I own a gym in the neighborhood. I have a member who isn’t on Facebook (yes, they exist,) but whenever I see her she asks me to retell the antics of the page (I do the voices and everything,) as if it were a Soap Opera. Which it is.
It is absurd.
But the other day, there was a thread so steeped in elitist arrogance that I couldn’t just stalk. And now I can’t let it go. Because it is one that is so common in our collective social discourse, and so steeped in apparently-invisible elitism that I just have to call it out. And that was about how destructive a force television is.
It was seasoned, of course, with how bad TV is for community. Because people *should* be talking to each other or reading books. (Reading, of course, being great for building community, because….. how?) And of course, people who watch TV are disruptive to the better people, the people who don’t. Why, the post implored, couldn’t those people just watch TV in private, rather than in the new corner pub that is apparently going to – gasp – have TVs in it? (News flash, not everyone can afford a TV and the cost of cable to make it worth owning.) (Also, not everyone learned to read, much less enjoy reading.) Don’t people realize, you opine, that “we” like to have intimate conversations in public places?
Really? If you want a quiet, private place to have an intimate conversation, why can’t you do THAT at home, if the unwashed masses in public are to bothersome to you?
Let’s set the scene. Longtime hippie-dippie grocery store (that was 3 blocks from my house) in a sleepy Seattle neighborhood closes, leaving behind a huge building. A cool, locally-owned bookstore moves in. Their business is more about being a gathering place. They are a book store, yes, but they also have a cafe, a restaurant and a pub. The pub is going to be downstairs. Away from the books. (With a dozen beers on tap. I may never leave!) And they are talking about putting TVs in it.
Cue the outrage.
A neighbor takes to Facebook imploring us all to write the owner, making it clear that televisions are “distracting and antithetical to a ‘place’ where we connect with community.”
Really? Have you ever seen a group of people watching a sports match together? That’s the very definition of “community.” Don’t like sports? Debate-viewing parties have people by the hundreds flocking together to discuss the politics of our country? Is that not community?
Face it, your objection isn’t about TV, per se. It’s that you are still one of the people who think that TV is stupid, and makes people stupid, and that “good” people read books and have intimate conversations. ALL THE TIME.
So let’s break that down for a minute. And I say this as someone who lives in a house that is lined with books. When we look at our finances, we spend an absurd amount of money on books, paper ones, and consider it a charitable donation to keep bookstores and books alive. Nevermind that, if you know me, I THRIVE on intimate conversations.
But I also love TV. Love it.
So, before looking at TV as a community service, like in the corner pub, let’s look at TV for what it is: communal story-telling. For as long as we’ve been people, we’ve been telling stories to each other. Long before we could write them down, we drew pictures of them on cave-walls and gathered around the fire to tell and retell them. Then we got written language, and a treasured copy of a story could be written, that a privileged few could own. Then the printing press, and many copies could be had. And shared. And read aloud. Somewhere in there, we were all like, “dude, we should act this shit out,” and we started having theater. Now a story wasn’t something for one privileged person at a time, it was a thing for community to form around. For people to hone their own art and talent in not only writing, but acting, and dressing, and constructing. We could create whole new worlds for people to escape their lives and spend time in.
I love books. They are one of my favorite forms of escape and inspiration. When I want to be alone in my head, I read. But I also love TV, it’s a thing that I do with others, because it’s an experience – like going to the theater – that we can share and discuss in real time. (I always wait for my husband to be available for the shows we watch together. I would never sneak ahead in a series without him.) It is also FAR less expensive than the theater, and for more accessible, seeing as, even if you can afford tickets to the theater, transportation, time, childcare and a host of other factors can make in inaccessible.
TV is one way that we tell stories with each other. It is a very real cultural touchstone. And, done well, it can drive our cultures into new places.
I know, you want to say “But, Kardashians!” I’m with ya. That’s garbage. (I can be snobby too!) But if you’re gonna say that to stand on your little elitist soap box about why books are better, I’m gonna say, “But, 50 Shades of Grey!” So, shut up. People are allowed to like whatever they fuck they like. Their experience can be different from yours without being worse.
Back to how stories have been used since forever: to teach us things. You do know that the original function of Fairy Tales was not to lull your child to sleep, but to scare them into behaving safely, right? Why do you think so many of them have terrifying forests, toxic flora, animals that eat children and scary old people who abduct them? Stranger Danger, kids. Don’t wander off. Don’t eat things you can’t identify. Don’t go into the house of some stranger who offers you a cookie.
As a responsible parent who is raising kids in this media age – one in which Grimm’s Fairy Tales has been replaced with Gossip Girl – I used the fairy tales of the day to educate my child about the perils of the day. While I don’t worry about her getting lost in the woods, eating shrooms and getting abducted by witches, I do worry about peer-pressure, materialism and mean-girls. So ya, we watched Gossip Girl, together, and talked about all of those things. Because, as publicly shared stories have always done, these stories represent the perils of our age. I hate the Kardashians, with a passion, but to ignore them as a cautionary tale of a materialistic society is foolish. They are a perfect metaphor for everything wrong in our society, and you can explore those things through them without ever having to make it personal. Use it.
But, that set aside, if you’re still thinking that TV is somehow innately subpar to books, you are simply missing out on some amazing art happening. TV these days, thanks to new production methods and studios, is amazing. It pushing the boundaries of our cultural story-telling to places that it needs to go. In a time when trans people are being killed on the street and fighting for the right to go to the bathroom in public, Transparent is coming out and showing us one type of trans experience, in a totally loving, human and humorous way. It’s giving us a touchstone from which we can evolve our cultural thinking. Grace & Frankie is showing us how people in their 60’s and 70’s can find love and sex, which is nothing short of revolutionary in our youth-obsessed culture. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show as well written, directed and acted as Orphan Black, in which Tatiana Maslany plays about 19 different characters caught in a maze of intrigue and science that is worthy of an entire library. Jessica Jones is up there with Orphan Black as the most feminist thing I think I’ve ever seen, and lets us play with the imperfect powers of ordinary people to impact the world around them while still feeling inadequate themselves. Downton Abbey (or, as I like to call it, Ye Old Timey Soap Opera) is a fabulous peek into the dissolution of a kind of British Aristocracy and the time before and after World War 1.
I have found myself having tons of conversations with friends, clients and colleagues about all of these shows, and more. Hours worth of talking about the ideas and feelings. This is probably the most common form of water-cooler conversation in our culture today. Conversation. As in, people talking to each other about ideas outside of their own personal lives.
There is so much brilliant TV, I could write a book about it. Meanwhile, dare I mention, there were THREEEEEEE 50 Shades of Grey books. (Which, yes, I will also defend to the hilt as being responsible for an increase discussion in the diversity of human sexuality in our woefully sexually repressed culture.)
Short version, if you can sit there and bitch about the relative inherent merits of TV vs. Books, you are an ignorant snob who has not given enough thought to the role of storytelling in culture and has simply chosen to believe that “your way” is the one true way. That, coupled with your whole “I shouldn’t have to be exposed to it” is the hallmark of conservative politics that I’d be willing to bet you’d abhor in any other situation. Which also makes you a hypocrite.
BUT, why should it be in public? This is where your elitism really shows. And it’s not pretty, I’m afraid.
There are many things that happen on TV, that people like to share as a community. Sports come leaping to mind. I know, you don’t like sports, get over it. Back in the day, the lucky folks could go watch Gladiator carnage in a stadium of some sort, where your delicate sensibilities wouldn’t be bothered. Do you know how much Seahawks tickets cost? That is a 1% privilege now. But, nevermind going to the game live, how about watching in on your TV, with the cable that you pay hundreds of dollars a month for? Nope, a whole lot of people don’t do that either. Some because, like you, they don’t value TV enough on a regular basis to do that. But just as many don’t have TV and cable because they can’t afford it. In a world that is already woefully divided by the haves and have-nots, shared love of a team can bring people together. So yes, the opportunity for someone who has no other way to watch a game (and please don’t say they could stream it on the laptop they might not have) to spend time together with their neighbors in a local pub watching a game is the very definition of community. It is not, as your voice trembling through clutched pearls might suggest, “antithetical to community.” It is, rather, the perfect vehicle for, and definition of, community.
What else was said on that thread? That “we” (by which, I’d like to point out, you mean “you,” because you don’t have the right to speak for a presumptive “we,”) need a place where we can have intimate conversations. How about any coffee shop in the city, most restaurants, parks, or your own home?
Public places are, by their very definition, not places where you are entitled to expect your personal needs to be met. You are invited to personally enjoy public places, for sure. But you are not entitled to expect that the public, when interacting in public spaces, will behave in such a way that it will be just how you like it for yourself. That you even feel empowered to suggest such a thing on a public forum is such entitled privilege, I can’t even….
Yes, some public spaces carry with them generally accepted rules. Libraries, for instance, are wonderful places to quietly read a book. Someone watching football on their laptop and being loud about it could be accused of breaking the social contract and asked to leave. But a pub is not generally accepted as a quiet place for you to hold salons with your friends. I mean, by all means, go for it, but you don’t have the right to expect others to change their behavior so that you can do so. Pubs have always been, well, Public Houses, in which people gathered to commune in all manner of ways. Most of which were not quiet.
TV doesn’t shut us off from each other. Closed minds about that value of other people’s lives and perspectives does. Trying to make the world conform to your expectations does.
You don’t have to like TV. You certainly don’t have to watch it. But you don’t get to dismiss it as something that “those people” would do as you look down your nose at it. And you do have to acknowledge that the stories that unite us have been told in public since the dawn of time, in many forms. TV is only the most recent, and the most widely accessible, but it’s no less valid. And when people don’t have access to our collective stories, it is absolutely incumbent on us to find ways to bring people together around shared stories. That is a baseline for society, that keeps us all connected.
You don’t have to do it, but you don’t get to tell others they can’t either. Especially not in a privately-owned, public place. Your personal desires do not dictate markets, or community standards.
Things never end well for the Wicked Witch in stories. Or did you not read those?