ByFred Topel, writer at Creators.co
Fred Topel

From the tragedy of the USCB shooter, I’m glad we’re finally having a discussion about entitlement as it relates to misogyny, and the media’s effect on our expectations. Entitlement, combined with a lack of compassion, leads to anger and violence. My hope is these conversations can remain compassionate, because if movies are making someone feel like they are deprived or missing out, those people need compassion and empowerment to become better individuals for themselves before they turn violent. Entitlement at such violent extremes, of course, is rooted in much more than just the media we consume, but this discussion led me to think about my own confusions with which I have dealt at various points in my life.

I’m lucky that I grew up with compassion, so my worst frustrations never turned into violence. I feel like I want to put some compassion out there, maybe so some people on the brink can see it’s not too late, or maybe just so we can better understand the more subtle ways in which movies, TV and visual art affect our thinking. I think we should always talk about media literacy and what it conveys to us, not just when bad things happen.

We are only just beginning to discuss how images are manipulated via Photoshop. I want to expand the analysis to understand how stories are constructed to make us feel certain things. I grew up knowing that Arnold Schwarzenegger movies weren’t real and I never wanted to imitate their violence. I know that romantic comedies are also fake, and stopping someone’s wedding won’t make them fall in love with you. However, still in my mid-‘30s I find myself suffering from some confusion, and I’m IN the media! I know how it works.

That scene from The Graduate
That scene from The Graduate

Understanding how narratives manipulate us won’t ruin our enjoyment of the fantasy. It could actually increase our appreciation for the artistry of a clever manipulation, or raise our standards for storytelling. Some new formulae and paradigms would be refreshing just for the sake of originality, but it can all be in good fun as long as we don’t define ourselves by what a fictional story tells us is important.

Attraction

We’re all confused figuring things out as teenagers, but growing up and dealing with relationships as recently as after my adult divorce brought up new confusions. When I started dating again, I would approach women and have a friendly conversation. If the conversation failed to find any common interests or beliefs, I had the sense not to pursue it any further. Yet, I was still attracted to this person, both physically and of course for some of their emotional qualities despite those qualities making us incompatible. I still admired them.

That’s actually healthy, to know that a relationship is about more than just attraction, and that I need not pursue one based on attraction alone. Yet, I felt like I didn’t know what to do with those feelings of attraction I wasn’t going to pursue. The issue for me was either “Why was I still feeling attraction when I’d already decided not to pursue this person” or “If I’m attracted to this person, why aren’t I still trying to make a connection?” The former question was healthier.

I realized that I lived in a world where I was constantly bombarded with the message: “Desire this!” Desire this actor, this singer, this nameless face in an advertisement. In your average romantic movie, the screenwriter has constructed every incident around the character’s life to lead them to desiring their costar. That makes a great story, but let’s not mistake it for the complexities of real human interaction. The Notebook is a great movie, but everything Noah (Ryan Gosling) does is centered around Allie (Rachel McAdams). Even going to war is a function of letting her move on (and having him write 365 daily letters) but as it unrealistically turns out, this aesthetic conceit leads to the greatest payoff in love story history.

If our entire lives were orchestrated towards landing a significant other, that would be rather obsessive. In real life we have time to actually get to know people. Even this week’s [The Fault In Our Stars](movie:602185) is centered around Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Elgort) falling in love. There is a nice backdrop of dealing with cancer and grief and leaving loved ones behind, but we don’t sit with Hazel for five hours of chemo a day. We never attend a high school class with her. Perhaps she was home schooled but we may take it for granted that the story is omitting very important real life concerns in order to streamline the entertainment for us.

Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley
Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley

I realized I’d been trained to desire women, and it lingered even when I was doing the work of evaluating the actual personal connection.Yes, hunky men are objectified too, but come on, it’s way more prevalent with actresses, female singers, models and advertisements. We all know that sex sells, but we don’t have to buy it. Yet even when I was looking for a real connection with another human being, I realized it created a pressure to feel something for these images, and by extension the people I saw in real life. Of course, there were other factors in my upbringing that colored the way I viewed relationships too, but the movies helped me identify the disconnect.

So I had to figure out how to deal with a desire that would not be fulfilled, by my own conscious choice. I realized it is perfectly okay to acknowledge someone’s beauty, physical and emotional, but not consume it. It actually felt really empowering to say, “Hey, that person is wonderful and I love that she exists in the world, but she’s not going to be a part of my life.” I can appreciate beauty without having to consume it. Boy, did I feel much better when I started thinking that way.

Celebration of beauty is a wonderful thing, but it may have to be private. If we go around praising strangers for their outward appearance, that creates problems, too. It’s still viewing an individual as someone being offered up for our consumption. We get that from seeing people on display in movies, on television, in music videos, and indulging discussions about how they look. If an actor is public because they are creating movies and television shows I enjoy, even a positive compliment to her appearance is demeaning her actual purpose in working. Let alone a regular person I meet on the street who I feel is aesthetically pleasing. She’s not there as an offering to me.

We all have instincts to be attracted to others, and those would be there with or without the media. It’s a balance of how to keep those feelings positive and healthy, and not let them control you. We strive to be better than our basest desires. So if a movie can convince us in 90 minutes that one character is the most desirable person in the world, then bravo to those screenwriters and filmmakers. That’s powerful art, because normally it takes us a lot longer to warm up to someone. Anyway, the quality I’m most attracted to is kindness, and they don’t make a whole lot of movies about people so kind they are irresistible. 1994’s It Could Happen to You may be the most recent one!

Relationships

We know movies tell us that if someone doesn’t love you at first, just keep trying harder until they do. More often it’s male protagonists pursuing some beauty icon, but it happens in Sandra Bullock and Katherine Heigl movies, too. Hitch has to be the worst. It tells us, “Just give someone everything they want and they’ll love you.” That’s called codependency. In an action movie or a comedy, it’s even more simplistic because the relationship is only a subplot. It has to be so intense it can happen within the main plot.

While You Were Sleeping was cute
While You Were Sleeping was cute

Most of us recognize that these are contrived fantasies, that the entire script orchestrates the most unlikely events to make the two stars get together. That’s the whole premise of the “meet-cute.” It’s an art form, and in the hands of Judd Apatow or Nicholas Sparks, it can be hilarious or emotional. The meet-cute usually begins with the characters hating each other, though, and in real life you should really begin your relationships with a positive connection.

When you’ve had a good relationship, you realize that an actual connection with someone is effortless. The relationship takes work, but connecting with someone is natural. You just share yourselves and if you share the same feelings and passions, you connect. It’s also rare, so don’t beat yourself up if a genuine connection only happens infrequently. Platonic connections are rare, let alone romantic ones. If you find you’re not getting along with people on a regular basis, it might be worth doing some self-reflection. The purpose of that is for growth, not to get rewarded. “You complete me” is just a clever turn of phrase, not legitimate psychiatric advice.

We are supposed to be social and keep bringing new people into our lives, but that comes with taking rejection well, too. One hopes that if someone is going to reject us, they can still do it with compassion, but dating is hard and some people are blunt. If someone isn’t connecting with you, you can still be gracious and thank them for the opportunity to meet them. I was taking another phenomenon for granted.

I would watch Friends and Seinfeld every week and see that even the loser characters, Ross (David Schwimmer) and George (Jason Alexander), would go on a date with a different beautiful woman every week. It would make me feel like I was some sort of antisocial problem if I only had a date a month, or less. I actually succumbed to this all the way through [How I Met Your Mother](series:200728) and [Entourage](movie:631753) until I gave those shows an aesthetic analysis. The network shows needed 22 new stories a year, so they had to introduce new episodic characters for that. Even Entourage with 10-13 episode seasons was more social activity than anyone should realistically engage. It can be perfectly reasonable to have only one or two romantic prospects in a given year, or even fewer. Or none. That's okay, too.

Promotional still from Entourage
Promotional still from Entourage

I am not a TV sitcom aiming for a syndication package, so I can focus on quality over quantity. I don’t need to have a funny new story to tell an audience every week. I can do what’s right for me, meet who’s right for me, and be okay with single phases. But you can still enjoy Friends and Seinfeld. Enjoy the wacky misadventures of Ross and George, and even enjoy the debaucherous fantasies of Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) and Turtle (Jerry Ferrara). Just remember that A-list screenwriters are working overtime looking for new stories, the only purpose of which is to generate laughter. You can do much better in real life than the contrived scenarios of even the best fiction.

Think about it, if Ross or George were dating 22 women a year, that means they’d meet someone new every 2-3 weeks. That’s exhausting. Most of us want to have lives in between dating. It’s also pretty demanding, trying to find 22 different people to fill the story. Occasionally we’d see Ross teach or George work in the Yankees' front office, but in entertainment, real life gives way to the story of the week. Even the nonstop party of Entourage, which will likely continue in the Entourage movie, sort of ignored the fact that Vincent Chase worked for a living. We never spent 12 hours a day on a movie set with him. We might have seen him shooting the one cool setup of the day, but anyone who actually works in production knows that the job is a grind.

I’m not going to let these particular shows completely off the hook. Friends in particular told us at different points how often we should be having sex. Early in the run, Ross complained it had been six months. Near the end he complained it had been four. That’s inflation! And both are poor messages. The humor of Friends was not dependent on how often Ross got laid, so they could have avoided putting a time limit out into the world. However, Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) on HIMYM was clearly a caricature, and Ted (Josh Radnor) was only forced into additional relationships by an extended season order. The characters on Seinfeld were despicable anyway, so we weren’t supposed to be finding them spongeworthy.

Friends
Friends

Some movies and shows reflect us very well, like the answering machine scene from Swingers or the tragicomedy of [Hello Ladies](series:755197). But even Swingers ends with Jon Favreau picking up Heather Graham at a swing dancing bar, so keep it in perspective.

Beauty

I’m also told that I’m some sort of revolutionary feminist if I think Lena Dunham is pretty. Suddenly I’m a champion for “realistic standards of beauty,” which is a problematic term as well. It suggests that the best hope for a “realistic” woman is to accept that she’s not really beautiful and that’s okay, and to feel empowered by that. That’s not good enough. Women should feel like they don’t look like the Hollywood image, but know that their look is actually better and they ARE beautiful! We shouldn’t be asking people to settle for “realistic.” We should be empowering them to know they are beautiful, too.

Lena Dunham has become the poster child for discussing "realistic" images of women, and I thought Lena Dunham was lovely before it became the subject of all of her interviews. If I saw Lena Dunham in real life she’d be someone I’d want to talk to, but that makes me part of the problem, too. Because Lena Dunham doesn’t need my approval to make her feel pretty and doesn’t need me defending her to all the people who criticize her. Lena Dunham would really just like to discuss the writing and acting on her show, so maybe in that situation, celebrating her physical beauty isn’t appropriate.

Girls, created by Lena Dunham
Girls, created by Lena Dunham

Diablo Cody has also spoken about people writing nasty things about her appearance and that broke my heart because I think she’s lovely too, but again, Academy-Award winning screenwriter Diablo Cody does not need me telling her she’s pretty. She is a strong woman and her success speaks for itself. I can give her a good review, or not, and we have great interviews but I’d be overstepping my bounds as a journalist if I started telling her I thought she was pretty. We should be discussing their work first, but now I’m confused because I also don’t want to live in a world where I can NEVER appreciate beauty.

Juno, written by Diablo Cody
Juno, written by Diablo Cody

This goes back to the internal appreciation I described above. The frequency of images in the media we're bombarded with creates a feeling that every human being placed before a camera is offered up for judgment. We’re all encouraged to evaluate people based on their looks, what they wear on the red carpet, rank them on a scale of 1 to 10. It makes people who would otherwise not think to make superficial judgements feel completely okay with criticizing someone’s weight, clothing, etc. It becomes such second nature that they don’t even realize they’re doing it, and they don’t see how much it hurts oneself to be judgmental. Judging another human being is painful, and it feels worse to judge than it does to be judged. Seriously, if you find you’re a very critical person, try changing that criticism to encouragement and see if it changes your overall outlook.

Again, this is what the media is selling us but it doesn’t mean we have to buy it. “Hey, they chose to be an actor, so they should get used to being looked at!” No, we have the power to refuse to be judgmental, refuse to take someone’s performance in a piece of entertainment as an invitation to objectify them. My problem was sort of the inverse. I already know I don’t want to judge people, but I want to celebrate everyone and not everyone wants me to celebrate them. I’m allowed to have a crush on people and still respect their work, right? I just need to handle that with respect and keep being positive so I can connect with someone else out there who is celebrating the beauty in life, too. You can see I’m still trying to balance a desire to express my feelings with a desire not to judge, either positively or negatively. I’m still working on it. This Freditorial is only step one in dealing with this.

Allie and Noah in 'The Notebook'
Allie and Noah in 'The Notebook'

Conclusions

We can and should enjoy the well-crafted manipulations that make our favorite stories run. This isn’t a manifesto about condemning the media. It’s just about understanding our own relationship to it, and we can also tell the media how we want it to reflect us. I also love that I’m talking about the media like it’s some giant monster that storms our cities and eats our children (“Look out! THE MEDIA is coming!”). The media is not some abstract monster. It’s all of us.

We live in a wonderful time for art, where comedians can get away with the most extreme situations on film, where nonlinear media has opened the doors for an unprecedented amount of content right in our homes, where anything we want is available to us with a click. We should embrace and enjoy the stories we have the privilege to enjoy, but we should still set the terms for it ourselves. If we think about our relationship to art, it can improve our relationship to it, and our own lives.

This was obviously a very personal article for me to write and I'd welcome your feedback.

Latest from our Creators