Until recently, every time someone proudly told me they “don’t watch TV” or “don’t watch much TV”, my knee-jerk reaction was to congratulate them. As if to endorse their choice.
It makes sense, of course. The notion that TV and film — visual media and narrative — are somehow “less worthy” than written literature, for instance, is something that my culture constantly reinforces. We are told TV makes us dumb and intellectually lazy. It’s called the “boob tube” after all, and countless scholars and cultural critics have weighted in informing us of the inherent dangers of too much TV and media.
But lately when someone tells me they don’t watch TV, I’ve been more of a mind to ask them: “Why not?” and to confront them with the fact that not watching TV doesn’t make them better, or their choices more informed, or superior. In fact, it makes them ignorant.
I will go on a brief tangent to help reinforce my point.
Long long ago, when human beings were new to this world and we still lived primarily as hunter gathers in small family clusters, we invented language. From language we invented all kinds of other things, including myths and folklore. Narratives.
Now, in a time long before written accounts, when culture was conveyed orally and through actions, these stories performed a number of important functions. They helped bind us culturally and socially; they helped us to understand, reinforce, or reiterate what our culture or tribe considered important and worth knowing; and these stories expressed cultural norms and values.
In Scandinavian folklore, for instance, there is a genre of stories which are particularly creepy and insightful. They are stories in which the ghosts of murdered babies — born out of wedlock — come back to haunt their mothers. Now, at the time these stories were recorded, infanticide among women of the lower and serving classes was very high; it was believed that their masters or the men they worked for would seduce, coerce, or rape these lower class women, resulting in pregnancies which the women could not socially or economically afford. A woman in this position could easily lose her job if her pregnancy was discovered, and her reputation would be tarnished so that finding work elsewhere would be difficult. Imagine trying to feed a newborn with no job and no possibility of getting a job? So if they did not abort in some fashion, these women would have to conceal their pregnancy, have the baby, kill it, and dispose of the remains.
What is of note in these stories is that the babies always come back to haunt their mothers — presumably women who had few other choices — rather than the fathers how may have coerced or assaulted the mother. There is little to no mention of the fathers, and they escape unpunished.
This tells us much of these cultures’ values at the time. Obviously women are blamed for “bad sexual behavior” and the men are not. The men are not “haunted” by the children who come back to remind of how they were murdered. Infanticide was obviously considered a cultural wrong, but it happened frequently enough that people made stories about it to discourage women from doing it. And, probably, to discourage women from having sex outside of marriage. But no such prohibitions or stories exist warning men against sex outside of marriage, not to the same extremes of stories which exist for women.
(By the by, all of the above is loosely paraphrased and borrowed from Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in folklore studies.)
Anyways, how does this relate to TV, you might ask?
Let me tell you reader.
As time has gone on, we have shifted from oral literature to written literature, and now, to the modern age, where we have media including film and TV. We still have both oral and written literature, in various forms, but media such as film and TV play a key part in shaping current culture, particularly and increasingly, on a global level. For perhaps the first time in human history, we are sharing stories. In the US, Iron Man 3 opens, and in Japan, they are buzzing excitedly about the same film. In the US, Hannibal has been playing on our screens since April, but it has also been playing in Canada, Britain, Korea, Australia, and other nations across the globe. If you check the #Hannibal tag on Twitter, I’ve no doubt you might notice users chatting about the show from Florence to New York to Mexico City, some in English, some in Spanish, some in Italian. I think have seen some French and German on the tag too. Media, such as film and TV, particularly through tools like the internet — which increasingly offer streams of many popular TV shows, or, ahem, less than legal ways to acquire copies of said TV shows, and films — are bridging huge gaps in culture, language, and geography which have kept our cultural narratives separated and insular to a certain extent.
Contrary to Joseph Campbell’s assertions of “a monomyth” template, not all myths are the same, and not all myths communicate the same social and cultural values. A “hero myth” of Hawai’i is different than one of Anglo-Saxon people, and different still from Mesopotamian hero stories, and different from Mayan hero stories, and different form the multitude of African hero stories etc. Each myth and folktale best communicates the culture and values of the culture it is rooted in. Myths and folktales, while universally occurring in human cultures, are not a universal language in and of themselves; if anything, it they are the antithesis of the very idea.
But media seems to vault right over that and it leads us to a place where we are sharing, and hopefully, exchanging stories on a global scale.*
Over the last semester, I have bonded with co-workers over the most recent season of Game of Thrones, and it’s interesting to hear people’s reactions to the series, to see how emotionally invested we are — together. People who otherwise wouldn’t have much to talk about outside of work business. Or, even complete strangers on the internet from thousands of miles away. I’ve read countless articles critiquing Game of Thrones and its presentation of women, for instance, and discussed favorite characters with friends, internet folks, and coworkers. All of these different networks converge in this ongoing conversation.
But like the stories of yore, those stories we sat around and told in much smaller groups, when our most far-reaching connections might be the family on the other side of the river, these stories still convey cultural and social values and norms. A Hollywood film or TV series, produced in America and filmed with American actors by an American director will convey American ideals, values, and attitudes.
Hannibal for instance, is a show which delights in the lurid violence it presents. But it also confronts viewers with the essential conundrum that by watching violence, we enjoy it and endorse it as a culture. The series asks us (as Americans specifically, but also more generally as global media consumers) to consider our fascination with violence and the price of that fascination. Violence is not without consequence in the series. Hannibal also projects an intensely personal view of the cost of fear. Fear is something that has become woven into the post 9/11 American worldview, to the point where it’s hard to turn on the TV, or look at a newspaper, without the headlines telling us we have something to be anxious about. Hannibal comments that “fear is the price of imagination”, and in many ways, the series, to me, is commenting on American’s own many and hysterical fears, many of which are real, but many of which are equally imagined — by outlets such as news media, and internet.
An equally telling series, which comments not only on American fears, but also our increasing global awareness, and the moral complexities of imperialism and terrorist responses to Western imperialism, is Homeland. You cannot trust anyone in this series; you cannot even trust your own mind. The POW, who is a family man and decorated veteran, can be a terrorist just as much as the cliched, stereotypical image of a turbaned Arab man. And the clichéd, turbaned Arab? He is a person, with real reasons for believing what he believes. Anyone’s loyalties can be suspect in Homeland, and, in a sense, the series challenges (probably American) viewers to question their own deeply held beliefs — of Western patriotism and imperialism, and where our own loyalties lie — and begin to understand the true ugly nature of “terrorism” as something that is not just “us versus them” or “black and white”.
Certainly there are less provocative and compelling TV shows on the air, such as Family Guy, which basically reiterate cultural messages that defend a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic worldview. But even a few minutes spent watching Family Guy can serve to illuminate that, as a culture, Americans still do defend racism, sexism, etc, in both subtle and not so subtle ways. I am not saying that we don’t desire to do better, or we don’t say we are better. But when Seth MacFarlane (creator of Family Guy) can host the Oscars and spend ten minutes singing about the breasts of extraordinarily talented actors (as though their breasts were all they had to offer), or serve up racist and sexist jokes, some of them directed at a ten year old girl — well, that says enough, doesn’t it?
People were appalled by the Oscars, but others didn’t care, or didn’t see what the fuss was even about. So it is clear, that, on some level, the fact MacFarlane was even allowed to host — much less some of the reactions — that as a culture we still pretty much don’t care about addressing some of these issues.
But if we don’t watch TV, or films, then we don’t KNOW, do we?
And that’s the thing for me. When people proudly say they don’t watch any TV, it just tells me they are ignorant of what current culture says we all value. It tells me they are not paying attention or participating in the stories which are now part of our increasingly collective and global culture. It tells me they don’t participate in media, and therefore, are not being proactive in helping to steer the narratives we condone. They are not, therefore, objecting to or questioning the harmful values we defend in our culture, nor are they celebrating or praising the innovative or provocative messages out there either. At least, not in media.
Now, I am not advocating that we ditch verbal literacy for visual or media literacy. That way lies ignorance just as surely being ignorant of media does. But, I think, all things considered, we should be approaching these “dumb” stories with more respect for what place they occupy in current culture, and what power they have. I think we should be at least mildly media literature, meaning that we can watch media and question or understand some of the underlying messages it feeds us. We can and should be wary of everything fed to us, even in books, and question everything. But if we aren’t participating — are not watching and responding to that media — then we are left in the proverbial dark.
To not watch TV or films is a kind of illiteracy, and it’s not something to be proud of in the scheme of things.
* I say “hopefully” exchanging. A lot of popular media is still American dominated, and most Americans do not go out of their way to watch, say, Danish films, or Chinese films, or Lebanese films. So yes, media is still pretty Americanized, unfortunately, and I hope, with time, and more cultural exchange, we will see more non-American media and TV shows with wide distribution.
It’s a huge problem that American values, norms, and perspectives are so prevalent and privileged in the world through media. It sort of defeats the purpose of cultural exchange, if you do not allow yourself to enjoy the stories of others, and to see things through their cultural lenses, values, norms, and perspectives.