Out of Egypt: How Our Enslavement to Mediocre Mass Media Stifles Creativity

11 June 2011

This post was tangentially inspired by the most recent episode of South Park, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I don’t feel like summarizing the episode, so if you’re unfamiliar, let me direct you to this great synopsis and analysis from The Onion‘s A.V. club.

What I’ve been thinking about is mediocrity. Specifically how mediocrity destroys our investment in visual media and our desire to envision the greater potential of television and film, and how it creates passive spectators who don’t even know how to articulate what they want.

I’m reminded of the four children at the Passover seder. Although I love to read the question posed by the rebellious child (often referred to as “wicked” in earlier English editions of the Haggadah), in this instance, the role is firmly claimed by the studios and the networks that produce our mainstream visual media.

The rebellious child denies involvement in the exodus from Egypt and instead demands that others explain the personal significance of the event for them. The culture producers at the top of this pyramid aren’t stupid. They know that they often produce a mediocre product, but they reject their role in the creative process by asking us to find the value in their efforts–to identify with one-dimensional characters, to attribute great significance to unrealistic situations (this blog is guilty!), to tune in every night without fail, and to cry at Jim and Pam’s wedding or get hot for McDreamy and McSteamy.

As viewers we are left with two options: Are we the simple child, whose naive curiosity is met with the didactic answer that this is just the way things are, or are we the child who does not even know how to ask a question, a child whose inability to articulate results in a lesson about authority and power: It is because of what the Almighty did for me when I left Egypt.

But we haven’t left Egypt yet, and our enslavement to mediocre mass media continues unabated. The culture producers determine the structure of the pyramid, but viewers determine its scale. It’s their vision, and we build it. Bart Simpson didn’t become a cultural touchstone of the 1990s because Matt Groening set out to invent the ideal image of the rebellious child; Bart became famous because we, his fans and admirers, made it so.

Every purchase of a Bart Simpson lunchbox engages the consumer with the product. But when it’s a good product, we should support it. We should watch the television programs and films that are worth it, that genuinely make us feel something different and exciting, but we should abandon our complicity in the perpetuation of mediocrity. We need to watch the visual media that demands more of us.

There is a caveat, of course. If we reject the rehashed plots, the hackneyed scripts, and the stock characters, how should we interact with the purposefully bad visual media? The films that are so bad they’re good, the overblown doctor melodramas, the reality TV dreck that makes us glad we are neither on the prowl for an eligible bachelor, a cultish wife with several non-genetic “sisters,” or a piece of ass whose name begins with the letter “K.”

We return to the wise child, who asks about the rules and laws of the Passover seder: in effect, the structure that dictates the ritual. The ritualistic evening flicker of every television screen in every American household is an opportunity to question the foundation. We can still enthuse about our favorite media, but we should take control of the construction of the pyramid, from initial blueprints to the onset of erosion.

For me, this means loving the good and the bad, but shunning the ugly average (Sorry, Tuco). My affinity for the good is likely self-explanatory, but I will gladly justify my love for the bad.

The truly bad visual media (and here I am thinking of Troma films, most Arnold Schwarzenegger projects, Toddlers and Tiaras, The Bachelor, etc.) knows something that mediocre media will never realize: In order to create trash, you must first understand the structure of gold.

Meaning that Troma films recognize viewers’ visceral enjoyment of violence, gore, sex, and monsters in limited quantities in the good movies, so they give us exactly what we want, but in excess. Excess is crucial to the success of the so-called “bad” visual media. Bad, or so-bad-it’s-good, media takes the components that we most enjoy in good media and exaggerates them to the point of overstimulation.

Schwarzenegger is the Terminator, a pregnant man, and the grotesquely tall twin of a man whose shortness is equally disarming. His characters are grounded in tropes of traditional masculinity, but then they explode into hyperbole, much like his unconstrained seed.

Toddlers and Tiaras showcases the extreme end of bad parenting–unaware mothers who ignore their children’s feelings and affected fathers who maintain their dominant paternal attitudes while stitching sequins on flamboyant competition dresses. This show only succeeds because we already know what good parenting looks like in visual media. Our understanding of good parenting allows us to gorge ourselves on a terrible representation of family life.

But if good visual media is characterized by a novel interpretation of the existing structures, and so-bad-it’s-good visual media is characterized by its subversive excess, then how do we define mediocre mass media so that we can recognize and subsequently reject it?

  1. Mediocre visual media takes itself very seriously. It relies on established conventions of film and television, but it does not question them. When a show like How I Met Your Mother or a film like Bridesmaids acknowledges its adherence to a certain formula or script, it becomes extremely self-conscious. Rather than brazenly wear its appropriation of ancient gimmicks like Community or any Quentin Tarantino film, mediocre visual media quickly reverts to blind allegiance to traditional forms of expression.
  2. Mediocre visual media takes no risks. Its usage of authoritative conventions acts as a safety net–nothing exceedingly bad can come out of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of thought, but nothing exceptional will ever emerge. Any business major can tell you that the greatest rewards often emanate from the greatest risks. If you’re producing visual media and you’re not scared shitless about the final product at least some of the time, then you’re doing it wrong.
  3. Mediocre visual media is inoffensive. Everyone tolerates these innocuous television shows and unobtrusive films, but we neither love them nor hate them. They exist to fill the gap when there’s nothing else on TV or you want to get out of the house for a movie, even if it’s another installment of the Pirates franchise. The best visual media gives us something to discuss: It arouses passion and invective, and makes us think about things we’ve never considered before.
  4. Mediocre visual media is forgettable. You watch an episode of Modern Family or a recent episode of House, and a few hours later, you can’t remember anything about it without significant concentrated thought. If you’ve seen the same tropes before, then they’re not going to seem novel just because they’ve been given new characters and a fresh coat of paint.
  5. Mediocre visual media doesn’t give a fuck about your personal enlightenment. It’s not there to make you think and it’s not there to teach you how to think. Mediocre visual media lulls you into submission purely by dint of its visual nature. There’s just enough stimuli to keep your brain engaged, if somewhat unfocused, but there’s not enough going on to encourage any sort of sustained thought.

So how do we fight a culture of mediocrity? How do we say, “Fuck it. We’re not going to build any more vast monuments to the mundane”?

I don’t think there’s any singular answer, but as consumers of visual media, recognizing our common enemy allows us to mobilize against it. I don’t know what’s out there in the desert, but I’m sure it’s a lot more exciting than our current state of media bondage. It’s scary as hell and there’s no guarantee you’ll find an oasis of challenging, insightful work, but I’d rather have 40 years of creative uncertainty over another few decades of the same old shit. Stay tuned.