Q: Is America's Pop Culture Getting a Bad Rap?

By Wattenberg, Ben J.; Narrett, Eugene | Insight on the News, December 18, 1995 | Go to article overview

Q: Is America's Pop Culture Getting a Bad Rap?


Wattenberg, Ben J., Narrett, Eugene, Insight on the News


Yes: TV and movies still reflect core American values.

Something often is missed in the argument about the state of American culture: Many aspects of our cultural situation are healthy. As I have argued in Values Matter Most, political leaders should act boldly and dramatically on social issues. But I am dubious about the idea that we will get much done by slaying fire-breathing cultural dragons. Some of those dragons are friendly critters.

Let us look at pop culture, a big cultural issue. Movies and television make up a large and contentious part of that issue of pop culture. I concede that too much tawdry, violent, promiscuous and evil material is being purveyed. Still, I suggest that American movies and television, deservedly subject to much criticism, are monumental assets.

The distinguished director Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, Out of Africa, The Firm) reminds us that American movies, with all their flaws, almost invariably have a common theme. "The hero shapes destiny," he says. Pollack's comment is pretty close to the old American value of individualism. S. Robert Lichter, codirector of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, concurs: "Our studies of television programming have been coded for individualism, but it is so pervasive in American entertainment that we have never even published the material."

Would the incidence of violence, sex and intoxication seriously diminish if those topics disappeared from our screens? That seems to be the apple-pie view of most psychologists (and of Lichter). But it is not a point that has been proved. Indeed, how could such a proposition seriously be validated? In a television-drenched society, just where do the subjects for comparison come from? Social scientists would need two groups similar in home environment, heredity and school environment -- except that one control group would have been fed a totally different diet of television fare. Would the violence found in news and cartoons be counted? Does violence on-screen that is punished onscreen reduce or increase the incidence of violence off-screen? Is the violence portrayed rewarded or punished? Is the sex displayed wanton or loving?

Professor Jonathan Freedman of the department of psychology at the University of Toronto reviewed the literature in 1984 and concluded that "there is little convincing evidence that in natural settings viewing television violence causes people to be more aggressive' " In 1992, he wrote that "research has not produced the kind of strong, reliable consistent results that we usually require to accept an effect as proved. It may be that watching violent programs causes increased aggressiveness but, from a scientific point of view, this has not been demonstrated. Our public statements should reflect this."

But suppose there was some direct relationship between popular entertainment and the apparent erosion of cultural values. What could we do about it in any public way? We could try to return to censorship. Some conservatives talk wistfully of the good old days of movie censorship. There would be legal hurdles, but not impossible ones.

But do we want broad censorship on sex and violence? And how much good could it do? The answers are no, and not much.

I do not refuse to see movies with naked women in them -- realistic ones, arty ones and not-so-arty ones. Nor do scores of millions of other Americans. In the recent past, that number included a lot of good ol'boys and their wives in pickup trucks, watching X-rated movies at the drive-in on Saturday nights and getting home early because, after all, they had to be in church the next morning. These days they may get the same sort of movies in the corner video store.

I do not like much violence in drama. But market tests show lots of Americans do. Shakespeare understood the popular lust for blood and so did Sophocles, in whose plays characters tear each other's eyes out on stage. Cartoon violence, horror shows and cowboy and gangster shoot-em-ups were around long before the current argument started.

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