Do you remember those old high school exams where they would give you quotations from somebody or other in reference to something you had been studying? You’d get this quote and then underneath it would be one word: Discuss.
Well I’m going to play that little game on myself today. There was a great quote in the Globe and Mail today about the state of pop culture from one of the stars of the past. Roseanne.
…It’s boring and dull and so prescribed and handpicked. Everybody looks exactly alike. And acts exactly alike. There’s no colour, no anything. Look in the magazines. Every girl looks like every other girl, they bore me to death. I’m barely interested in my own life, let alone other peoples’. Especially the young, they have nothing to say whatsoever. They’re distractions. They do the job they’re supposed to do: Keep everybody from noticing what’s going on. It’s the whole dumbing-down thing. Roseanne Barr Globe and MailSat. Jan. 28, 06
Before I get started on this process I should admit that I’ve always had a great deal of respect for Roseanne. True, near the end of her career in the spotlight she started to become almost a parody of herself, and I don’t think I could ever quite forgive her for foisting Tom Arnold on the world. But I prefer to remember the early years of her T.V. show before either she or John Goodman became famous.
I don’t think there has ever been a show quite like “Roseanne” for its willingness to fly in the face of pretty and generic. Long before Drew Carey and Cleveland, there was Roseanne and Milwaukee. Carey’s show was much more conventional than Roseanne in its style of humour and the way it mocked people of that lifestyle. There was always the feeling that we were supposed to laugh at these working stiffs instead of empathise with them.
“Roseanne” was different in that you laughed at things that happened on the show, but hardly ever were the characters held up for ridicule. Their problems were the problems faced by so many people in North America; unemployment, teenage marriages, the struggle to make ends meet, and all the other facets of life that had never shown up on television before.
Roseanne herself was like a breath of fresh air (okay more like a typhoon) just by being who she was and not making fun of it. She had to be the first woman of size on television that was shown to be sexually active and the object of physical attraction for a partner. The best thing about that is that it was never made into a big deal. It was just the attraction between a husband and wife like on any other sit-com.
Long before it became fashionable “Roseanne” opened the closet door on her show and had a Lesbian as a main character. The show dealt with issues that were hardly ever seen on television, and not just controversial ones, but real ones.
Breast reduction surgery is not something that one sees talked about very often, but as with a lot of large women, Roseanne’s character was faced with having to undergo that procedure for her health. The whole episode was dealt with in the show’s usual mix of humour and good taste, so as an audience we were able to appreciate what a woman faced with this procedure goes through emotionally and mentally.
Roseanne and her television family were some of the most real people you were liable to see in prime time. There still hasn’t been a live action family that has come close to capturing as truthful a depiction of life for lower middle class Americans as this show did. It may have helped people find humour in their daily lives, but there is no way this show could have been considered a distraction from everyday reality.
Which brings us back to Roseanne’s quote that started this whole post about pop culture just being a distraction from the real world. There are two ways one could look at that statement. The first is to say, well yeah, isn’t that the point of pop culture anyway, to provide light entertainment and not have any basis in reality?
If you’re of that mind, well the argument has nowhere to go, because you can just agree with her assessment and get on with watching television and blocking out the world. To be honest there’s a lot of truth in that sentiment anyway. Many is the time I’ve made the conscious decision to watch a movie that is deliberately escapist so that I don’t have to deal with mine or the world’s reality.
But where that argument falls down is when you consider how many people don’t make that conscious choice, but simply park themselves in front of the television and stop thinking. It’s not even the watching of the programming that is necessarily the distraction; it’s the hype that surrounds the so-called celebrities that appear on all these shows.
The media’s obsession with the ins and outs of relationships, weight gain and loss, and all the other minutiae of these unimportant lives is passed off as vital news. The fact that this artificial world of film, T.V., and music stars garners so much attention is how it acts as the distraction. People get far more caught up in the wedding of two people who appeared on a reality show then they do in the fact that people go to bed hungry at night.
Roseanne never played by the rules when she was in the spotlight and was roundly criticized for some of the things she did. She now says that during that time she “went a little crazy” from being at the centre of things. She too came in for her share of tabloid press with her marriages and divorces, and sometimes-odd behaviour.
In her quote she makes pop culture and the distractions it creates sound like a deliberate effort on the part of somebody somewhere to influence the way we think. The thing is Hollywood has always operated in this manner. Since the early days of silent film they have always tried to make sure that the stars are kept in the public eye one way or another. How else can they sell tickets to movies?
The media, the studios, and the stars are all in on it together. It’s a symbiotic relationship in that they depend on each other for survival. The media needs the stars to report on, the stars need the media to keep their names prominent in the public eye, and the studios need the stars kept prominent so they can sell tickets, DVDs and merchandising rights.
It’s in all of their best interests to make us think they are important. They sell us on how wonderful it is to be a star, and wouldn’t you love to have their glamorous lifestyle. People watch and dream of being something other than what they are. The product is almost secondary; the real show is the lives of those involved in its making.
Does that make popular culture the big villain when it comes to distracting the public from the reality the world faces on a daily basis? In so far as it being a deliberate “Bread and Circuses” ploy by anyone, I don’t think so. For the simple reason that the whole system is beyond anyone’s control.
It’s become such a firmly entrenched part of our social fabric that it exists in spite of the social climate, not because of it. We could be living in an ideal world with no war, no illness, no crime etc, and we would still have The National Enquirer, starlets, and studio executives.
I’m no big fan of the whole system or much of what gets telecast or played on the radio. I can understand Ms. Barr’s complaints about the state of things in pop culture. But I don’t see it as being a deliberate attempt on anybody’s part to distract the public from the woes of society. The people involved in the industry are far too self-centred to be able to see beyond fulfilling their own needs to think about anything else.
Unfortunately the whole pop culture industry is pretty much a monster of our own making. It would be nice to blame it on somebody else, a plot to make society dumber, but that’s simply not the case. Pop culture exists to sell itself and nothing more. If nobody were buying it would change itself immediately.