Movies, TV, and Society: Resisting Screen Culture: Part One
Changing the Character of Society
At the core of understandingis the relationship between television and consumerism. TV has provided a way for people to consume images and ideas that the average person would not have access to in the course of a typical life.
However, while this might sound like a benefit (we are constantly reminded of this alleged benefit bythemselves), TV is not simply about seeing new things. It is primarily about selling.
TV evolved hand in hand with consumerism, with its birthplace in America in the mid 20th century. As such, TV has spread the ethos of consumerism around the globe.
It has also spread a more insidious form of consumerism, namely voyeurism, in the way it reveals for public view what used to be private aspects of human life. However, the public nature of this voyeurism is obscured by the illusion of individuality when we watch TV alone or in small groups of people in our homes.
So, TV has normalized consumerism and voyeurism. In turn, these cultural preferences encouraged by TV have an impact on the medium itself, so there is a give-and-take between TV and society.
The TV industries monitor this by sophisticated marketing surveys to tailor programs to what they perceive as the interests of viewers (consumers). Most people don't know it, but their viewing habits are carefully monitored. and TV industries have created what they call "audiences," which are really market segments to buy and sell in the global marketplace, just like any commodity.
So, although you think you are sitting at home watching the tube, it is also, in a sense, watching you. Your viewing habits are turned into profits. This is only one aspect of the issue.
More Real Than Reality
TV, in a more cosmological sense, has created a weird world of what some have called hyperreality.
makingTV and things like movies is more real than reality. This goes hand in hand with another feature of the TV society: The appearance of what some have termed the simulacra, having a copy without an original.
The images we see on TV and in movies look real; our minds are fooled — unless we constantly remind ourselves they are not real, which ruins the viewing experience. Our minds are fooled into living in a world with no place limits, no time limits, no limits of any sort.
Such a world is a place where long-dead people still make us laugh, where an aging actor who does not look the way he or she used to look 20 years ago disappoints us, or where we sit transfixed in front of what is essentially a box emanating colored lights at the expense of living in the reality around us.
While there is more to say about this issue, the two main points I want to make here are: First, TV creates a society of consumers; second, it creates a society of people detached from reality.
Process of Sexualization
This overlaps with the earlier notion about TV creating a society of consumers and — more pathologically — voyeurs. Sex is an intimate relation between two people, yet TV, especially movies, has turned this into a public spectacle. Many people see their first intimations of a sexual encounter on TV or in movies.
In addition to the moral issues at stake, these images intrude on reality, nourish a bloated reality (a hyperreality), and create expectations that can never be met by mere reality (expectations of beauty, success, passion, etc.).
All of these profoundly human issues have been turned into cheap images by the entertainment industries. These industries have two goals. First, to make money; second, to turn more people into voyeuristic consumers in the hopes of making even more money.
Also, talking about sexuality used to be something negotiated by people in the context of their own culture, family, community, and society. However, TV has intervened and forced this discussion to take place, whether or not people are willing or able to engage in it.
In one sense, this is intrusive; in another sense, it requires a new way to relate to these seemingly private issues, since these images are out there. So it is also a challenge to the Muslim society to find ways to deal with those images with a certain degree of sophistication.
Decreasing the Impact
That is the crux of the issue, isn't it? But the question can be phrased in a different way. We can also ask, "What has happened to the Muslim society that makes sitting in front of a light-emanating box instead of interacting with human beings seem like fun?"
I think it is dangerous to imply a one-way cause-and-effect relationship between movies and society. It is not that simple. People would not consume American movies unless they are somehow already lacking in some basic components of healthy human relationships. So the bigger question is: What has happened to us, to our cultures, to our forms of entertainment and other activities that now encourage us to consume those things from the market, from the Western-culture industries? Not to sound defeatist, but the reality is that on some level, there is almost nothing you can do about it.
These industries in culture are run by powerful interests that involve the highest levels of business and government. here is little the average consumer can do to effect change on that level, except to stop watching and consuming. If Muslims could learn to become producers rather than consumers of culture, then the problem will be seen as one relating to broader issues beyond just the effect of TV on society.
Why Have We Become Consumers?
Islamic civilization used to be productive; now it is consumptive. We need, first and foremost, a more sophisticated diagnosis that links TV and movies to this broader issue of production and consumption. It is not enough to tell the youth not to watch movies when you cannot provide something else for them to do. What will they do? Play video games or surf the Internet?
There has to be multiple solutions (or let us call them strategies) to address this problem. One is to encourage the local, authentic culture, especially those activities that involve face-to-face human interaction. But if we must watch movies and TV, let us raise our standards a bit. Toward that end, I would say we should encourage the kind of movie production coming out of Iran and the sort of TV production emanating from Syria. While not all of what they do is going to solve this problem, they are providing alternatives to the Western-culture industries.