Over at Dissent, I have a follow-up piece on class on TV, responding to Alyssa Rosenberg’s critique of my original post:
As she points out, not all portrayals of rich people reinforce conservatism. On the other hand, where our culture is conservative about class, it’s usually in leaving it unmentioned. For every joke about the excesses of the super-rich, there are hours of TV quietly reinforcing the idea that being poor or deeply economically insecure is an aberration. And when we do see self-identified working class characters show up on TV, too often it’s as the bearers of “cultural” conservatism, making a guest appearance to complain about gay people hitting on them or immigrants speaking Spanish in public (not that there are too many of either on network TV).
Check it out.
Update (7/19): Here’s an interesting e-mail I got from someone considering the impact the TV-ville economy had on him when he was growing up:
At Dissent, I break down the numbers on the jobs TV networks buy scripts about:
Imagine you live in a town of 174 people called “TV-ville.” Each person living there represents one of the pilot scripts bought by the four big TV networks for the upcoming fall season. (I’ve culled these from a list recently published by New York magazine, which has a brief description of each of those scripts. The 174 scripts I have included were those that mentioned someone’s job.) If you ever need law enforcement, you’re in luck. TV-ville is home to twenty-three cops, and if that’s not enough to make you feel safe, there are also seven CIA and FBI agents to back them up, as well as victimologists, spies, and fourteen investigators (public and private). If you get sick, you have twenty-four doctors to choose from. If you need to sue, you can call one of the town’s eighteen lawyers. But there’s a downside to living in TV-ville: It may take a while to get a table, because the whole town only has one waitress.
Here’s the rest.
Alyssa’s post this week on Game of Thrones inspired me to dredge up a 2005 post I wrote on differences between the approaches liberals and conservatives bring to media criticism:
Is the problem what kind of behaviors and images are shown on TV, or what kind of ideology is advanced there? Do we care what the media exposes or what it endorses?
My original post is here. This led Alek to post a thoughtful response in the comments here. I don’t think Alek and I are too far apart on this.
I also want “a simple policy of letting media creators both expose and endorse whatever they want.” I don’t believe in obscenity laws (or the overturned ban on depicting animal cruelty, or libel laws for that matter). That’s why I started the post staking out my disagreement with Rick Santorum’s view that “if it’s legal, it must be right…it must be moral” (and thus if it isn’t moral, it shouldn’t be legal). But we should still talk about the stuff they’re creating, right?
That last post draw a bunch of comments, mostly thanks to Michael J.W. Stickings’ link from Crooks and Liars (thanks!). A few favorites:
Alek Felstiner posted on Facebook:
This is why Tim Bayliss was such an uncomfortable character for everyone else on Homicide. I think, related to your point about lesbianism not being “sex,” there’s a sense in which male homosexuality is contaminant (except perhaps, notably, in prison, where the concept of masculinity is by necessity revised, and that revision recognized and tolerated on the outside), whereas female homosexuality is tangential and easily disregarded – if not encouraged and fantasized-over.
I make that point because most narratives, especially on TV, are about redemption. Ending up in a heteronormative relationship is a satisfactory conclusion for a mainstream American audience, but it only really works if it’s a woman (who finally finds the right man). A bisexual man eventually finding the right woman doesn’t offer the same narrative closure, because he’s already been “contaminated.
My friend Alyssa Rosenberg has teamed up with Lux Alptraum to start a new site, Pop Culture Pen Pals, and they’ve kicked it off with a great exchange on the impoverished portrayals (or lack thereof) of bisexual or sexually fluid characters on TV. As Alyssa writes:
As long as studios are anxiously divining what audiences want, and audiences don’t know what they want from queer characters, no one’s going to pay attention to what realistic, deeply sketched queer characters themselves might actually want.
It’s a thought-provoking – and agitating – discussion, and I agree with most of what they each have to say. One dimension I’d be interested to hear them take on is gender. TV characters that aren’t exclusively hetero or homosexual are few and far between – but the ones that we do see tend to be women rather than men. In GLAAD’s survey of LGBT characters on Network TV, the LGBT male characters were all homosexual (14 to 0); the LGBT female characters were mostly bisexual (7 to 2). The number’s were more balanced on cable, but the pattern was the same.
Why is this? There are a lot of potential explanations. The (overlapping) ones I’m drawn to are all downers.
The blog’s TV preference statistical analysis correspondent e-mails in response to my last post:
I tried to do some mathematical analysis (which Aaron and you can check). In addition to the data points themselves, I used two additional pieces of information:
1. Six Feet Under is your favorite show (I think you told me this previously), and
2. You prefer Law and Order to Mad Men
Based on that, my estimate is that your Watch Preference Rating = (1.5 x Quality) – (Effort). There may also be a minimum Quality threshold for inclusion, although I’m not sure about that.
I’m assuming that the formula is constant throughout, which may not necessarily be true. The most challenging case is Modern Family, which scores very close to Six Feet Under, and higher than West Wing (w/Sorkin). Of course, I can’t be sure how precise your coordinate placements are.
I think my Dad is on to something. (Yes, I do stand by Six Feet Under as the best TV show of all time, despite all the objections raised on facebook) I went ahead and charted the same data points against the 1.5X = Y baseline he suggested and here’s how it looks:
Here’s my plot of TV shows ranked by the effort it takes to watch them (keeping track of the plot, characters, etc.) and the payoff you get for your effort:
The x-axis is effort; the y-axis is payoff.
This is why I’d rather watch an episode of Law and Order than Mad Men.
A special problem I find with higher-effort, lower-payoff shows is that the lower-payoff makes it harder to pay attention and not start trying to bait celebrities over Twitter or whatever – but then that stops me from putting in the required effort, which then makes the show harder to appreciate…it’s a vicious cycle. We could call it “The Cycle of Mad Men.”