Are We What We Watch? TV content as a Reflection of American Culture


As per usual I was being kept company by CNN at the start of my workday this morning and there was an interesting “filler” story about how the content of TV programming has changed over the years since, well, TV was invented and  the role it plays as a reflection of our culture.  The question posed was the degree to which exporting content like Honey Boo Boo to foreign markets reflects badly on our culture or otherwise inaccurately portrays who we are and what we value as a society.

It’s an age-old question about art imitating life or life imitating art. Further, I suppose that there is a lot of content, like the aforementioned exploited six-year old or The Real Housewives of (pick your boughie social city) that isn’t really art at all but rather produced documentation of various cultural train wrecks.  I would argue, from an objective sociocultural perspective that what we put out there on TV, even if it is representative of certain outliers of our culture in some cases, absolutely does reflect our cultural values, for better or worse.  But, is that such a bad thing?

Back when TV was in its infancy and the progressive way of did not yet exist, – there was not an abundance of space or choice.  Some of what was put on television  reflected ideal images of American life that the corporate sponsors of those programs wanted us to aspire to – and ultimately purchase their products to help us get there. Think shows like Leave it to Beaver or Donna Reed.  Others lovingly depicted lifestyles of the working class, affirming our daily grind, like The Honeymooners.  Then there were the uplifting variety shows like Lawrence Welk that entertained us with non-boundry pushing music and otherwise served to placate our sensibilities and keep us calm.

But, as media evolved and cable gave us more and more bandwidth, there became room to strategically target audiences who fit different niches and tailor programming to capture there eyeballs and ultimately more advertising dollars.  So we reached out with programming that began tackling social issues (through commentary and comedy and everything in between), capturing more of the realities of modern life and ultimately teaching us a lot about what we can do, how we can live and how we really do live.  We fed our celebrity fetishes, peeked into the lives of subcultures and demographics that were outside of our own familiar circles and created content designed to provoke thought.

Shows like the Simpsons and Family guy and South Park put provocative content into the characteristically unthreatening medium of cartoons:  lest seeing live people acting out atrocities of social conscience hit too close to home.  We watch documentation of different types of families, from celebrities, to “little people” to families with octuplets and both marvel at and relate to their day-to-day challenges and triumphs.  We dig deep into subcultures like the “Amish Mafia” or fictional Mormon societies and laugh at other fictional and non-fiction depictions of those who trespass against social norms like the show Shameless on Showtime or Toddlers in Tiaras.  We even call into question or glamorize government conspiracy, organized crime and serial murder on shows like Homeland, Boardwalk Empire or Dexter.  I could go on and on with how different niche programming reflects our context, but I think the point has been made.

So I say we are what we watch: an American culture defined by a proud commitment to diversity, exploration, curiosity, following our passions and making ourselves think harder about our place in the world and role in human society.  Sometimes we need to react to the worst of it in order to think about how we make ourselves better. The fact is there are some heinous parts of our culture that, if gone unchecked, will simply continue to grow.  So don’t ignore it…watch the stuff and talk about it and let a counter-culture of progress prevail.  If  you ignore the atrocities of frivolity that we all pretend not to pay attention to but secretly watch in the privacy of our dimly lit living rooms then we are doomed to see it become mainstream.

I also say the reality TV set is a hero in that regard – a rogue movement of anthropological documentarians putting it all in our faces and letting us decide how we feel about it and what we are going to do about it.   We are a wacky culture.  You can’t make this sh&t up.  But by allowing ourselves to actively the direction of culture we can have a hand in changing the path.  And there is great value in showing the world that it’s okay to take a hard look at yourself.  There’s a lot to be said for this freedom of speech thing.  So go forth and turn on Bravo (etc.)  with no shame.  Take a hard look and decide if what you see is who you want to be and proudly decide how you will have a part in changing the channel…

6 thoughts on “Are We What We Watch? TV content as a Reflection of American Culture

  1. As a sociologist I deal with intense material on a weekly basis… so I watch sports and popcorn tv because watching something serious after “being” serious feels like overkill. I like football, The Joe Schmo Show, etc.

  2. “And there is great value in showing the world that it’s okay to take a hard look at yourself. ”
    I’m Brazilian and this is not what we are witnessing. No, it is not.
    We are deeply concerned with America.

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