In the excellent 2002 Brazilian film City of God, a young boy of less than ten years is questioned as to why he would get himself caught up in a gang war. “Have you lost your mind? You are just a kid!” he is asked. He responds, “A kid? I smoke, I snort [cocaine]. I’ve killed and robbed. I’m a man.” Tragically, this little boy has no other conception of manhood than that – no other example was ever put before him.
Often, the influential and the famous are held up as role models, whether they asked to be or not. Expecting the imperfect people in the limelight to navigate the pressures of fame unsinkingly is likely to bring us only dashed hope.
Our stories, our myths, though, are different. In them, anything can happen – a hero can even be set before us a symbol of what we should strive to be. Sadly, such symbols and examples have largely left our myths. That loss says something about how we see ourselves as people and what our aspirations are. That’s why it is so important to find out where the good men of the movies have gone and bring them back.
The connection between morality in our culture and media such as movies, television, video games and music is difficult to demarcate. Most likely it is a two-way street – culture influencing media, which in turn influences culture – with the makings of a vicious cycle should things begin to slide downhill.
A study published in Pediatrics, for example, found that “Exposure to high levels of sexual content on television is associated with an increased risk of initiating sexual activity, as well as a greater likelihood of involvement in teen pregnancy.” Is the association causal or just a correlation? Are the children exposed to the high levels of sexual content also those who happen to become pregnant as teens by virtue of the way they were raised? How much is the source of the values parents, friends or school versus the media?
The argument that violent shows, movies and video games (not to mention some genres of music) are making us more violent as a people is likely false on an aggregate level, though perhaps it is true with some individuals. The culprit is not, in my opinion, some vaguely-defined culture of violence. Aside from members of the wacky Left, people understand that violence is a good when used properly in defense of a good, such as it might be by the military, law enforcement or even someone protecting his own home.
This statement from a Washington Post article about the so-called legacy of toy guns is typical of those who don’t make the distinction: “In parts of America now, especially in the hyper-educated urban and suburban Zip codes, the idea of buying the kid a toy gun for Christmas is about as attractive as buying him a syringe and a heroin starter kit.” Again, what those who equate Nerf guns with hard drugs completely miss is that it is not the tool itself or even the depiction or use of violence itself that has resulted in mass killing, but the intentions of those using the guns and their values.
Children – especially boys, feminist objections notwithstanding – like to pretend to be heroes. Heroes sometimes use guns; they use them because they value life, not because they don’t. It matters less that children are exposed to toy guns than that they are exposed to real heroes. If movies, video games and toys matter, it is for their moral substance. And if media is influenced by culture, as it almost certainly is, the moral substance of movies and shows reflect our perception of ourselves and human nature generally.
How many movie heroes today look like what a parent hopes his child will one day be? I don’t mean that most parents don’t dream of their kids growing up to be samurai, though that’s probably true. But the protagonists in almost any film in which the day/the girl/the world must be saved are corrupt, profane, sexually immoral, battling demons, willing to bend moral rules or some combination of all of them. They are rude, gratuitously violent or even criminals or ex-cons.
The intention is to make “realistic” or “complex” characters, to introduce shades of grey, in order to make the movie (or TV show) more interesting. I am not persuaded that a morally ambiguous character confronted with a moral dilemma is more fascinating than a good character confronted with a similar dilemma – any child knows how difficult it can get to be as good as you should so Santa will bring presents, not coal – I think in many cases, people just find rule-bending titillating.
Much like violence in TV shows is a lazy way to pursue “art” (well-discussed by Daniel Payne here), dark characters are not automatically deeper than morally good ones, but lazy writers think they are.
Here I should pause to point out that I don’t that there shouldn’t be any shows about morally ambiguous or even villainous characters. There is a proper place for shows like Breaking Bad, which may be the single best exposition on the nature of evil in our times. But with the exception of shows on USA like Psych and a few of the mostly cookie-cutter, insomnia-curing shows on network television, even the series about actual heroes like 24 and Justified feature them wrestling with the line.
In 1993, David Foster Wallace penned an essay entitled ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,’ in which he wrote of irony as the solution TV had stumbled upon (I, like DFW, am leery about anthropomorphizing television) that allowed the viewer to excuse himself as an individual from the masses who watched the same shows he did. Television culture self-referenced, flattering the viewer that he got the joke, feeding his need to know what would be referenced and thus his need to watch more.
The nature of the irony used was not only negative artistically, but also in its effects on values:
I’ve said, so far without support, that what makes television’s hegemony so resistant to critique by the new fiction of image is that TV has co-opted the distinctive forms of the same cynical, irreverent, ironic, absurdist post-WWII literature that the imagists use as touchstones. TV’s own reuse of postmodern cool has actually evolved as a grimly inspired solution to the keep-Joe-at-once-alienated-from-and-part-of-the-million-eyed-crowd problem. The solution entailed a gradual shift from oversincerity to a kind of bad-boy irreverence in the big face TV shows us. This in turn reflected a wider shift in U.S. perceptions of how art was supposed to work, a transition from art’s being a creative instantiation of real values to art’s being a creative instantiation of deviance from bogus values. And this wider shift in its turn paralleled both the development of the postmodern aesthetic and some deep philosophic change in how Americans chose to view concepts like authority, sincerity, and passion in terms of our willingness to be pleased. Not only are sincerity and passion now “out,” TV-wise, but the very idea of pleasure has been undercut.
He goes on:
Show after show, for years now, has been either a self-acknowledged blank, visual, postmodern allusion- and attitude-fest, or, even more common, an uneven battle of wits between some ineffectual spokesman for hollow authority and his precocious children, mordant spouse, or sardonic colleagues. Compare television’s treatment of earnest authority figures on pre-ironic shows – the FBI’s Erskine, Star Trek’s Kirk, Beaver’s Ward, Partridge Family’s Shirley, Five-O’s McGarrett – to TV’s depiction of Al Bundy on Married, with Children, Mr. Owens on Mr. Belvedere, Homer on The Simpsons, Daniels and Hunter on Hill Street Blues, Jason Seaver on Growing Pains, Dr. Craig on St. Elsewhere.
This, according to Wallace, is why all men in sitcoms are the lazy buffoons so often complained about. This is where Ward Cleaver and My Three Sons’ Steve Douglas have gone; their “simplistic” goodness was laughed off the stage. We all know – don’t we? – that Cliff Huxtables don’t really exist. Bill Cosby’s alleged transgressions are more realistic than values. What irony.
Is there reason to believe that the cycle can be broken and decent men will return as the heroes of our stories? Yes. First, because whatever else dark stories and morally ambiguous characters may be, they are also trends, and trends end. The second reason is that there are a few exceptions breaking through, something I will touch on in part 2 when I talk more about the movies.