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TV as a cultural barometer?

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While watching Robin Williams rave manically through an interview on television a few nights ago, my partner mentioned that he’s never seen The Birdcage, the hilarious movie Williams made in 1996. Not wanting my better half to be culturally stunted, I ran right out and rented the DVD so we could watch it last night. We had a few laughs and enjoyed it very much though we weren’t exactly bowled over by the cinematic experience (his tastes run more towards thrillers and gore while I’m all about Airplane! and Raising Arizona. Yes, things can get testy for us at Blockbuster).

The movie is about two gay men in South Beach, Florida who try to play it straight for their son’s ultra-conservative, soon-to-be-in-laws. With Robin Williams, Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria in the cast, it was (of course) over the top and completely outrageous. We got to wondering how the gay community felt about the film and then started talking about how its stereotypical portrayal of gay men isn’t really that different from how other subgroups are sometimes stereotyped (often unfairly) in movies and especially on television. I offhandedly mentioned that I hoped viewers with limited exposure to the gay community wouldn’t use that movie as a cultural reference point any more than someone would use the current dreck on television as an accurate representation of white, middle class America.

And then I winced.

Does TV accurately portray white, middle class America? My god, I hope not. If so, then all men are flabby, overweight buffoons incapable of caring for children or fixing dinner without Emeril’s assistance. All women are size three, bubble-headed ditzes who’s sole purpose in life is to perfect the eye-rolls and exasperated sighs they must dish out whenever they’re within ten feet of a man. All children are either smart-mouthed brats or snobbish geeks with pocket protectors. According to what the television shows us, white, middle class Americans are nothing more than under-educated, NASCAR watching, country music loving, Pabst-swilling, dolts with nothing better to than sit around flinging verbal (and unfunny) barbs at each other while moaning about how much they hate work.

Obviously, all men are not dolts, all women are not ditzes and all children are not brats. But I thought a large part of television programming was supposed to represent current  culture as it really is. If sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond and The King of Queens or reality shows like Big Brother and The Real World accurately portray white America, then where the hell have I been? I know plenty of men who are great fathers, lots of women who are successful and intelligent and…uh, one or two kids that aren’t brats. Then again, I suppose a sitcom or reality show about my life would be top-drawer boring. So I can only surmise that these kinds of shows make it on the air because people find them…entertaining?…funny…what? Why is it funny to see people in that (my?) particular subgroup portrayed as idiots or fools? When I think about it, it’s not funny to see any particular subgroup portrayed as idiots or fools but the white, middle class Americans seem to have the market cornered at the moment.

Anyway, my point is this: I don’t think that The Birdcage is an accurate representation of the gay community any more than I think Chico & The Man or Sanford & Son is an accurate representation of the Hispanic or Black community. I am left to wonder, however, if other subgroups look at the current offerings on TV and think, "yeah, that’s about right." God, I hope not.

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  • Sister Ray

    Network TV has changed so much in the past few years, with so many reality shows. I am more concerned that so many Americans apparently enjoy that cheap voyuerism than I am about stereotypes on sitcoms.

    I think it says something really sad and bad about our culture that “The Maury Povich” show is on the air. People going on TV because, “gee,I have no idea who the father of my child is! Gimme a DNA test!” Borders on child abuse to announce that on TV, IMO.

  • Nancy

    Television in general, & the networks in particular, remind me strongly of a dog chasing after a frisbee in hopes of catching it, & when the other dogs see him running, they all chase after it, too. Really original shows don’t last long, because the networks aren’t satisfied with the smaller shares that obtain these days; they keep thinking if they just hit that right combination, they’ll be back to the big numbers of the 60s & 70s. Got news for them: those days are GONE, baby, forever! They’d do better to be less piggish. Of course, once a show does do marginally well, it gets done to death with spin-offs to the nth degree, & copycat shows on the other networks. You’d think the network powers would look at the ones in the past that really worked – like I love Lucy – & try to develop stuff along those lines, but I think the problem is they all live such out-of-touch-w/reality lives, they really honestly don’t know what’s ‘normal’ & what’s not, hence they keep doing all these really lame programs that aren’t worth watching.

  • Lisa,

    For an excellent article on television and the directions the broadcast media is expected to take in the next few years, see this article in a Canadian publication.

    They seem to hit the nail on the head fairly well.



    N.B. This is my first attempt to compose a link in a reply so I hope it works as intended.

  • You got it, man!

  • Do you know anyone whose every sentence constitutes a punchline? I don’t. And it’s for that reason that we can’t have real reality on tv. IMHO, if television (including reality tv) were like us, it would be hideous, boring, and “you still haven’t picked up your clothes!” dull as dishwater, and we’d never watch it. We think we want it and other forms of media to be representative of our true feelings, but caricatures of us – like we see in the Birdcage, and as we’ve seen since I Love Lucy and All In The Family – are consistently funnier and larger than anyone is in real life.