This essay was completed in 1996, but it is still worth a read. It explains what is wrong with some of the criticisms of the media and popular culture. A few changes in style have been made since the essay was completed.


Popular Culture Is More Moral
  (And Less Moral) Than It Is Given Credit For

Ken Sanes ( 1996)

With increasing frequency, it seems that Hollywood is coming under attack from the right, with accusations that it is undermining values and psychologically damaging children. At one extreme, we get the simplistic denunciations of the Reverend Donald Wildmon, whose American Family Association newsletter portrays many television programs as little more than vehicles for offensive sexual innuendo. At the other, we get the more nuanced attacks of the movie critic Michael Medved, who accuses Hollywood of trying to propagandize audiences so they will accept the misguided values of liberal cultural elites. And somewhere in the middle, mostly repeating what other people have written for him, we now have America's least believable culture critic, Bob Dole, who tells us that movies should "uplift and inspire," rather than degrading their audience with extreme depictions of sex and violence.

Very few people would deny that all of these critics are responding to genuine problems in our culture. Even many members of the entertainment industry admit that Hollywood vastly overdoes the sex and violence, because it is looking for quick and easy ways to hold an audience.

But when you examine what many of these critics say, it becomes obvious that their view is so restrictive, it misses most of the true moral function of entertainment. Contrary to what they would have us believe, the entertainment industry makes us better people precisely by giving us a taste of the complexities of life. Its products, most notably movies and television, allow us to vicariously explore our basic desires for self-esteem, pleasure, mastery and revenge and, most importantly, for intimacy and happiness. Since our quest for these things involves a range of human experiences, and is full of confusion and moral ambiguity, what the entertainment industry gives us often reflects that fact.

Unfortunately, ideas such as these are lost on the Reverend Wildmon, a conservative activist whose "critique" of television is a good example of the constricted view of popular culture being offered by those on the right. His newsletter, the AFA Journal, includes "TV Reviews" that make it sound as if many programs are nothing but vehicles for moral depravity and sexual obsession. On an episode of Friends, it describes the characters as having "little other than illicit sex to occupy their empty lives. Storylines include euphemisms for Joey's penis, impotence jokes, and Ross's depression on the anniversary date of his first sex with his lesbian ex-wife...." Similarly, an episode of Roseanne is said to include "more than 20 homosexual jokes and innuendos -- at least one per minute."

One of the many things that descriptions like these miss is what situation comedies are actually about. Of course, they are frequently about sex. But they derive much of their entertainment value from their ability to portray characters that many people in the audience can identify with. These characters are like us in an essential way: they are depicted as seeking happiness, despite their own foibles and psychological dysfunctions, and despite difficult life circumstances.

Many of the funniest and most endearing characters on sitcoms are the ones that are portrayed as being so dysfunctional, they get only half a loaf out of life. On Seinfeld, for example, George is emotionally stunted and often sexually frustrated, with limited abilities when it comes to work and love. His aging father is a neurotic who hoards back issues of TV Guide. On Roseanne, the adult sister is a female version of George, without the social inappropriateness, who can't seem to build a life.

By showing us this parade of pathetic characters -- and there are a great many of them -- sitcoms give us a chance to laugh at ourselves and those around us, while we enjoy the fact that we are nowhere near this bad. The characters depict our own quest for happiness and our tendency to sabotage what we desire most.

Many sitcoms supplement these portrayals with more admirable characters we would prefer to identify with, who still suffer from their own, less drastic, limitations. To balance out George, the emotionally stunted narcissist, we are given Jerry Seinfeld, the successful and better-functioning narcissist. To balance out Tim Taylor, the Mr. Break-It on Home Improvement, who devotes himself to shoring up his gender identity with ever more powerful tools, we are given the adult wife, Jill, who keeps things in check.

A few sitcoms make no effort to balance out the characters and, instead, depict entire groups of people that seem permanently lost to dysfunction. These programs take us into a kind of emotional underworld, in which the characters' hope for something better in life is considerably dimmed.

A good example is Married...With Children, which portrays the royal family of dysfunctionality, the Bundys, who have neither the emotional nor the financial resources to succeed in life. In this netherworld of family values, the parents are self-absorbed and the oversexed kids are left to fend for themselves. The most significant relationship seems to be between the husband and the television set.

From one perspective, the program can be accused (and has been accused) of providing terrible role models. But that is precisely its genius: it shows us a caricature of the me-generation that many of us recognize.

In watching the Bundys work out their schemes and try to outwit each other in the competition for whatever desired goods they can get their hands on, we, once again, get a chance to laugh at ourselves and those around us. The program is a healthier version of what we see on daytime talk shows, letting us take pleasure in viewing people we are determined to never become.

But the key to the series' success is that it also shows us a father who defends the family when push comes to shove, and who is faithful to the wife he is frequently on the run from. It wins its audience by offering a message of hope -- there really is a family under there, obscured by the craziness.

Other sitcoms show us characters who have a better shot at happiness. Friends, for example, offers sweet reconciliations (a staple of many comedies) in which we can enjoy seeing the characters overcome obstacles and achieve intimacy. Still other programs show us a more realistic portrait of life, such as Roseanne, which depicts the forces that tear many families apart.

American sitcoms could show us something more "uplifting" and constructive, of course. Instead of portraying a world in which people are constantly getting on each other's nerves and putting each other down, as in Seinfeld, they could focus on loving families. They could chuck the sex and many of the cynical one-liners, and mostly portray authority as rational and fair. They could increase the number of times someone learns a moral lesson, and get rid of all the self-absorbed characters. They could cease to satirize our sexual practices and our efforts to maintain our gender identity, and ignore the complicated relationships between adult children and parents.

Two episodes of Home Improvement that get approving comment in Wildmon's journal do some of these things. In one, according to the newsletter, Dad learns that he needs to spend more time with the middle son, so the middle son won't be jealous of the time spent with the older son. In the other episode, the youngest son returns a stolen knife and confesses his crime.

Stories such as these are perfectly valid, and they are undoubtedly good for children. But a culture that got rid of the "offending" material referred to above and gave us this in its place, would fail to portray the complexities of our own experience. It would cease to perform its most important function, which is to aid our quest for happiness by getting us to laugh at ourselves, so we can (temporarily) let down our masks and admit that it is okay for us to have flaws or to look a little foolish at times. Much of the larger "message" sitcoms now offer, which is that a measure of happiness is possible despite the absurdities and frustrations of life, would be lost, as well.

Similar points can be made about many of the products of popular culture. From his speech to employees at 20th century Fox, it is obvious that Bob Dole (or his handlers) likes old-fashioned movies, with admirable heroes and nice endings, including Independence Day, Forrest Gump and Apollo 13. He also favors more disturbing fare, such as Schindler's List, which can expand our appreciation of the seriousness of life.

In his speech, Dole set up a false dichotomy in which we have a choice between entertainment that is good for us and entertainment that is bad. "By a landslide, Americans are choosing the good over the grotesque, excellence over exploitation, quiet virtue over gratuitous violence, and character over pointless cruelty...." he said.

He praised movies that "raise our vision of life instead of dragging us down."

But art and entertainment are considerably larger than his vision, because we are larger than his vision of us. Silence of the Lambs, for example, is everything Dole claims is bad for us. The movie, about mass murder and sadism, involves pointless cruelty; it is grotesque; and it certainly doesn't raise our vision of life.

What it does do is allow us to catch a glimpse of madness and evil. When the movie takes us into a mazelike place that seems partly a home and partly an extension of the outdoors; partly above ground and partly below; occupied by a bizarre transvestite who is kind to his dog and enjoys torturing his prisoners, it shows us an absolutely mad world at the point where it almost ceases to be human. The movie turns a depiction of murder into myth and confuses our categories in the service of art.

There is no concept of entertainment as character-builder that can be made to apply to a work such as this. To some degree, the movie even forces us to move beyond the safe formula offered earlier, in which popular entertainment allows us to experience life's bumpy ride toward happiness.

Instead, it gives us another vision, in which art draws us into invented worlds so we can explore the possibilities of experience. It doesn't improve us in any way that would fit into the America Mr. Dole would offer us. Nor does it corrupt us. It merely expands the range of awareness.

Its only obligation, as the late literary critic Northrop Frye said of fiction in general, is to show us a vision of the world as we hope it will be and fear it might be. Or perhaps its only obligation is to show us something we haven't seen.

None of this is to argue that popular culture offers an ideal product. In the case of sitcoms, social conservatives are correct when they claim that the entertainment industry pushes a particular ideology and vision of culture. But critics like Dole would replace it with something that is much more explicitly a vehicle for cultural propaganda. Critics are also right to point out that sitcoms focus on a limited world of young, self-absorbed, characters because the producers want to appeal to a young audience.

There are certainly other problems, as well, in the way television tries to addict us to its fantasies, and in the mind-numbing effect constant depictions of sex and violence may have on children. And clearly there are distinctions to be made (even if we can't completely define them) between a work of art like Silence of the Lambs and the much cruder fare offered, for example, by some of the rap music that Dole, among others, has also criticized.

Problems such as these deserve an open discussion. But they shouldn't cause us to adopt a constricted view of culture, which is really a constricted view of the possibilities of life.