Saturday, December 10, 2005

Cause Or Effect?

Interesting article in this week's NYT Sunday Magazine, entitled "What Men Want: Neanderthal TV," about the increasing moral ambiguity of television's role models for young American males:
When word of Michael's desperate mission [to find his kidnapped son] reaches Sawyer - a booze-hoarding, hard-shelled narcissist who in his past killed an innocent man - his reaction is not what you would call sympathetic. "It's every man for hisself," Sawyer snarls.

Not so long ago Sawyer's callousness would have made him a villain, but on "Lost," he is sympathetic, a man whose penchant for dispensing Darwinian truths over kindnesses drives not only the action but the show's underlying theme, that in the social chaos of the modern world, the only sensible reflex is self-interest.

Perhaps not coincidentally Sawyer is also the character on the show with whom young men most identify, according to research conducted by the upstart male-oriented network Spike TV....

(snip)

The code of such characters, said Brent Hoff, 36, a fan of "Lost," is: "Life is hard. Men gotta do what men gotta do, and if some people have to die in the process, so be it."

"We can relate to them," said Mr. Hoff, a writer from San Francisco. "If you watch Sawyer on 'Lost,' who is fundamentally good even if he does bad things, there's less to feel guilty about in yourself."

(snip)

The most popular male leads of today stand in stark contrast to the unambiguously moral protagonists of the past.... They are also not simply flawed in the classic sense: men who have the occasional affair or who tip the bottle a little too much. Instead they are unapologetic about killing, stealing, hoarding and beating their way to achieve personal goals that often conflict with the greed, apathy and of course the bureaucracies of the modern world.

"These kinds of characters are so satisfying to male viewers because culture has told them to be powerful and effective and to get things done..." said Robert Thompson, the director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

(snip)

Paul Scheer, a 29-year-old actor from Los Angeles and an avid viewer of "Lost," said that not even committing murder alienates an audience. "You don't have to be defined by one act," he said.

"Three people on that island have killed people in cold blood, and they're quote-unquote good people who you're rooting for every week," Mr. Scheer said. The implication for the viewer, he added, is, "You can say 'I'm messed up and I left my wife, but I'm still a good guy.' "

[T]he morally struggling protagonist has been evolving over time, [Fox Entertainment president Peter] Ligouri said, pointing to Detective Andy Sipowicz on "NYPD Blue." Sipowicz was an alcoholic who occasionally fell off the wagon, and he often flouted police procedure in the name of tracking down criminals. Like all good protagonists, Sipowicz was also exceedingly good at his job.
(Jack Bauer of Fox's "24," who seemingly tortures someone every week to get intel on the bad guys, is curiously almost entirely absent from this article, although he is featured in one of the photographs)

As I read all of this, I am struck by the resemblance of the Bush administration to these shady modern protagonists: They lie, cheat, steal and kill, but since it's all for a good cause (War On Terror!), they're still heroes. Indeed, they are even more heroic for not allowing themselves to be bound by the namby-pamby conventions of acceptable and legal behavior. Of course, even that narrative is a lie. The lying, cheating, stealing and killing is an end in itself, or a means to a completely different end from the one they advertised... but their fans don't seem to mind.

So, the question that I have is: Did television pave the way for Americans to embrace the Republican version of morality, or does it simply mirror it? As I outlined in my post about personal narrative, I believe that competitive "reality television" was the phenomenon that introduced this do-anything-to-win mentality into American culture as something truly admirable, something to be emulated. Coincidentally(?), the Reality TV Era coincides almost precisely with the Bush Era, with the nefarious "Survivor" debuting in the year 2000. As I do not believe Bush's presidential "style" was yet apparent when he was elected, I have to conclude that reality TV paved the way for the Bush Era and entered into a symbiotic relationship with it, where real reality and TV reality reinforced each other's expedient amorality.

I don't really want morally conflicted characters to go away; Batman is always much more interesting than Superman. But I would like to see the pendulum start swinging back the other way, to where selfish and amoral behavior is not actively celebrated. And I want to see reality TV go away almost as badly as I want Republican government to. Hopefully, a Democratic victory in 2008 will kill both birds with one stone.

7 comments:

V said...

I'm not sure I'd agree completely that people are 'celebrating' the negative behaviors of these characters. I do think people are welcoming it because it is a refreshing change from the completely two-dimensional characters who have been a television staple for as long as I can remember.

I think people want characters and situations that they can relate to. I think this is why sitcoms have become less popular in recent years... we've all outgrown stories where contrived problems are easily resolved within a 30 minute timeframe, and everyone has a good laugh about it. We want to see stories that are more plot-driven, we want to see problems that take longer than half an hour to solve, if they can even be solved at all (notice about 1/3 of the cases on Law and Order end without showing any real resolution?)

I like characters like Sawyer because *it's okay* to still like people even if they do bad things. For so long, tv shows kind of implied that if a character did something bad, he or she had to find some kind of "redemption" in order to remain likeable. Case in point: Spike, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was pretty vile, and people liked him. And I think *because* people liked him, there became some need to turn him into a goodie, because there's some taboo against rooting for the baddie.

But why shouldn't we, in fiction, root for the baddie when the baddie is often infinitely more interesting and complex? I for one am pretty tired of the whole Spike phenomenon wherein likeable baddies have to turn good. People are neither all good nor all bad, so why should characters be? We all do bad things to some degree... we can't erase our pasts.

In Lost, particularly, these characters are in a situation where their past deeds are considerably less important than how they behave *right here and now*. Someone like Sayid who tortured and killed people in his pre-crash life now performs important, useful technical repairs that keep people alive. It's shown that despite his past actions, he is still very much capable of gentle kindness.

My point being, as it said in the article, we *don't* have to be defined by one act, and in all honestly nobody really *should* be. So yes, I champion flawed characters, evil characters, characters who steal and kill and are selfish and bitter and cruel. Because every one of us is capable of those things, and yet also capable of so much more.

I dare say even George W. has been kind, even compassionate or loving to people on occasion. Should that be completely overlooked?

Neil Shakespeare said...

I don't watch 'Lost' but it's the same on HBO's 'Rome', or 'The Sopranos' or 'Deadwood' for that matter. All the heroes are murderers. Of course with Rome & Deadwood we're supposed to know that those were less civilized times. Right? On 'Rome' the lovable, but lucky dolt Pullo is a hired murderer, an acient hit man. Then he murder's his slavegirl's lover in a jealous rage, and two episodes later he's walking hand in hand with her to start a new life in the idyllic Roman countryside. And he too is loved for his brutish tenderness. Doesn't change the fact that he murders people. We love killers. And it's the triumph of capitalism too, of course. Anything for a buck. As long as you can get away with it it's 'moral'.

V said...

I just don't see anything wrong with it. It's fiction, FFS. I like the character of Hannibal Lecter, for example. He was wicked intriguing, and in the films, I was totally rooting for him to escape. But, being a smart girl and able to draw a line between fiction and reality, I would not, say, root for Jeffrey Dahmer.

The types of stories and characters one is drawn to in fiction don't necessarily make some kind of statement about one's morals or character. Personally, I enjoy horror films which are well outside of the mainstream in terms of violence and brutality. However, IRL I am gentle and kind.

I still say, so what if fictional characters are amoral? And so what if people like it? It's escapism. It's not real.

V said...

Also, now that I've had time to sleep on it, I think I better understand now why this has hit such a nerve with me. I'm going to have to phrase this very carefully.

It bothers me a little that you seem to be pushing your *own* moral agenda here. You're sounding a little dangerously like the religious loonies who blame Grand Theft Auto or rock music for the downfall of society.

It's not the media's responsibility to be the ethical barometer for our society. Just as parents must be the ones who monitor what media young children are exposed to, we as responsible adults must choose for ourselves what we allow into our homes. And we must choose for ourselves whether or not we let a television show influence our own behavior and action (you'd have to be pretty pig-ignorant to do that anyway, but there you go).

You say you want to "see the pendulum start swinging back the other way, to where selfish and amoral behavior is not actively celebrated", but the problem with that is this: whose morals DO you want to see celebrated? "Morals" aren't a universal constant. They vary from religion to religion, culture to culture, and person to person.

Touched By An Angel comes to mind... where some people would see a show that celebrates traditional Christian family values, others (like myself) see something that comes across as preachy and sanctimonious, and which sends the message that we all need to 'get God and get right.'

You see what I mean? You can't really complain about the lack of morals on television without implying that your *own* morals are superior. And that's just not true of any of us. Morals are personal and subjective.

I think my rant is just about over. If you're really that bothered by the behavior on Rome or Lost or The Hallmark Channel or wtf ever, you don't have to watch it. And that's the beauty of America, isn't it? The freedom to choose for ourselves.

Eli said...

Contrarian points well taken, V. You know full well that I'm not a huge fan of wholesome entertainments or wholesome characters, but let me refine my point a little bit.

First of all, there are at least two kinds of morally ambiguous characters: There are characters who do bad things for a good cause (i.e., Sipowicz, Jack Bauer), and there are good (or at least charismatic) characters who do bad things because it's their nature (i.e., Spike, Sawyer, Pullo). I really have no problem at all with the latter, and generally speaking, the former don't bother me *that* much.

What really, truly bothers me is that there seems to be a generation of young men who are growing up with the mentality that the ends justify any means. Lying? Backstabbing? Torture? Killing? Hey, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. And it's this kind of amoral tough guy attitude that is at the root of the Bush presidency: That the President knows best, and he can do whatever horrible things he wants because it's necessary to fight terror.

I think there are a lot of guys out there who think that's admirable, and I think it's sickening. Is it because of TV, because shows like 24 drill home the message that torture is the only way to get information? Or does TV present shows like that because that's what the people like? I really don't know. But it really gives creeps me out to see people saying, "Life is hard. Men gotta do what men gotta do, and if some people have to die in the process, so be it." To me, that sounds like he thinks killing people is admirable and courageous, as long as it's for a good cause. And that's the mentality that helps the Republicans win elections, and shrugs at war, torture, and wholesale violations of civil liberties, because "men gotta do what men gotta do."

And it's also the calling card of competitive reality TV, which sickens me almost as much as the Republicans do.

I hope that clears things up a little.

V said...

Okay, I see what you mean now.

I really don't think this is a new development, though? And I certainly don't think GWB is the first sociopathic president we've ever had?

I think you're seeing people embrace these concepts because, sadly, that's just how a lot of people *are*.

A wise Jedi once said, "Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering." I'll take that a step further and suggest that ignorance leads to fear, and the world is largely populated by the ignorant.

So yeah, the whole reason we have crap like Survivor and Hummers and propaganda video games designed by the US Army to recruit the easily influenced... and this whole general sense of inappropriate machismo that I think you're taking about all boils down to this:

People freakin' suck, dude. And that's been the case since, like, the beginning of recorded history?

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