Popular culture’s numbing effect
Mpho Moshe Matheolane questions how we decide what the line is between reality and entertainment.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to violence – the word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises … Violence devours all it touches; its voracious appetite rarely fulfilled.”
Thus begins the opening monologue by John Furlong in Russ Meyer’s 1965 film, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! The film itself is hilarious despite its obvious sexploitation, which borders on the abject. If you have not seen it or any other Russ Meyer film, think Tarantino in the 60s with a heavy focus on overly sexualised heroines, minus the blood and gore and you willl get my drift.
Russ Meyer’s film is an example of what was quickly becoming popular culture’s most defining feature, cinema. Of course cinema is not all there is to popular culture, since music was also entering into a frenzied transition in the 60s and still, to this day, holds a sizeable piece of the popular cultural pie with special thanks to cinema’s by-product, the music video.
But I begin with the opening monologue – executed with riotous aplomb as it was – not to delve into film or music criticism but to peer into the world that is popular culture. In the most recent decade or so, popular culture has given us what we now know as made-for-TV series, Californication, Desperate Housewives and Suits to name a few. These series have proliferated to a point where there is no shortage of them and we cannot forget the brotherly by-product of the reality TV phenomenon – which spawned from popular culture like one of the many dreadful heads of the mythical lernaean hydra.
Lately I found myself bearing a certain but helpless gripe against popular culture. I can no longer help but feel that popular culture has become not only our escape from the mundane but with great subtlety, the very source of our eventual destruction. I know this sounds heavily conservative and apocalyptic but it is my submission that popular culture has steadily taken on a mentally and emotionally numb-inducing effect. It has made of our reality, a postmodernistic nightmare where normality and abnormality are fast becoming indistinguishable. Maybe I should be specific and point to popular culture’s symbolic manifestations such as the TV series above, music and music videos, where certain negative positions continue to be propagated.
The trick is that many of us are not aware of this or, if we are, it is only for a short span of time as we hold the steadfast view that our realities remain unchanged. We are more likely to think that any acute criticism of popular culture stems from wannabe conspiracy theories ala Zeitgeist, and that for us humans, the line that separates the real from the unreal is still clearly visible. But is it?
To use the example of a made-for-tv series, let me try to make a case for my humble opinion. In the show known as Dexter, we find a serial killer, the show’s namesake, whose code allows him to only “kill the bad guys". Dexter Morgan is the heroic protagonist and often we find ourselves overtly hoping that he will get away with what he does, especially in those moments when he seems doomed. We not only sympathise with his character but explicitly cheer him on. The hero and the killer are interchangeable; we do not want him to fail.
This is not to say that many of us, who have watched Dexter, are secretly taking notes on how to be serial killers. But I do wonder how many of us catch ourselves during a suspense-riddled session of cheering for Dexter and ask of ourselves: "Why am I so concerned for this obviously bad character?” We know that he is in stark opposition to the standards and social norms which we decide on and accept governance over our lives. Is it simply a thing of "this is entertainment" or does it play itself out in our shared realities?
In the same way as it can be argued that jokes which find potency in stereotypes do more to perpetuate such stereotypes rather than dispel them – take the responses to Seth MacFarlane’s hosting of this year’s Oscars as an example – I think that it is a warranted point of concern to believe that representations of disproportional social behaviour or attitudes can also have a negative effect on society, even if it is not immediate.
I do not mean to suggest what the conclusive scope of our ideas on morality and ethics ought and ought not to be but it would behove us well to remember that while popular culture is the fire that fuels the many ways in which we now see ourselves, others and the world, it is the same fire that can easily burn us. Perhaps it already has.
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