The false gods of the entertainment media


BOSTON -- Barbra Streisand uses a body double. The lithe body glimpsed from behind in "The Mirror Has Two Faces" belongs not to the famous 54-year-old movie star, but to a younger and shapelier model who is paid to interpose her figure for Ms. Streisand's whenever the star's face isn't in view.

Michael Medved, the noted film critic, mentions this to make a point: that movies and television manipulate our emotions by "fooling us through the eyes" -- and by reaching, through our eyes, to our hearts.

Criticizing what appears on the big and small screens is nothing new, of course. It was 36 years ago that Newton Minow, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, pronounced television programming "a vast wasteland." Well over half a century before Bob Dole discovered sleaze in the pTC movies, the Legion of Decency was pressuring Hollywood to adopt a code of moral standards.

But Mr. Medved's critique, articulated recently in a speech at Gordon College, a small New England liberal-arts school, goes deeper. It is not that movies and TV shows are laced with dung, but that they cannot help being laced with dung. So much TV and movie fare is morally corrosive because those industries by their nature are at odds with traditional moral teachings. "Television in particular, but to a great extent all mass media," Mr. Medved argues, "contradict the fundamental messages of the Judeo-Christian tradition."

To begin with, while religion stresses continuity and eternal truths, mass entertainment emphasizes the new, the immediate, the fresh. Judaism and Christianity are concerned with shaping character and elevating behavior; pop culture -- especially TV, with its commercials, game shows and spin-off toys -- harps relentlessly on material gratification. The tension is implacable.

With its endless kaleidoscope of images and easy 30-minute formats, television is a pacifier for the brain; without it, people grow restless and impatient. Children hooked on TV have trouble concentrating in school, and a hard time grasping that they can't always get what they want.

Wherever television takes root, violence and addiction climb, for in the world of the cathode-ray tube, there is no tomorrow, no self-denial, no world to come. There is only this minute and this hour; appetites to satisfy and desires to be fulfilled.

Ms. Streisand's body double illustrates a second contradiction.

In Hollywood, the visual and the superficial dominate all. If Ms. Streisand's figure -- or Sharon Stone's or Julia Roberts' -- isn't perfect enough, why, somebody else's figure can be passed off as the real thing. Body doubles are a tiny but telling example of how far Hollywood and the TV studios routinely go to beautify that which isn't beautiful and make us admire that which isn't admirable.

The deception may be visual, Mr. Medved observes, but the impact is emotional. "Even if you see people doing things you know to be horrible, you know to be irresponsible -- if the people are pretty enough, those things look attractive. Those things look desirable. The whole emphasis of the media is on the eyes -- on the eyes connecting with the heart, connecting with the emotions."

"Follow your heart"

Hollywood has made no end of movies on the theme of "Follow your heart," from "Sleepless in Seattle" to "She's Gotta Have It," from "The Wizard of Oz" to "Thumbelina." Follow-your-heart movies may be touching and endearing, but their essential message, as Mr. Medved remarks, "is absolutely at variance with what Judeo-Christian tradition teaches." Religion does not ask us to follow our hearts or be guided by our eyes. It enjoins us to look below the surface; to believe what is true, not merely what is seen.

In real life, it is not necessarily uplifting or praiseworthy to follow one's heart, especially when one's heart is tugged by one's eyes. How many families have been broken up by men who decided to follow their hearts? How many healthy babies have been conceived and aborted by women who were just following their hearts? In TV- and movieland, "Follow your heart" may be a winning formula. But a sane and decent society depends on a very different formula: "Do what's right."

One last contradiction: TV and the movies are obsessed with fun. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, the focus is on happiness.

Mr. Medved points out that three of the most lucrative movies of 1996 -- "Independence Day," "Twister" and "Mission: Impossible" -- are all, in Hollywood parlance, "thrill-ride" pictures. They are like roller-coasters: You sit back and get dazzled. But when the dazzle is over, when the excitement has passed, what's left?

"Very few people," he told the Gordon College audience, "want to be buried under a stone that says: 'Here lies our beloved husband and father. He had a lot of fun.' Fun is not what this life is about. Yet it is overwhelmingly what . . . the media culture demands."

The difference between fun and happiness is like the difference between sex and love. One is easy but quickly ended; the other takes work but can last forever. One appeals to the senses; the other nourishes the soul.

Not all TV is wretched. Not every film is degrading. Lately there has even been a modest surge in shows that treat religion and people of faith respectfully. But the exceptions do not disprove the rule: The entertainment media are not designed to ennoble the human spirit. In small doses, they do little harm. Too much can kill a society.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

Pub Date: 4/08/97

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