Reality TV bites

The societal effects of sex and violence in the media have been debated for quite a few years now, though the topic doesn’t dominate the headlines the way it used to. I remember that for a while, advocates of uncensored artistic violence took great delight in quoting writer and actor George Plimpton: “If television violence causes violence in the streets, why doesn’t television comedy cause comedy in the streets?” It was a pointed and humorous question, but I think Mr. Plimpton and those who invoked him missed the point. Comedy breaks out in the streets every day, in the same way as music and dance, and it traces directly back to popular media.

The attitudes, speech patterns, and comedic sensibilities of my generation tend to mirror those of the characters in Friends, Seinfeld, and Saturday Night Live. I had friends in high school who could transform themselves into Wayne and Garth in a matter of seconds. For a period of time, it seemed that everyone in the country identified other people by their method of talking (low, high, close, projectile, etc.). And Ross, Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, and Joey can take credit for taking the word “so” and transforming it into a negative superlative (“That is so not the point”, “You are sooo not funny”). People imitate what they see on television. The fact is undeniable.

Not that, in the case of comedy, there’s anything wrong with that. Comedy is for making people laugh, and if repeating “Now, isn’t that special?” ’til the wee hours of the morning makes you laugh, more power to you. TV comedy provides an actual benefit for people who have no sense of humor of their own. They look to funny people to learn how to be funny. And since we all see the same funny people on TV and learn from them, we all understand that brand of humor, which means we can all communicate humor effectively and make each other laugh.

Reality TV is a different animal. It has its defenders, its rabid fans, and its critics (none who have devoted a Web site to their criticism, apparently), and they have all had their say, so I will not debate its general merits. I will say, though, that I worry about the effect reality shows will have on relationships.

With divorce becoming more and more common, many children grow up without seeing how a good relationship works, without a real relationship role model. What they see now is a group of shows in which a bunch of men/women compete for one man’s/woman’s attention, in which cameras follow couples on dates, and in which it’s assumed that if you spend enough time stuck on an island or in a house with someone, the two of you will eventually have sex. I can see where a 20-year-old college student might go on a date and imagine a witty graphic popping up in his car whenever his date says something weird. He might say something shocking for the benefit of a non-existent camera, or start an argument because conflict plays better than chemistry. Those tactics never end well on TV, and they will never end well in real life. But if that’s the only model some people have, that’s how they’ll think relationships are supposed to work.

I have some advice for all the single people out there: Don’t look to Shipmates for an idea of how to act on a date, don’t look to The Bachelor to find out how to attract someone, and for goodness’ sake don’t model your courtship after anything you see on For Love or Money. The best way to learn about relationships is to find a happily married couple, see how their relationship works, and focus your efforts in that direction.

Reality TV shows are a plague upon mankind.

From what I hear.

I never watch them, of course.

I am so not interested.

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