May 8, 2010

China Needs Fewer TVs, Or A Billion Of Them

brothers and sisters pic.jpg
I'm just as surprised as you, but at least I'm drunk


I.

Reread Part 1.  What's happened since?

II.

Studies have apparently shown that soap operas shown in developing countries  introduce/reinforce progressive values like female empowerment, education, equality, with very real effects on the society (e.g. birth rates are lower, girls stay in school longer, etc.)

From a news article entitled, "How soap operas could save the world":

"The evidence we have from these academic studies is that quite often [soap opera viewers in developing countries] take away different attitudes toward things like how many children they want, what is acceptable behavior for a husband toward his wife, what is the breakdown in a household of responsibilities over things like finances, should we be sending girls to school," says Charles Kenny, an economist at the World Bank.

Soaps are particularly powerful because they attract so many devoted viewers.  But other shows have similar effects.   Charles Kenny wrote more extensively about this in Foreign Policy:

When a woman reached the final five [of Afghan Idol] this year, the director suggested "it would do more for women's rights than all the millions of dollars we have spent on public service announcements for women's rights on TV."
Ok.  But what did it change in women, exactly


III.


1. How fast does the culture change due to TV?  Probably only by a half-generation.  Tick tock.  

2a.  If this effect is real, is it conscious and deliberate on the part of TV execs?  Are interested parties creating shows to influence the culture (as opposed to simply selling product?)     

2b. If this effect is real, why don't special interests (the government, the Christian Coalition, GLAAD, whatever) just give money to established Hollywood producers and say, "can you make cannibalism ok?" or  "Please rewrite history or me."  Works for Spielberg. So?

 

tom hanks historian.jpg

Certainly everyone loves to complain that TV is destroying society, why not get together and use TV to push the agenda you want?

Maybe they don't themselves know how real this effect is? Or maybe they don't want to. Maybe Spielberg doesn't want to change the world, just be thought of as the guy who wanted to.   


IV.

You'll observe that the article's title isn't "How soap operas alter the world" it's "How soap operas could save the world"-- so it's a good thing, then?  I know the result here was that women wanted empowerment, but it could just as easily have gone the other way.   Why would a soap promote only the positive values of empowerment but not promote the negatively sexy ones such as showering with your boss and recording it?

This is from the Museum of Broadcast Communications article on soaps, specifically 1960s medical soaps:

The therapeutic orientation of medical soaps also provided an excellent rationale for introducing a host of contemporary, sometimes controversial social issues
Yay progress.   But here's the sentence immediately preceding it:

Their popularity also spawned the sub-genre of the medical soap, in which the hospital replaces the home as the locus of action... the biological family is replaced or paralleled by the professional family as the structuring basis for the show's community of characters. 

Not to mention our own personal community of characters.  Eventually even those get replaced with TV families.   Why else would there be an all new episode of Brothers and Sisters this Mother's Day?

V.

If you're still trying to figure out whether the studies show that TV violence causes real violence or TV progressivism causes real progressivism, you're approaching the question the wrong way.  Those are accidental outcomes influenced not by the content of the shows, but the way TV makes you look at things.

And that way of looking a things is-- get ready-- narcissism.  TV makes you look at things not starting from the thing, but starting from yourself.   No third world village woman looks at a soap and thinks, "I wish women had the right to freely choose their own husbands."   They look at it and say, "I wish I could choose my husband freely."   It looks like a positive value, but that part's an accident.  If you look closely, TV has only made her ask what she would like for herself.  It promotes of the right to self-identify.  You can argue whether that's good or bad, but the argument has to be about that


VI.

Soap operas were stylistically different from other shows because they were open ended, unlike the neatly wrapped episodic dramas and sitcoms.  They are also shot in quasi-real time.  If  a character says something dramatic and the show cuts away to another scene/subplot, when they return they will pick up exactly at the moment of the character's last words.   You are hand-held through every step of the emotional processing.  It's impossible to apply the full force your prejudices to a social problem, e.g. abortion, when the show never gives you a moment to do so.  You are carried through the entirety of the process through the character's life.    

Soaps are also directed as a theater (opera) production, conscious of the audience's placement relative to the stage.  Characters never turn their back on the camera; they'll turn their back on the other character (e.g. both facing outwards, towards the audience) and argue in a way no one ever does.

It's a stage effect: it pulls the viewer into their lives. You're in there, day after day, part of the action, part of the drama-- which they guide you through.  No closed ended show can be as powerful.

It's hard to appreciate how unusual that was, because nowadays most TV dramas are run like soap operas: Sex & The City, Grey's Anatomy, Brothers and Sisters etc.  That's what makes these shows so much more culturally influential than porn.  Or church.  If I was going to L. Ron Hubbard a religion, I would take Sunday services, and serialize them.  Tune in next week.


VII.

TV doesn't just influence those who watch it, it's enough simply to be aware of TV:

Barely five percent of the TVs that are on at that time are tuned to Gossip Girl; in other words, very few people watch it.  Yet there isn't anyone who doesn't know about it, even if it's imagined based on magazine covers or ads.  So the existence of a menage a trois episode mainstreams it for people who don't watch the show, and that's actually more powerful a cultural influence.  i.e. If you're a fan of the show, the threesome is specific: those three people are doing it.  For everyone else not watching, it becomes background noise: "oh, people are having threesomes nowadays..."

This is why it is true that even if you are not interested in pop culture, pop culture is interested in you.

VIII.

Let's say I forbid my daughter or son to ever watch TV.  What happens?  Is she at a disadvantage because she is slightly less familiar with the rhythm of her social group? Will he be mystified by the seemingly contradictory desires in his female classmates?  Will they both be frustrated and anxious at how everyone interprets social and political events using the exact same phrases, none of which they know?

IX.

Those of you expecting the rise of the Chinese Dragon and the collapse of the American Eagle are all going to die, along with your grandkids, way before that ever happens.  Plan accordingly. 

When Charles Kenny says TV is promoting values, what he means is western values.  Right?   As long as America controls the horizontal and the vertical, western values-- or whatever CBS decides those are-- will be exported and fetishized.  Accompanying those will be a interpretive framework built on narcissism.  It is inevitable.  You'll see Chinese women disdainfully rolling their eyes about American frivolity and arrogance even as they dab dry their Cosmopolitan splashed Hermes clutches and wonder why they are single in a nation infested with Y chromosomes.  "The last guy I dated didn't even want to want to sex me anymore, let alone get a real job.  Do I need to move to fucking Australia?"

Take a breath, Wildman, have a drink, the caps lock is on the left and I'm not going anywhere.  Let me ask you more immediate question: not everyone in China has a TV.   What do you call it when part of a population becomes exponentially and suddenly more western while another part doesn't at all?  

I'll save you the Google search: the answer is Iran.

Tell Sally Fields a happy mother's day from me when you see her tomorrow.  I'm glad to hear she's doing good.


---

http://twitter.com/thelastpsych
 





Comments

Wish I knew this, as in *re... (Below threshold)

May 8, 2010 5:59 PM | Posted by vv111y: | Reply

Wish I knew this, as in *really*, *really* knew this a long time ago.

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Let's say I forbid my da... (Below threshold)

May 8, 2010 7:51 PM | Posted by Whatever: | Reply

Let's say I forbid my daughter or son to ever watch TV. What happens?

I know kids who are being raised that way... They become MUCH more obsessed with it than others who have a free choice on the matter. I was watched a great deal of TV as a child, parents weren't as tight-arsed about such things then. Yet I happily turned it off, when there was something better to do, and eventually it stayed off.

Is she at a disadvantage because she is slightly less familiar with the rhythm of her social group?

Since I don't watch TV I can try to answer this. It does feel as if I were at a disadvantage sometimes but it doesn't bother me to the point of turning the TV on.

Will he be mystified by the seemingly contradictory desires in his female classmates?

Yes, she is mystified by the seemingly contradictory desires in males.

Will they both be frustrated and anxious at how everyone interprets social and political events using the exact same phrases, none of which they know?

Yes. It feels like a non-drinker in a room full of alcoholics.

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Depressingly true.... (Below threshold)

May 8, 2010 7:58 PM | Posted by Adam: | Reply

Depressingly true.

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Could you see things happen... (Below threshold)

May 8, 2010 9:17 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Could you see things happening any other way? People are living in groups so large that they're unknowns to each other. There's no way to sample them all. The anxiety about this has to be addressed. Religion fits the bill, especially if it's strictly enforced. You have some level of common understanding. That's inflexible, though. Mass media can change on a dime. We're not all on the same page again. Things are more complicated. If it scares you - you see that it erodes your current understanding - fly a plane into a building.

If it doesn't scare you, you want to evaluate this new, seemingly larger sample. It doesn't matter what it says, it only matters that you believe it has a larger audience. It's more information, and therefore a more efficient transaction. You tithe to it as much as you do the church.

There is a floor to pushing any behavioral agenda, religious or not. It can make crazy attributions, but it can't seem impossible. It's entirely possible to become a CEO or own a seaside place in Malibu. People have done it. Who knows what happens after you die?

It makes perfect sense that people would watch American media, especially in developing countries. We're #1! If the local life and economy your parents knew is being rapidly replaced, where do you look for guidance? Argentina?

Media seems to recognize that people want the dirt. Without religion, what are the rules? You don't know. Are you getting shafted now? Injustice is a universal dislike, and the bibles tell us that people are often wicked. Fuck. I'd better step up my game.

Everything that happens is natural.

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No third world village w... (Below threshold)

May 8, 2010 9:38 PM | Posted by Matt: | Reply

No third world village woman looks at a soap and thinks, "I wish women had the right to freely choose their own husbands." They look at it and say, "I wish I could choose my husband freely." It looks like a positive value, but that part's an accident. If you look closely, TV has only made her ask what she would like for herself. It promotes of the right to self-identify. You can argue whether that's good or bad, but the argument has to be about that.

Very well.

Your argument is like someone who says we shouldn't try to feed people in Africa, because what if they become obese like us. Soap operas are a crude solution to a desperate problem, but if they work like you say they do, we should have the entire Air Force out there air-dropping flatscreens and satellite dishes. If, in 50 years, Afghanistan becomes a mini version of America, with all of our fragmentation and narcissism, then, well, the next generation can deal with it. But in the meantime, Afghan women will know how to read and if they get raped they won't be killed for it. And that really, truly is better than the way things are now.

"Western culture will turn the least powerful people in the world into narcissists!" We can only hope. At least they'll have a fighting chance against the rest of us.

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i don't watch gossip girl, ... (Below threshold)

May 9, 2010 12:29 AM | Posted by Aaron Davies: | Reply

i don't watch gossip girl, and i don't know anyone who does. (or if they do, they haven't brought it up in conversation.) the first, last, and only thing i know about it is that it had a threesome scene, and you're the only source i have for that.

these things aren't quite as universal as you think they are.

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Gossip Girl is only an exam... (Below threshold)

May 9, 2010 1:10 AM | Posted, in reply to Aaron Davies's comment, by Aron: | Reply

Gossip Girl is only an example. If someone was to pick your brain it's almost certain they could find another example you could identify with.
With all of the messages you get bombarded with, even if many are at cross purposes with each other, the "mean" message is all but omnipresent.

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My favorite soap opera is <... (Below threshold)

May 9, 2010 11:28 AM | Posted by SusanC: | Reply

My favorite soap opera is The Last Psychiatrist... It's a medical soap with a touch of film noir. The central character's a snarky, disillusioned shrink with a drink problem. As the series develops, he picks up hints of various sinister conspiracies. I think of it as a cross between House and The X-Files.

As you say, if you're watching it, it's for you.

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Two things about your post.... (Below threshold)

May 9, 2010 1:12 PM | Posted, in reply to Aaron Davies's comment, by Nik: | Reply

Two things about your post. Even if you hadn't heard about the threesome, you have heard about Gossip Girl. Second, even if it was Alone that introduced you to the "Gossip Girl/threesome" concept, it still counts because you now have heard a reference about it, and when someone asks you, "Hey, did you know that there was a threesome scene in Gossip Girl?" You can respond with, "Why, yes I did".

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Alone, The quote y... (Below threshold)

May 9, 2010 4:28 PM | Posted by Stopaganda : | Reply

Alone,

The quote you use in part VII is the basis of your entire argument. And the numbers you have in there are made up.

Where is there evidence that people who don't watch gossip girl think "oh, well I guess threesomes are ok now"?

How do you know? Isn't this blog about "what we know?" -- and if it is where is your primary source? If I had to guess, it is from your own experience. And you may be a smart guy, but you can't speak on behalf of so many people who didn't watch gossip girl. That's a hell of a lot of people (over 95% of the country with your math).

Furthermore, where's the evidence that people who don't watch TV care at all? Maybe you're referring to the people who don't watch gossip girl, but still watch TV--they might care.

Most--or damn near--all of us have been raised with TVs. It's not that children and adults should be told "not to watch TV." People have free choice and they shouldn't have an ethos forced upon them.

But the information about how the TV trains us to think should always be there. Your blog does a great job of uncovering the ways in which TV makes us think and mechanisms it uses. But your argument breaks down when you get on the track of "we are POWERLESS against TV, it is an unstoppable force!"

Regulation regulation regulation. We should become aware of the way TV makes us think (your blog does this well). And stay the hell away (that is, if we choose to).

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I know kids who are bein... (Below threshold)

May 9, 2010 5:22 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I know kids who are being raised that way... They become MUCH more obsessed with it than others who have a free choice on the matter. I was watched a great deal of TV as a child, parents weren't as tight-arsed about such things then. Yet I happily turned it off, when there was something better to do, and eventually it stayed off.

I dunno, you need a larger sample size. My TV watching was restricted in childhood; I went through a period of both heavy drinking and obsessive TV watching in my 20s; I stopped them both about the same time, and now I watch maybe half an episode of something everyone's talking about to see what the deal it or because I really like to look at Chloe Sevigny.

Some children really can't handle TV. I don't let my son watch commercial TV ever and I limit the stuff he watches online, because it has immediate unpleasant effects on his behavior. When he moves out, maybe he'll binge, but he'll also have more impulse control.

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I like that the people who ... (Below threshold)

May 9, 2010 7:44 PM | Posted by jay: | Reply

I like that the people who respond to your posts often do so to shoot them down, because they believe themselves to be exceptions.

Which of course means that they're personalizing whatever broad theory you're working on to an audience of one -- pass or fail. Doesn't apply to me, so it must not exist!

Sounds familiar.

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Maybe that's why some many ... (Below threshold)

May 10, 2010 12:04 AM | Posted, in reply to SusanC's comment, by JadedMDstudent: | Reply

Maybe that's why some many disillusioned medical students I know read his blog. The mild paranoid tendencies, increased alcohol consumption, and flippancy remind me of someone, but I'm not sure who. I like my towers to be towers of gin, not rum, so I see not similarities whatsoever. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go to Walgreen's to get another bottle of Pepto and some more Omeprazole.

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Or narcissism is intrinsic ... (Below threshold)

May 10, 2010 2:06 PM | Posted by Felan: | Reply

Or narcissism is intrinsic to humans. Whether it is tv or religion or the military or liberialism or conservatism or what ever else you want to pick that is telling you the role you should play, it is still narcissism as you describe it.

Is a religious person condemning homosexuals because it makes them happy or because it is part of the role they have adopted? Do they rail angrily against their daughter now pregnant because its not about how it makes them look? In times past duels were fought for trivial offences to one's honor, a response to narcissistic injury?

I'm still not seeing something new in television. Television is a force in society, a more efficient and general application of the intrinsic narcissism that is being human. Personally I find it less offensive and troubling than other venues that play on that aspect of us.

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I think it depends on the i... (Below threshold)

May 10, 2010 2:11 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Whatever: | Reply

I think it depends on the individual but very often the more people forbid something the more interesting "it" becomes. Of course this doesn't apply to everyone...

Either way it's always a good idea not to let a kid watch everything available.

But I'm not sure if childhood restrictions are what will restrain him later in life. There is much to be said about good upbringing but at the end everything we do as an adult is a personal choice.

I could watch whatever I wanted for as long as I wanted as a kid yet I've no problem restraining myself now - there is nothing to restrain because the allure isn't there.

In a way the same applies for alcohol. As long as alcohol has an allure the person will need restrictions. Once the alcohol loses its allure restrictions are no longer necessary.

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I don't think his post argu... (Below threshold)

May 10, 2010 2:14 PM | Posted, in reply to Matt's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

I don't think his post argues against western values (the rest of the site reads pretty much like an issue of New Criterion) but rather that the medium is powerful and can be used by anyone for any sort of propaganda.

His couching this in the context of the rise of China is spot on. I try to make this same point but from an economic standpoint, this one is better. Even if China surpasses the U.S. in military and economic strength, if they became more Western for that to happen, did the U.S. really lose any ground?

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The problem with "westerniz... (Below threshold)

May 10, 2010 2:31 PM | Posted by Shannon: | Reply

The problem with "westernization" or cultural appropriation at all, especially when the cues are taken from contrived media like television is that the signifiers are decontextualized and thus easier to misconstrue. When a television scene is written and directed, ten thousand ideas, events and schema are referenced in the process. Humor relies on it, drama relies on it, relevance relies on that context. Without the benefit of the context in which the thing was created, it's impossible to take it "as it's meant to be taken."

It's easy to look down on Japanese monster movie fanatics and Americans who love French films because they "reveal truths" that aren't available in good old English. I think there's a vague intuition that these connoisseurs (fetishizers) are missing the point. Think about these people, and then imagine a whole nation of them. If this is what's going to result from the push for westernization, someone needs to stop it right now.

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I think I'm going to respon... (Below threshold)

May 10, 2010 2:34 PM | Posted by David: | Reply

I think I'm going to respond in bumper-sticker talk whenever a pop culture market of hidden significance is brought up since I have little to know experience with it ... not watching tv and living on a small island off the coast of Americorp.

As everything always points towards the one "hidden," never consciously understood phenomenon I'll call the "N" factor (ht to SusanC) I thought I'd throw this trifle into play:

A hammer looks at the world and sees only nails.

Like, wow.

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I happen to be of the minds... (Below threshold)

May 10, 2010 9:08 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I happen to be of the mindset that humans are innately narcisisstic, that interpreting things in the context of how it affects oneself is our species' default OS. Good, bad, whatever, it is what it is. Altruism for everyone still benefits the indvidual that started the movement.

So this being a blog about mercantilism and fourth generation warfare, does narcisissm fit in as a tactic of advance or an overall strategy for success?

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I don't think his post a... (Below threshold)

May 11, 2010 12:07 AM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Matt: | Reply

I don't think his post argues against western values (the rest of the site reads pretty much like an issue of New Criterion) but rather that the medium is powerful and can be used by anyone for any sort of propaganda.

Yes, that's my reading too. What I was trying to point out can be best summarized in dialogue form:

Alone: "TV makes you look at things not starting from the thing, but starting from yourself. No third world village woman looks at a soap and thinks, "I wish women had the right to freely choose their own husbands." They look at it and say, "I wish I could choose my husband freely." It looks like a positive value, but that part's an accident. If you look closely, TV has only made her ask what she would like for herself. It promotes of the right to self-identify. You can argue whether that's good or bad, but the argument has to be about that."

Me: "I agree completely. Your insights continue to amaze. Now, in response to that last sentence, I do argue that promoting poor women's right to self-identify is good. Does narcissism, caused by TV, makes them expect the right to marry whoever they want? Good! They should have that right. Nor does it bother me that their motive are selfish, not altruistic. Oppressed people demanding rights for the sole reason that they want them is no bad thing."

Alone (describing what happens if this goes too far): "You'll see Chinese women disdainfully rolling their eyes about American frivolity and arrogance even as they dab dry their Cosmopolitan splashed Hermes clutches and wonder why they are single in a nation infested with Y chromosomes. 'The last guy I dated didn't even want to want to sex me anymore, let alone get a real job. Do I need to move to fucking Australia?'"

Me: "That could happen, although at this point I have little or no idea what you're talking about. But it doesn't matter. What we must always remember is that the negative consequences of too much liberation are second-order problems, compared to the original problem of too little liberation. Because the west is so liberated, those second-order problems are now very important. But some parts of the world are still dealing with the first-order problem. And if our only choices, as cultural imperialists, are between burquas and honor killings on the one hand, and a nation of people trying to act li