How to Watch TV (and other media), part 2

Yesterday, I began to frame up an approach to interacting with media in our lives . . . notice that I said “interacting with” and not “consuming.” There’s a big difference. I’ll admit that there are definitely times when I consume media – I sit down in front of a television or computer screen with nothing in mind other than to have nothing in mind, and be entertained. But more often, I’m interacting with media, in the sense that I’m asking questions that go below the surface of the story that’s being told on screen – like yesterday’s question – “Who’s paying for this show?” To put things another way, while sometimes I do watch television, most of the time I “read” television. In an effort to further define things, here’s another good question for you to ask:

Question 2 – What narrative is being advanced? One of the hardest tricks about understanding the world is getting an objective view of your own culture. That’s one of the biggest reasons I value travel so much – it physically and experientially locates me outside of what feels normal, and gives me a perspective on the assumptions I typically make, the comforts I expect, and the categories I use to understand people. And just to mention something for those who don’t enjoy travel or don’t have the money or time to do so, another good way to gain perspective is to read: history, fiction or nonfiction about faraway places, and one of my personal favorites: internet news as reported from international sources, such as Al Jazeera or BBC.

Asking the question about narrative is challenging, but worth the effort. Popular media that is produced in the North American context (much of which finds its way around the world) tends to run along familiar story lines: freedom and liberty are foundations of success, happiness is the most important thing, self-actualization is the golden ring, justice must be served, connecting with others (on your terms) brings meaning. Those are just a few things off the top of my head, and each one of them produces sub-stories. These lines form the scripts that run over and over in just about every form of media out there.

I’ll give you a couple of examples in a minute. But first, some of what I wrote yesterday is about narrative and advertising. The companies that pay the bills for TV shows you watch are using the scripts to connect their products with your life. “Happiness is the most important thing . . . and our peanut butter makes 26% more people happier than our competitor’s peanut butter . . . so the next time you’re looking for peanut butter happiness, buy our stuff.”

Here’s a trivial tidbit from my travel experiences: in some of the countries I’ve visited, if I were to point at a billboard advertising Coca-Cola and ask a local what that is (the billboard, not the product), the response I would get is “propaganda.” The first time I heard that, I did a serious double-take, because that word in USAmerican culture is highly charged, and comes with its own script: “Propaganda is what governments with dark intentions use to brainwash and control their people to do things they wouldn’t normally do if they were thinking rationally (like us).” After I thought for a moment, though, I realized that propaganda isn’t necessarily a dirty word – it’s just someone’s attempt to change the thought or behavior of others. And yes, that does include the U.S. government. It doesn’t stop being propaganda when it’s coming from the mouth of the White House Press Secretary.

O.k., back to the topic of narratives in media. The movies we watch, the music we listen to, the news we read/watch, the TV shows we see all carry a thread of story, usually one that’s below the surface. If you’re watching the national news on a major TV network, the narrative might be: “Responsible citizens know what’s going on in the world, and our news organization gives you the best perspectives to better inform you.” If you’re listening to a song on the radio, Miley Cyrus might be singing about breaking through her awkwardness to find a “Party in the USA,” but underneath that, the message is that “People unite around life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, USAmerican style.”

It’s not often that these underlying narratives come to the surface, but this year, one has. Yesterday I briefly cited the hit show Glee. On the surface, it’s about a group of high school singers, struggling to find their identities and voices despite being school outcasts. The popularity of the show has taken many people by surprise, and has stimulated a query into why people are flocking to it. The result has been that people are naming the narrative: “All of us feel self-conscious, inadequate, and scared sometimes, but if we can find our unique strengths, and be courageous enough to pursue them with passion, we’ll find fulfillment,” or, in the category I mentioned above, it’s the golden ring of self-actualization.

Naming narratives is something I could go on for days about, and give dozens of examples, but I think you get the idea. Now try some naming for yourself. What are some of your favorite movies or TV shows? What are the surface stories? What are the underlying narratives? Do you believe in those values? Are the narratives true, or just wishful thinking? Do the narratives call out the best in you, the best in society?

Stay tuned, because I’ve got some other media questions coming.

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