Tag Archives: the media

We Reduce People

In fiction, moral complexity is in. Today’s golden age of TV have brought characters who are difficult or whose intentions are ambiguous out of the realm of literary fiction and art house movies to popular shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and countless others. And we love it. When you consider a character, your opinion of that character is colored by many things other than “hero” or “villain.” On Mad Men, when nearly every main character has either cheated on a significant other or knowingly slept with someone who’s cheating, how do you measure which character you enjoy the most? On Breaking Bad, why do some people root for characters who’ve killed innocent people but hate other characters for smaller, personality-related reasons? I don’t watch Game of Thrones, so I can’t really comment on it, but I’ve picked up on some of the Snark Ladies’ interesting thoughts regarding the actions of some characters on that show.

Here’s what I’ve been noticing lately: this cultural embrace of moral ambiguity does not extend to actual human beings. With current events, there always has to be a villain, even in accidents where no one was really at fault. On the Internet, if anyone says anything regrettable, they’re never given the chance to backtrack or apologize—and even if they do, people will label them and discount anything they say from then on. There’s this ridiculous Tumblr, which I won’t link (if you’ve heard of it, you’ll know which one I mean) that catalogs everything that popular celebrities say that could be construed as “problematic”—even though some of those things are hardly problematic and some of them are things said or done while playing a character.

We reduce people.

We boil down every single thing about a human being—all experiences, all circumstances, all thoughts, all actions, all feelings—to one single thing we don’t like and slap a label on them.

We do it all the time, with everyone from celebrities to politicians to criminals to people we know personally or engage with online. It’s too much work to consider the bigger picture or to imagine that there’s anything more to a person than whatever we don’t like.

I say “we” because I’m guilty of this, too—too often. It’s easy to reduce. It’s harder to look closer and find the humanity in people we don’t like, or people who do things we don’t like.

I mentioned before that Schindler’s List, which I saw for the first time last year, is something I have a hard time talking about. The reason why is that what I took away from it was very personal, and I was afraid if I tried to explain it, it would come out sounding like I was making a movie about the biggest genocide in modern history all about me. But this was the revelation I had while watching it, a movie about a man who, despite doing an incredible thing that saved over a thousand lives, was not by any means a saint: if you lose your ability to see beyond whatever you don’t like about a person, if you can dehumanize people enough to boil them down to a single thing about their complex being—then that’s one thing you have in common with the Nazis.

When you don’t consider the humanity of every person, the inherent worth everyone has just by being alive, even people who do terrible things with their lives, it looks pretty ugly.

I’m often amazed by people who are more generous, compassionate, and forgiving than I am. When Fred Phelps died recently, I was surprised by the subdued reaction, which could be summed up as “let’s not stoop to his level.” My basic instinct is more often than not a desire for revenge, even if it always stays just a revenge fantasy, but thank God for the example of people whose hearts are bigger than mine.

Sometimes I’m not very good at forgiveness. But I’m trying to get better.

There’s no one thing that inspired this post. It’s a conglomeration of observations of things around me and in the world. But this is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and something I always want to keep with me as I check my reactions when anything upsets me.

I don’t want to reduce people. And I don’t want anyone else to, either. People are all more than the sum of their complex, sometimes infuriating parts. I need to remember that while there is a great capacity for evil in humans, there is an even greater capacity for love, kindness, and compassion. And I need to recognize that greater capacity in all people as well as in myself.

Thank You, Maria

Seeing as I don’t live in California, I’m pretty indifferent toward the Governator and his wife, Maria Shriver.

At least I was until I read this article. Now Maria Shriver is my new hero.

If you’re too lazy to click on the link, basically, she recently talked about how she had been planning on going back into TV news this year, but she changed her mind after seeing network coverage of Anna Nicole Smith’s death. She decided she didn’t want to work in an industry that put so much importance on events like that.

Already I can feel the backlash starting—I’m sure people are going to be saying it’s sour grapes and that she’s probably just making excuses.

But I think she’s 100% right. The amount of media coverage given to stupid celebrity stories is ridiculous. When there’s a war going on, people dying of AIDS, global warming, and any other number of important situations that affect the lives of millions of people, the media chooses to focus on…the death of a woman who did approximately nothing with her life?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I buy People now and then, and I can’t say I don’t engage in celebrity gossip conversations sometimes. My celebrity literacy isn’t any lower than the average American’s.

But the degree to which some people obsess over celebrities amazes me. Last year, I had an internship where one of my duties was researching this blog, whose material often includes entries about celebrity parents. It was fun, but in the process I discovered that there are some scary celebrity gossip addicts out there. This was the summer after Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ daughter Suri was born, and no pictures of her had been made public. People were speculating on whether she existed or whether the whole pregnancy was part of a diabolical Scientology plot. I actually found one website counting the numbers of days that had passed without a picture being released. And another one had a picture taken from a helicopter that they claimed was of Katie Holmes standing by a window in her house holding something that may or may not have been a baby.

There really is something wrong with a world that focuses on the conditions Paris Hilton will be living in while she’s incarcerated while ignoring the injustices that lead to wrongful imprisonment for the poor. Or speculates about whether Lindsay Lohan’s on drugs while doing nothing to keep drugs away from kids. Or expressing dismay over Alec Baldwin’s phone message to his daughter while letting the TV parent our own kids. And TV news is doing nothing to change that.

Anna Nicole Smith didn’t make anything happen. High-profile fortunes and misfortunes were just thrust upon her. But stories like hers are keeping us from hearing about the people who are making things happen. And when even serious news networks are going down that road, you know there’s a problem.

So…good for Maria Shriver for saying it out loud. I can only hope that her comments will make networks reconsider what’s worthy of round-the-clock coverage in the future.

Have You Seen the Globe Today?

I spent a good portion of yesterday reading the Boston Sunday Globe.

I read a piece describing, with quotes from family members, the abusive relationship a doctor who recently shot and killed her husband endured.

I read about how global warming has already caused the mosquito to evolve.

I read about how injured and traumatized veterans who live in rural areas often have trouble finding adequate care.

I read about how many other Republican presidential candidates besides Mitt Romney have “flip-flopped” on the issues.

I read about the age divide in the French elections—overwhelmingly, young people are voting for Royal and older people are voting for Sarkozy.

I read about how illiteracy is on the rise in China, and how most linguists think English isn’t losing its “universal language” status anytime soon.

I read about the issues Arab-Americans have when traveling abroad, how more flight attendants are taking self-defense training, and a café in Denver where patrons pay whatever they can afford and think is reasonable.

I read about how in California, inmates sentenced to jail for minor crimes can pay to upgrade their prison cells, and I read about how schools in Texas are adopting random steroid testing.

I read about how kids who experienced the chemical explosion in Danvers last November are describing that night in words and pictures, and I read about how professors, in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting, have to figure out where the line between creativity and disturbance is in violent student fiction.

I read about how, contrary to what Plato and others have been saying for millennia, our emotions are what make our thoughts possible.

I read about how learning how their energy use compares to their neighbors can cause people to lower their thermostats.

I read about two high school football players, one of whom came back from a stroke to have a successful season and the other of whom came back from major facial surgery.

And I read about the many movies coming out this summer.

It makes me so sad that people don’t read newspapers anymore. I have the Globe delivered and read it on the T on my way to work, and if, for some reason, I don’t read it, my day feels incomplete. My mom likes to end her Sundays in bed, propped up with pillows and reading the Globe. And that was a habit I picked up.

To me, reading a newspaper online just isn’t the same. I don’t really like TV news, particularly local news—they never focus on important stories, and most of the time they go for sensationalism. Around here, Channel 7 is a particular culprit—their headlines are all alliterated. It’s ridiculous. Random sampling of headlines from tonight: “Deadly Drive,” “Animal Attack,” “Hometown Hero,” and “Driven to Distraction.”

People my age, I think, tend to get their news from sites like cnn.com, or from The Daily Show (which I do like, but come on). But what it means is that newspapers can’t get advertisers and thus have to cut newsroom jobs. Sometimes entire departments are only one person. It’s getting harder and harder to get jobs in journalism, and I don’t see it getting better anytime soon.

But I’m sticking with my Globe. It’s a lot easier to read a newspaper on the T than a web site. I doubt I’ll ever have warm, fuzzy memories about curling up in bed to read the news on my computer. And waking up on a weekend, finding the paper outside the door, making yourself a hot chocolate and a bagel, and going out on the porch to lounge and read the news? Let me just say that if you’ve never had that experience, you don’t know what you’re missing.

Atalantas- aka, Most of Us

Last week I stumbled across this article. For those of you too lazy to click on the link, I’ll mention some highlights:

“JWT, the largest advertising agency in the U.S. and the fourth largest in the world, has named the top 25 women it defines as Atalantas.

Atalantas, a consumer group newly identified by JWT, are young women who embrace their independence: They are confident, passionate, adventuresome and unwilling to settle for anything less than the best. They neither conform to negative stereotypes of single women (cold, lonely or sad) nor do they pursue the excesses of less discriminating peers like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

These women represent a growing segment of the young female demographic, notes Marian Salzman, executive vice president, chief marketing officer of JWT Worldwide.”

Um … “newly identified?” “Growing segment?” So advertising agencies are just beginning to notice at least 75% of all women?

Now, the whole concept of an “Atalanta” is kind of cool. Atalanta was a mythological figure who was abandoned in the forest because her father wanted a son and was raised by hunters and a bear. She was also a very fast runner, and would only marry a man who could outrun her. When she finally did meet a man she wanted to marry, he beat her in a race with some help from Aphrodite, which she was totally okay with. But not after all the other suitors were executed for failing to beat her.

So basically, Atlanta was strong and independent and wouldn’t settle—qualities any girl would want. And qualities that most of the girls I know have.

Now, I am by no means a hard-core feminist, but really. It just floors me that ad agencies are just realizing that, gasp! Not all women are Bridget Jones or Paris Hilton! Some of us don’t just sit around pining over guys—we go out and have lives. And “having a life” doesn’t mean partying all the time. It means having a career, friends, and interests. It means wanting a man in your life but not obsessing over it. It means having fun without being a drunk slut.

Women have made a huge amount of progress in a very short amount of time. Fifty years ago, many women only went to college to get their MRS degree. Now there are more women in college than men. Domestic violence is generally recognized as unforgivable and unacceptable. And the majority of high school valedictorians are girls.

And yet women continue to be stereotyped in the media. If they’re not flighty Bridget Jones-types, they’re ice queen career women or manipulative vixens.

And moreover, they can never have it all. Men can have a great career and a loving family and friends and hobbies, but women always have to give something up. Recently, I was complaining to my friends about the movie Freedom Writers. I did like the movie, but just once, I would like to see a movie where a woman accomplishes something huge with her significant male standing by her and supporting her all the way. Now, granted, Freedom Writers is based on a true story, so there was probably no way of getting around it, but I know that if it was a story about a man, he’d have a loving wife supporting him all the way. I feel like half the nominations for Best Supporting Actress in any given year are “wife of” characters.

It’s kind of funny that they felt the need to name 25 celebrities to define “Atalanta.” While people like Julia Stiles, Alexis Bledel, and Rachel Bilson are all very cool, you don’t need to come up with a list of celebrities to define this term. “Atalanta” could describe almost every woman I know. And even though it’s stupid that advertisers haven’t noticed this segment of the population before now, being an Atalanta is something to be proud of.