Does Television Reflect Society or Does Society Represent Television?

 The argument concerning whether art imitates life or if life imitates art is centuries old. Aristotle and Plato, two of the world’s greatest philosophers disagreed on something that, even today, still is not clear. Plato believed that art imitates life, and that all derived artwork is in some way a representation of life. While being a great fan of the arts, Plato felt that art had a power to cause a negative imbalance and to distort reality somewhat and thus needed to be censored. Aristotle, however, believed that life imitates art, and that art is a method of escapism, a way to express ourselves, and to create and imagine. He did not agree with censorship, and felt that it was okay for a person to act out natural emotions in a safe environment. This is of course only a minute portion of both of the philosopher’s life teachings, but creates a foundation for the basic argument. Naturally their lifetimes occurred before things such as modern art and television. Certainly in terms of modern art, where the natural form is not taken into account, life is imitating art somewhat, but what about in television? Does television realistically represent us as a society or do we model ourselves based on what we see in modern programming?

Television deals with many aspects during its conception. While it is of course developed to cater for a specific need within ourselves, it is still of course, a form of entertainment and escapism. There are many points that could be made about people identifying with television, for example the shows ‘Friends’ and ‘The Office’. ‘Friends’ portrays a close-knit group of friends and their everyday lives. Many of us find ourselves in these groups, and that is what it was based on, and so, is almost certainly an example of art imitating life, if you can refer to ‘Friends’ as art! The same goes for ‘The Office’, it portrays awkward situations at work which some of us may encounter and turns it into a joke that we can later laugh at. Again, the show uses everyday life as its inspiration and as a form of entertainment. Like Plato and Aristotle were un-agreed, so too, is the divide between realistic and non-realistic TV drama. In an age where TV stations are in constant competition with each other, unlike years ago when only a couple of stations existed, television is now developed solely in order to make money. While these shows must be entertaining in order to gain a following, they must also be flashy and exciting, in order to steal the target audience away from the competition. This is where the divide from reality occurs. As Anna Stewart said in her article for ‘Variety’;

‘How many people haven’t had the urge to murder one or two bad guys? Sell some marijuana to make ends meet? Or behave like a bad boss? There’s a little Dexter Morgan, Nancy Botwin and Jack Donaghy in everybody. Today, couch vigilantes get their kicks out of watching shows like “Dexter”, “Weeds”, and “30 Rock”. “People are looking to vent,” adds TV shrink “Dr. Phil” McGraw. “It’s a safe outlet for them to live vicariously. They don’t have to do anything bad. They don’t have to sacrifice their morality. They can sit on their couches and quietly urge this guy on.’ (1. Television reflects modern society – Anna Stewart)

 While Anna makes an extremely valid point, this does not mean that society is going to sit on their couch and watch this stuff, while wishing in their heads that they could go out and do it for real. The human mind is a very complex thing, of course we will gain excitement whilst watching these shows, but that does not mean that the entire fan base of Dexter are actually lusting after murder. In an interview with the writer, Bill James on an American radio station he spoke about some aspects of the human personality that are deeply hidden which have a fascination with crime. This is true of all societies. Even the bible had crime stories. He then goes on to say that

‘Men feel challenged when women are in danger, that the business in ‘populizing’ crime shapes how we think on different issues regarding crime and exaggeration of crimes can cause paranoia, which can cause more harm than good.’ (2. The Popularity of Crime – Linda Poulson)

I will elaborate on how crime drama has an impact on the viewer in more detail later. As Aristotle mentioned whilst discussing that life imitates art, it is healthy to have an escape, a place to vent and express our basic human emotions in a safe environment – that and it will probably prevent us from going a bit mad in the long run!

It is with this in mind that we begin to ponder how television affects different age groups, and wonder if Plato really was so wrong to wish for enforcement of censorship. Self-expression is a wonderful thing and it truly makes society more interesting, but, think about younger audiences, our children, younger siblings, etc. are they becoming too influenced by the world that television portrays? Certainly in Ireland it is evident that our society has become more Americanized. This is due to the fact that for years a large proportion of our television has been imported from America. I have almost certainly witnessed it in my younger sibling. Even as a young child of three or four, she constantly imitated the character of ‘Libby’ from the Nickelodeon television show, ‘Sabrina, the Teenage Witch’. In the show, Libby is very much the mean girl, who bullies Sabrina, as well as other students in the school. The character archetype of Libby is displayed in almost every high-school drama from the US. There are the mean girls, who for some reason are also the most popular, unlike real life, and then there are the lesser-known kids, commonly referred to as ‘the losers’. If this is not a prime example of life imitating art through the medium of television then nothing is. For some reason children nowadays seem to think that being popular is everything, as previously mentioned, I have seen this first hand within my sister. She is not a bad person, in fact when she’s at home I see a completely different person to the one when with friends, she is like this, as are her friends, because that is how they have been conditioned to think from the television that they have watched from a young age. It is with this in mind that I believe that life imitates art, in terms of television more so than art imitates life.

As we move into the adolescent bracket, body image and social standing becomes a huge issue, as it is for most women. In the television of the 1960’s, women were generally placed second to men, though this was not exactly the case in society itself.

If I added up all the messages I received from the media in my formative years, they’d run like this: A girl can grow up to be a nurse, not a doctor; a school teacher but not a professor; a secretary but not a lawyer; never a police officer or a firefighter; and certainly not an astronaut (but even if she did she’d wear skimpy clothes.) Women are to be well-groomed, made up and bejeweled at all times and that included all the uncomfortable under-riggings that made sure her flesh didn’t jiggle.’(3. Does television reflect society or does society reflect television? – Lynda M. Martin)

It was like television was almost trying to undo what the likes of the suffragettes had fought for.

Today, Matthew Weiner’s ‘Mad Men’ does exactly that. ‘Mad Men’ is set in the 1960’s, a time where there was huge economic growth, and people could aspire to be anybody they wanted to be, yet ‘sexual banter’ in the workplace wasn’t yet harassment and smoking was still ‘good for you.’ The theme of escapism while always there, probably resonates with society more so now than ever in a time of deep economic recession, and society probably finds themselves longing for the days that this kind of show portrays, but this is not a true reflection of society, it is glamourized, for the purpose of winning an audience and this is a fact.

‘Was it a true reflection of society at the time? No! Many women went to work, and our neighbor was a female doctor. Another taught at the local college. None of them lived by the roles as portrayed by the television. Somehow, though, the electronic messages were the stronger ones, the ones we ate up.’ (3. Does television reflect society or does society reflect television? – Lynda M. Martin)

Of course the television painted a much more ‘idealistically’ male view of women. But as Lydia says in the aforementioned quote from her article on the same topic, that was not society at the time, yet girls were taking away the message from these TV shows that they should aspire to be more like how the women were portrayed on television. This meant and still does mean that women and young girls alike have extremely distorted views on what the ‘perfect body’ is. Unfortunately, most of the time, you don’t see the average women on television. It’s the likes of models and sex icons that are playing the roles of lawyers, coroners and of the defense attorneys that are walking into court like their intent is to sleep with the entire jury in order to win the case in question.

It is on this point that it is interesting to note that it is not just our ideas of the perfect appearance that become distorted when we watch too much television. A recent study carried out by Purdue University in Indiana has shown that watching too many crime dramas actually increases our paranoia and distorts our perceptions of crime rates and the policing system. The study showed that out of the 103 surveys conducted, those who fed their ‘crime habit’ more often, seriously over-estimated the amount of murders that actually happen in real life by two and a half times.

‘Some people develop a fear of victimization, and this belief can affect their feelings of comfort and security.’ (4. Glenn Sparks – doctoral student in communication, Purdue University.)

The study also discovered that viewers develop a ‘mean world syndrome’, which causes viewers to believe that the world is actually more dangerous than it is.

‘Our studies have shown that growing up from infancy with this unprecedented diet of [TV] violence has three consequences, which, in combination, I call the “mean world syndrome.” What this means is that if you are growing up in a home where there is more than say three hours of television per day, for all practical purposes you live in a meaner world – and act accordingly – than your next-door neighbor who lives in the same world but watches less television. The programming reinforces the worst fears and apprehensions and paranoia of people.’ (5. David DiSalvo. (2009). Watching Too Much Crime TV Skews Views for the Worse.)

‘Crime decreased all through the 1990s, and for the last decade crime rates have remained steady. Yet, between 52% and 89% of Americans every year since 1990 have thought that crime is on the rise.’ (5. David DiSalvo. (2009). Watching Too Much Crime TV Skews Views for the Worse.)

This study shows that if television can change you and make you fear the world, that surely imitating it can’t be a good thing, it is not imitating you, it is changing you. Proof enough that life imitates TV drama/art. If crime dramas such as CSI and Criminal Minds were accurate, and hospital dramas such as Grey’s Anatomy and ER were indeed an imitation of life, it would be possible to just walk outside or to the hospital and view them in action. Certainly in the case of crime and medical dramas, they are made to be exciting, and fast paced so that we don’t go off and decide to watch the program’s competitor.

To a lesser extent, some TV drama encourages the dissipation of certain morals within the viewer. When we see characters who have been left with no choices other than to break the law and descend into an abyss of sorts, the viewer begins to sympathize with these characters, and then may then become more accepting of certain behavior if they have been subjected to it for long enough. An excellent example of a character very much stuck in this kind of rut would be Walter White from AMC’s Breaking Bad. What is interesting however about Walter is that from the very beginning, writer Vince Gilligan wanted Walter White to descend into a state of mind so far beyond repair that he inevitably becomes the embodiment of the evil that he started out hating and not wanting to be a part of.

‘There will be a point for everyone when they finally stop sympathizing with Walter White,” Mr. Gilligan said. “It’ll occur at different times for different people. In the early going it was quite easy to see him as a good man who was trying hard to do the right thing. But if you watch enough of these episodes, you realize eventually that Walt was a good man, but this thing he’s chosen to do is changing him. He becomes harder and harder to root for.’ (6. Shattering all Vestiges of Innocence – Joe Rhodes.)

It is a bit more difficult to talk about life imitating art in terms of Breaking Bad, as the world of the drug trade is pretty unknown to all of us. The show almost certainly is not based on most of our realities, and it is absolutely an example of escapism.

“All the characters bear the weight of their choices,” he said. “This is not being dark just for the sake of being dark. These are people whose worlds are crashing in on top of them. It’s heavy, heavy stuff.” (6. Shattering all Vestiges of Innocence – Joe Rhodes.)

It is shows like this, while still being an escape, that force the viewer to weigh the consequences of their actions in matters in their own lives. Seeing a character broken down to their very essence on screen like that unarguably does leave a feeling of deep sympathy within the viewer. While the viewers may not aim to base themselves on such a character, a feeling of empathy is definitely evoked which they then may or may not translate onto their own lives.

In conclusion, I firmly do not believe that art imitates life. I believe that life imitates art. (In terms of television anyway.) In the sense that we aim to look like unrealistic portrayals of actors and models, and become unhappy with who we were born as, as well allowing ourselves to be convinced that we are more likely to be murdered by a serial killer than to die of natural causes. Though television can leave us with bad habits, it can also leave us with good ones. We can learn to feel empathy and understanding for others we may never have previously understood if we had not seen them portrayed on television. This all comes from watching television dramas that were created for one reason, that reason being to entertain us, and to provide us with a distraction from the routine of our every day lives. We need to keep this in mind first and foremost and to remember to hold onto our grasp of reality as well as being able to allow ourselves to be transported to an imaginary world.



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