Wednesday, 8 February 2012


There are valuable life lessons to be learned no matter where one looks, particularly in movies and on TV--the world's most profound repositories of wisdom and benevolent guidance (save, of course, the National Enquirer and anything written by L. Ron Hubbard). "Psycho" warned us about the potential dangers lurking in the shower. We Frenchmen rejoiced: another compelling reason (read: handy excuse) to never again sully our fragrant, perfect bodies with overpriced, synthetic, malodorous soap and filthy, tedious, bourgeois water. "Star Trek" taught us the virtues of tolerance, respect, duty, and to dismiss the myth of the "no-win" scenario. And to cheat on qualifying exams. "Quantum Leap" and "Back To The Future" alerted us to the hazards of time travel and seducing one's mother. Hey, some of us need to be told these things. "Ghostbusters" taught us never to cross the streams...unless you and your brother really have to tap a kidney and there's only one toilet within stumbling distance. "Father Knows Best": duh.

Some films and shows, though, really have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Yes, yes, "there's no accounting for taste", "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", "different strokes for different folks", and other such cliches abound that people airily dispense to justify others' (or their own) liking of idiotic, crass, or otherwise artistically/morally/comedically/intellectually dubious distractions. And that's fine. But that doesn't mean that 1) I approve of their choice or 2) I won't bitch about them on my blog. Freedom of speech, the great equalizer: producers can churn out thousands of crappy episodes, and I can deride them.

To cherry pick an obvious example: "Fear Factor", a purported "reality" show where contestants perform outrageous/extreme/humiliating stunts for a whopping $50 000. It only costs them their reputation and their self-worth. A recent episode, entitled "Hee Haw! Hee Haw!", would have featured contestants chugging donkey semen. NBC ruled it too risky (after much fanfare, controversy, and free publicity--to which I'm sadly contributing) and pulled the plug on airing it, even though it was in the can and ready for broadcast. Again, I'm aware that some people are entertained by this, but seriously...donkey semen? Where do you go from there...scarfing down amputated limbs? Slurping discarded placentas? Count me in!

My problem isn't so much that this is simply icky and gross, which it unquestionably is. So are cooties, after all, but I still want to kiss girls (who are infested with said cooties) once in a while. My problem is the messages that this programme, and others, sends to people.

When I was a student in my teens and early 20s, I was not what one would have deemed as "confident". I was kind, funny, and smart...but I was also shy, self-conscious, and gangly. One girl I dated used to give me "advice" (platitudes straight from Cosmo) like: "Girls like guys who are confident." Okay...I'm 22 years old, I've never had to overcome adversity that shook my very core, and I still get the odd pimple. What in hell's half-acre do I have to be confident about? I spoke to a good friend of mine last weekend whose ex-girlfriend used to heap the same banalities on him. We agreed that unless he has served in an interstellar military capacity, saved a group of orphans from a smouldering nitroglycerin factory, or gone rogue on an undercover peacekeeping mission, a man cannot and should not consider himself "confident" until age 50. What kind of character-building, chest hair-growing, testicle-enhancing life experience takes place until one is middle-aged? Yes, in Roman times, perhaps a 20 year-old would be endowed with fortitude and aplomb, could have earned some degree of respect and deference...but back then, 20 WAS middle aged. But in this current reality, for a young person to make a display of confidence in oneself and one's abilities would be better referred to as "arrogance". Except for that delightful Sidney Crosby.

I think women have had to contend with corresponding, if not similar, issues. After the empowerment that came with universal suffrage, acknowledgement of reproductive rights, the advancement of the concept of equal compensation for equal work (which is still lagging), and other gender equality breakthroughs, there seems to have been a recent regression in how society views women and how they view themselves.

To cherry pick once again, take two of my least favourite TV shows: "Friends" and "Sex and the City". Now, I enjoy lots of different genres of television. Among my most enjoyed are "Little Britain", "Breaking Bad", cooking shows, hockey, "Coronation Street", and "Star Trek: The Next Generation". I'm far from a prude, I don't offend very easily, and I have an open mind. With "Friends" and "SatC", though, I can't help but shake my head. Not only do I NOT laugh, I get uncomfortable with the hollowness of the characters, role models who seem to be completely self-absorbed, caring for nothing but their own occupational and fleshly conquests. Their contrived, pathetic insecurities are given the same degree of attention and solicitude generally reserved for cancer patients on a palliative ward. The characters' pervasive egotism is mistaken for ambition and assuredness; their vapidity for whimsicalness and openness to new experiences. Please. Underneath it all resonates a message of self-seeking, shallowness, and intensity without intimacy. Given the immensity of the audience these programs reached, I can't help but wonder about the impact they've had on impressionable youth. "Friends" happened to be a favourite of my that where she got her dimestore philosophy on gender roles? Are Chandler, Phoebe, and the rest of the gang to blame for giving her, and others like her, the idea that men should affect bravado at all costs in order to impress women, who themselves are at the cusp of a newer, better, pseudo-women's lib/sexual emancipation? "If men sleep around, they're studs, but if women do it, they're let's be sluts and show those men!"

I'm sure I'm not the first to denounce these silver screen offerings as not merely empty and worthless, but possibly harmful; in fact, I KNOW I'm not the first. Anita Chandra, a Doctor of Public Health, behavioural scientist and manager of the Behavioral and Social Sciences Group at the RAND Corporation, singled out these programs in a journal article published in Pediatrics a few years ago (Volume 122, Number 5, November 2008, pages 1047 to 1054). The article was called "Does Watching Sex on Television Predict Teen Pregnancy?", and the answer, to save you the trouble of reading it, is "yes". If something so ubiquitous as a prime time "comedy" has a demonstrable effect on something as black-and-white as pregnancy rates, how much of an effect would it have on more difficult to measure outcomes, such as attitudes, norms, and behaviours?

Yes, the responsibility is on the viewer, or their guardian, to ensure that if they DO watch questionable (but unsettlingly powerful) programs, that they talk about it and sort out fact from fiction; take it with a grain of salt; and rely on other sources for information on how to act, think, and feel...but how many viewers or their parents actually do this? It would be foolish of me to suggest censorship or placing any kind of limits on the filth that gets produced...after all, I benefit from the same overarching rights by which NBC and other corporations profit. I guess the best I can do is keep talking to my friends about the myth of confidence, stick to watching the shows I like, and stay away from mugs of mystery liquid. I won't win the $50 000 any time soon, but that's okay. I can sleep at night knowing, for the most part, what exactly I've taken in both ocularly and orally.

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