the election has emboldened bullies to take to the halls of the schools, has somehow allowed the teachers at their school to make racist comments without fear of reprisal, and I don't think it's possible to overreact.

Postman said, "The assumption that a new medium is only an extension or amplification of an older one; that an automobile, for example, is only a fast horse, or an electric light a powerful candle... To make such a mistake in the matter at hand is to misconstrue entirely how television redefines the meaning of public discourse. Television does not expand or amplify literate culture. It attacks it."

He goes on to demonstrate how television has influenced politics, has begun to celebrate the appearance over the intellect, and how this is reshaping culture.

He talks about how it's reduced the attention span of audiences, how it reduced news to a paragraph. It's only gotten worse with the internet and click bait and twitter.

We may have pulled the plug on our cable, but we still watch plenty of television. I'm not going to be responsible for the elimination of televisions across the country. We have Hulu, Amazon and Netflix, and we may expand slightly if there's quality programming that we can sink our teeth into.

This is the one thing that the US still manufactures and exports. Entertainment. Movies and television shows that seek to engage audiences. And one way that we can all help redefine how the world sees the US, and what the youth of American are raised to value, is by building a base of support for intelligent entertainment.

Look, I'm not saying that if we all watch smart TV shows that Democrats will win elections. I'm not even saying they should. Whoever you vote for, do it from a place of knowledge instead of fear. Be informed on the issues and the ramifications and weigh your values against the policies. Make sure that what you endorse with your vote is what you want to see happen. But between the elections, arm yourself with information. Don't trust the news? Don't ever rely on one news source. Nobody is well informed if they're only taking coverage from one source, whether it's CNN or Fox. Take news from several sources. Balance out the facts of what's being said and the sources. Make sure the reporters back up their claims with evidence, not alt facts. Don't just rely on national news; go to the BBC, the Globe and Mail, and other international news sources and see what they're reporting. Make sure you don't buy into fear and soundbites. Arm yourself with knowledge, and show the world that Americans are worthy of respect because they are intelligent and knowledgeable and make informed decisions. Celebrate intelligence, and your values. I'm sorry, you can save all the unborn but if you let them be born to a planet that's dying because we destroy the environment what good have you done? To be a one issue voter is reductive, and we all owe it to our children to be better than that. Trump's son isn't in a private school because he wants him to be poorly educated. You should be aspiring to have the same level of education for yourself and your own children, and demanding the government invest in that. But at home, the one thing you can do is model a standard of behavior that celebrates knowledge, and try to make a difference by raising a generation of discerning and informed thinkers. The great inventors and philosophers and discoverers didn't gain their place in history by turning off their brain and doing what they were told. They engaged the world around them, they tested theories and explored, and invented the lightbulb and the printing press and they changed people's lives.

So, if you're still reading this and you know of some great, intelligent shows that convey the values we should be embracing in our society, toss a suggestion into the comments. Maybe we can't all donate to every organization, or buy every newspaper. But one thing almost all of us can do right now without cost to us is to consider our entertainment, and put our support behind shows and books of substance, and to cry out when intelligence, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, dumbed down spineless boys who have to act cool are what audiences are conditioned to not just accept but embrace.


Dana King said...

Your points are well made, but I'm inclined to believe our entertainment reflects our society more than shapes it.

I'm a huge baseball fan, and fairly well versed in its history. There are retired ballplayers who lament the loss of skills among the current generation. "They don;t know the game the way we used to." History shows retired players have been saying that since before 1900. That's human nature.

If television is stupid--and way too much of it is--that's because it's an industry seeking a profit, and that's where the eyeballs are. When America as a nation starts valuing education and the other things you mentioned, TV will reflect that, too. The fault is with the viewers far more than with the creators.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I'm not saying there isn't fault with the viewers, but I also consider myself. I had access to a lot of programming - more than average because we had a large satellite dish when I was young. I did my fair share of watching bad and stupid. But I also gained exposure to stuff that would never have been viewed in our house by my parents and that expanded my thinking.

These things do get a bit chicken vs egg. Consider print media. When I was in grade 8 the average reading level of a typical news article was grade 6 reading level. When I went to college to study journalism that was a factor, -amongst many, that affected our product. I went to school with a lot of people who couldn't spell or use punctuation properly, but editors would just mark up corrections for them. The removal of editors, or reduction, has led to a lot of glaring errors in copy online and in print. When I started college those classmates with poor English skills worried about their mistakes. Once they realized someone would catch them, they stopped worrying. Did that affect the output at the time? No. But it affected the prevalent thinking in an industry you'd associate with writing skills, and fostered indifference. Now that we see more and more of the mistakes slipping through, how will that shape the thinking of society? I have heard a lot of asprinibg authors state that they don't have to worry about mistakes because editors will fix them. That thinking, with some, has been supported by examples of mistakes in articles and books that get pointed to as a justification for their lack of concern, instead of them pointing to error-free material as an example of what to aspire to. The existence of bad product has influenced the thinking. Not for all - goodness knows some of us cringe if an error slips into our texts - but it does seem to be common enough for most of us writers to have heard similar sentiments before.

Dana King said...

Talking about writing standards is a different question altogether, and I agree with you completely there. I was never taught proper grammar, so what I do know I learned by ear, so to speak, by reading things and capturing where different types of words went. Even now when I catch many grammatical errors, it's often because i read it and it didn't sound right," prompting further investigation. If there are no "role models" (for lack of a better term, that's a problem.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well, we'll have to agree to disagree. A simple example: Oprah's book club. If our entertainment is purely responsive and has no influence then why care about what books get covered? She drove sales and she did so by making her audience feel the work was important. If that gets people to read a book they wouldn't have otherwise and think about issues that are new to them then entertainment has begun to shape knowledge, perception and possibly interest. It's why we writers always talk about books that influenced us - there was something about that entertainment that shaped us. The book did not react to us, but we reacted to what it said. It may be easier to get what an editor or producer thinks people want made or published, but that doesn't mean it's all accurate or we'd never have movies that tank and shows that get canceled in a matter of weeks. Just my 2 cents.