Friday, September 29, 2017

Tropes in fictional TV and movies that damage societal views

I enjoy watching fictional TV shows and movies, but I know that like anything, they have positive and negative effects.  On the negative side, they often present a distorted view of reality, and I think some of these have quite a negative effect on society.

Grief is overt

Most of the times when a fictional TV show or movie shows grief, the person is clearly distraught.  You can see the sadness or deep loss in them.

But grief doesn't work like that.  There's no one way it effects people.  People don't necessarily appear sad.  They can, at the times you might see them, even seem a bit happy or light-hearted.

I think that TV shows and movies have taught the public to expect grief to be like how they portray it.  The average person surely sees many more depictions of grief on the screen than they do in real-life.
When the reality of grief comes up against the perception that grief is overt, the people are seen as callous or just not grieving like they should be.  In the cases like of parents whose children have gone missing, it can lead to suspicion of them and witch hunts. 

related: Small-Screen Grief: 10 TV Shows That Got It Right | tv tropes: Five Stages of Grief

Attractiveness correlates with character

Attractive people are good, ugly or unusual-looking people are bad.

This one is fairly obvious, but the trope seems so pervasive that surely it has to have a big influence on how people are perceived in the real-world.  To rewind a bit, that perception of people probably has an innate basis, but even still, having it reinforced so much in media can surely only make it worse.

related: tv tropes: Beauty Equals Goodness | tv tropes: Evil Makes You Ugly

Straw Vulcan

The Straw Vulcan is a straw-man portrayal of intelligence, named after the Star Trek character Spock, who is of the highly-logical Vulcan race.  The term comes from tv tropes.

In the Straw Vulcan, intelligence and rationality are equated with rigidity and narrowness in the way the person thinks, and an inability to make use of intuition or perceive emotional realities. 

Sheldon, in the Big Bang theory, is another full embodiment of this.

It's a pervasive trope in media, and I suspect it has done a lot of harm to our society.  I suspect it has fueled a lot of anti-intellectualism, and has done a lot to make intelligence seem unattractive and uncool, which I think in turn has pushed a lot of people away from striving to be smart.

Gladly, there does seem to have been a fairly recent trend to present intelligence in a more positive light, though it doesn't seem like there's been much of an attempt to kill the Straw Vulcan. 

Individual agency is the cause of good and bad things

This one can be summarised as "good guys and bad guys".  Bad things happen because a bad person its doing it with bad intent.  The good guy does something to make things better.  A person seeing this play out again and again as they're growing up are, I think, going to get a pretty distorted view of how the world works.

Our societies are complex systems.  There are aggregate effects.  Anything that institutions do to try and address issues will always be imperfect means with unintended consequences.  There are structural causes to what happen.  All of these things mean that major problems usually aren't caused by individuals, and are often not caused by ill-intent.  And that also means that solutions often aren't what you'd equate with "doing good".  They might be making changes to the physical or policy infrastructure that society runs on.  They might be technology changes.

In the picture painted by the many many hours of fictional TV shows and movies we are exposed to in our lives, these impersonal causes basically don't exist.

EDIT, Mar 2019: another damaging trope is 'with enough effort, anything can be overcome'.  Sure, that one sounds good.  It's encouraging effort and fortitude.  The problem is that it's not true.  Sometimes things can't be overcome just by putting in enough effort.  Some chronic health conditions, for example.  The reason it's damaging is that it leads people to assume that others just need to "put in the effort" and that if they aren't or aren't overcoming their issue that the fault must be their own for not putting in enough effort.  Or there can be systemic, structural problems that no amount of effort (in the obvious places) are going to really address.  Where to solve the problems you need to look hard at what their source is, rather than thinking of the problem just in terms of trying hard to fight it.


Here's a list of various other ways fictional accounts distort reality.