A young relative of mine is involved in a relationship that has been making her feel like a dramatic vehicle in a bad TV series. Every talk we've had about it has involved a long series of "he-said, she-said" revelations and rarely, if ever, have her conversations involved direct, open communication with the significant other.
She was deeply unhappy and felt powerless to do anything about the chaos, the secrets, the whisperings, or the plot twists and nefarious friends. She talked about her life as if it were a script being written by a committee of ravenous producers.
As a psychotherapist and a teacher of Verbal First Aid, it got me to thinking:
What has TV done to relationships? What have we learned by surrounding ourselves with shows such as "Raymond," "Two and a Half Men," "CSI," "Survivor," and "Trauma?" If it is true that art reflects life, it must be equally as true that life reflects art. We are what we surround ourselves with and perhaps it surrounds us in the way it does because it is in fact a projection of our truest selves.
If so, what surrounds us? What is the nature of relationships in mass media? What are we listening to as the TV runs on and on in the background and we're preparing dinner or doing housework or making the beds? How differently are relationships portrayed now compared to, say, 40 years ago?
Perhaps the most obvious difference between the television relationships I grew up with and the ones people are watching now is the relentless and vicious sarcasm. Humor in Opie's world was a matter of Andy Griffith's Deputy making outrageous claims about his own prowess or Aunt Bee's oven failing right before a big dinner with a new date (OH NO!!!). Not very tense, true. But it was never intended to be. Life moved along slower, simpler time lines then. No one needed to be humiliated for us to get a good laugh. Funny didn't have to be demeaning.
It may not have been as edgy, but it was never, ever disrespectful. I can't imagine Andy making a lewd comment to Aunt Bee as she bent over to pick something up off the floor. Or Opie telling his father about his own sexual fantasies. Or Barney calling his boss an "ass." Relationships weren't portrayed idiotically. People had troubles. Things got lost, pride got wounded, hopes got dashed. But it was highly uncommon for people to be treated badly unless the ones giving out that treatment were really "bad guys."
In nearly every TV drama, especially the reality shows such as "Survivor," men and women are using words like bayonets, carving little icons of themselves as testaments of their cleverness on the chests of their beloveds and their enemies alike. There are no limits. Anything--including cheap sarcasm, insult, and rudeness--are fair game for a laugh or attention. Children speak to parents with an arrogance that is beyond precocity. Partners speak to one another as if they were idiots. ( For more on this topic, please see http://www.wordsaremedicine.com/2009/11/01/chicken-tenders-and-the-decline-of-american-civilization/)
Whether this trend is reflective or influential, the problem remains the same: a profound lack of respect. And I see it in the way young people speak to each other. The gloves we thought we were taking off in the 70's to give ourselves artistic and intra-psychic freedom of expression were actually the throw-down to the final duel. Cursing, name-calling, rudeness, thoughtlessness are more the rule than the exception.
On a recent documentary called The 100 Top Television Surprises, there were two shows cited that demonstrated the differences between then and now. One of them was from I Love Lucy, in which Lucy winds up in a vat of grapes with an Italian woman who really speaks no English and can't follow the script. What happens is an impromptu side-splitting hysteria of mistakes. Not one mean word was uttered. No one was humiliated.
In the other show, which was from Survivor, the producers decide to let one of the contestants learn that his grandmother had died while he was filming ON THE SHOW. It was live. And it wasn't "surprising," it was disgusting. The poor kid's face was unforgettable. I guess they got what they wanted--a reaction--but at what cost?
Am I the only one who desperately misses Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed? In It's a Wonderful Life, perhaps one of the greatest family movies of all time, George (Jimmy Stewart) and Mary (Donna Reed) Bailey face a financial and emotional crisis that still makes me anxious though I've seen them through it to the happy ending nearly 30 times. Not once do they take the low road for the quick giggle or the cheap thrill.