Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

TV, ethics, crime, and the portrayal of men

with 2 comments

My recent watching of a part* of the third season of “Santa Clarita Diet” brings two major problems with television** to my mind—-problems shared by much of society:

*The developments brought my interest to a halt: Neither do I wish such unnecessary annoyances in my life, nor do I wish to support series with such problems.

**At least over the last two decades of the U.S. dominated main-stream television. It might or might not be/have been better in the past, in other countries, or outside the main stream.

  1. There is a lack of ethical and moral reflection, a too strong belief in “we are the good guys”, an abundance of the-end-justifies-the-means thinking, excuse finding for harmful behavior, denial of the rights of others, double standards, and similar.

    For instance, the protagonists of “Santa Clarita Diet”, the zombie Sheila and her (human) family murder people to satisfy Sheila’s need for human flesh—and do so with little reflection, in an always-sunny world of smiles and laughter… They might not like doing what they do, but when push-comes-to-shove the sole life of Sheila and the well-being of the family is prioritized over the lives of many others. That, e.g., it might be best if Sheila died and the others lived, is not truly considered. Consider, analogously, if someone in need of a transplant killed a potential donor to get his organs—and did so again and again, every few weeks, for a life-time.

    To the degree possible, they try to limit themselves to “bad guys”, but their standard is odd and there is no awareness of the “Who decides?”* problem. Unlike the eponymous protagonist of “Dexter”**, they do not limit themselves to murderers, or even just hardened criminals. One of their main sources had been a local group of Nazis, who were effectively eaten for having the wrong opinions. Notably, none of the Nazis had killed Jews or invaded Poland. To the best of my recollection (but I might be wrong), they had not even committed any crimes that the protagonists knew off. Their last intended victim was an allegedly abusive husband, who was picked without clear evidence, without a chance to tell his side of the story, and based on a “her side” that left me skeptical. Again, contrast this with Dexter, who tries to make absolutely certain before he kills someone—and who was deeply distraught when he once screwed up and put a non-murderer under the knife.

    *“Who decides?” is one of the most useful questions to ask before e.g. pushing for the death penalty, condemning opinions as evil (as opposed to factually wrong), enforcing a certain way of life, etc. All too often, people who are absolutely unqualified take it upon themselves to make such decisions—be they ignorant, stupid, ideological fanatics, … Even those of much greater intellectual development should tread very carefully in such areas.

    **“Dexter” has somewhat similar problems in principle, and I contemplated giving it as another example. However, the attitude of Dexter is very different, he is much more aware of his actions and the moral issues around them, he is much more conscientious, etc. Indeed, he does not just focus on murderers—but on murderers who slipped through the cracks of the justice system and might well have been executed, had they not. (As Lord Montague put it: His fault concludes but what the law should end, / The life of Tybalt. [1].) From that point-of-view, the main issue with Dexter is not necessarily murder but vigilantism. Similarly, the tone of the show is much darker and is much more likely to leave the viewer with incentives to think about right and wrong, means vs. ends, etc.

    Cop shows provide a great many examples, including investigations that use illegal methods or unwarranted and disproportionate violence (the paradoxically-named Temperance of “Bones” is a good example). Interrogation techniques are often grossly unethical, as e.g. in many scenes of “Castle”.

    Supernatural shows, notably “Buffy”, often have a very blanket division into “us humans” (good) and “the non-humans” (evil, feel free to kill at sight). For instance, a major plot-point in the Buffy–Faith relationship and Faith’s development is the killing of a minion of evil who turned out to be a human (rather than the vampire of Faith’s assumption).

    Two shows particularly worthy of mention are “Breaking Bad” and “The Americans”: While both do give some attempts at thinking of ethics, they are not that thorough; and they both give good examples of how trying to achieve (what the protagonist considers) good brings a lot of evil.

    “Breaking Bad” shows a man in a somewhat similar situation to Sheila: Walter suffers from cancer and tries to earn sufficient money to secure his family and/or save his own life through cooking meth—and as things get out of hand, he ends up with death after death on his tally*. The victims eventually include his own brother in law, a DEA agent and family man. While I understand both why he, as low-earning chemistry teacher, was moved to cook meth and how he lost perspective over time, my sympathies grew smaller and smaller through-out the show: a better man would at some point had sat down and realized that the consequences were too severe for too many people to justify his actions. Even his family would likely have been better off, had his early suicide attempt succeeded (gun that jammed? safety on?).**

    *As in: he killed them, ordered them killed, assisted in their killing, … As opposed to: the more indirect deaths that might have resulted through meth abuse.

    **It is, however, conceivable that the world as a whole benefited through the conflicts and disturbances on the drug market. Because these arose as side-effects, I do not give him credit on his karma account.

    “The Americans” deals with two Soviet agents, deep under-cover in the U.S., who fight actively in the cold war. They take any human life, even that of an ally, when it is needed to support the cause or to protect the safety of the family. There were some points when it seemed that they might leave off their ways, but, ultimately, they did not. The husband was somewhat prepared to question his own behavior, but the wife was a fanatic till the end. (With reservations for late events: I stopped watching early in the last or late in the penultimate season.)

    As an aside, the number of shows dealing with criminal protagonists in the recent one or two decades would likely have been unthinkable in earlier eras of television. To me, the potential value of the different perspectives and scenarios is sufficiently large that I will not object on the “criminal” factor alone; however, when combined with weak ethical thinking in the series, it could contribute to lack of ethics in the overall population: I need money—I’ll cook meth! That guy is a problem for me—I’ll murder him! Etc.

  2. Men, the men’s rights movement,* and similar are often portrayed in a manner that deviates extremely from reality, shows great prejudice and ignorance, and might sometimes even raise suspicions of deliberate attempts to manipulate opinion.

    *To avoid misunderstandings, I stress that while I have great sympathies for at least parts of the MRA movement and their goals, I do not consider myself one of them. However, as an intelligent, well-informed critical thinker and a proponent of reason, I do identify as anti-Feminist.

    Consider the last episode of “Santa Clarita Diet” that I saw (at least a portion of—I switched off mid-episode):

    Sheila and her husband lured the aforementioned allegedly abusive husband to a fake “men’s rights” meeting, lead with questions like “How have you been hurt by women?”, implied that the (fictive) other members have restraining orders, pointed to squeaky voices as a reason why women would be disliked, and the victim then went off on something like “I try to tell my wife that she is wrong all the time, but is she grateful?”—all of which have nothing do to with the men’s rights movement and displays more common prejudice about men than about women.

    The connection between men’s rights and dislike of women, being abusive, and whatnot is not only misleading—it is outright offensive. A much better and much more realistic take would have been to let the protagonists spout their prejudice and then have the victim reveal himself as quite contrary to that prejudice.

    For those who actually look at the facts and numbers (not at Feminist propaganda) there are very real issues* for men in today’s society that are constantly bagatellized. More or less any of the females issues is given significant weight, including some that only exist in Feminist propaganda.** Indeed, there are issues where men are the disadvantaged party and Feminists still paint women as the disadvantaged…*** As with any movement (especially an ostracized one), there are some nut-cases and extremists among the MRAs; however, by and large, MRAs try to be the voice of reason in the debate about men, women, and equal rights, to bring in a different perspective, to look at facts instead of prejudice and propaganda, … Still, ever again, those who attempt to be the voice of reason are ridiculed as the voice from the loony bin…

    *The below implicitly contains some examples. For many others, please read up.

    **Including alleged and/or misinterpreted income disparities, the Swedish hate-rhetoric of “men’s violence towards women”, the invented U.S. college rape epidemic, “rape culture”, and whatnot.

    ***Including domestic abuse (cf. below), allegations that rape or rape victims are not taken seriously enough (while the rights of the, often innocently, accused suffer), that women are treated more harshly in court (while family courts favour them massively and they routinely receive much more lenient punishments in criminal trials), etc.

    Worse: Looking at a larger time frame of the series, we now have MRAs as the possible replacement source for Nazis, effectively putting the two groups on comparable levels of “evil”.

    Of course, the meme of the abusive husband is it self a common misrepresentation. On TV, domestic abuse is usually a one-sided affair of husband abusing wife, and the proportion of victims and perpetrators is ridiculously large, In real life, few men are abusers, about half of all domestic violence is reciprocal, and men are the victims and women the perpetrators slightly more often than vice versa.

    Similarly, the proportion of men on TV, who, e.g. as bosses, are unfair towards women because they are women is extremely out of proportion with what I have seen in real life—it is as if someone was trying to imprint the existence of “discrimination”, “Patriarchy”, and whatnot through TV to over-come its absence from real life… A particularly absurd example is an early scene of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”, where an absolute caricature, a Feminist masturbatory fantasy, of a male Patriarch talks down to Sabrina over an alleged* sexual harassment incident. I turned the (otherwise also unimpressive) show off then and there. I have not kept record**, but I have a suspicion that some TV shows try to build up a female protagonist as a “strong woman” through pitting her against such straw-men and giving her an opportunity to stand up. Usually, it fails, because either the male character or his behavior is too exaggerated or unusual, which makes the makers of the show look bad (instead of the female protagonist good) or it forces the female character to make assumptions that could equally be the result of her own prejudice—in which case she looks bad e.g. through jumping to conclusions or being unduly belligerent. (And potentially sets a negative example for real-life women, making them too jump to the conclusion of “sexism” instead of e.g. “greed”, “general ass-holery”, “misunderstanding”, whatnot.)

    *The scene was also unfortunate in another regard—it provided a perfect opportunity to push issues like the need to talk to both parties of a conflict, to not automatically believe friends over non-friends, the need for the presumption of innocence, and similar: Sabrina’s friend complained about one or several sport’s team members having (IIRC) looked up her skirt in Sabrina’s absence—and Sabrina promptly rushed to the principal’s office and demanded that the entire sport’s team be interrogated. In contrast, she did not, e.g., go talk with the team members to hear their story or to limit the number of suspects. Instead of having the principal giving her a kind talk, pointing out how to proceed better, the show makers presented the aforementioned caricature, who ridiculed her, suggested that she might want to leave school, and failed to mention the legitimate concerns about e.g. presumption of innocence. Similar missed opportunities are, unfortunately, quite common on TV.

    **Among the many somewhat similar (but none so extreme) scenes that I have seen over the years, the first (?) respective episode of “Stargate SG-1” and “Fringe” springs to mind.

Excursion on other portrayals:
Unrealistic, exaggerated, or whatnot portrayals are obviously common in general*, which can be a more general problem when people draw too much on TV (or other fiction) rather than own experiences, science, whatnot. In some cases, e.g. concerning very rich people, fiction might be the dominant source of information (or “information” ) that most of us encounter. My own field (IT, software development) is distorted in a ridiculous manner on most occasions, and might leave outsiders with extremely naive opinions.

*Including of women, nerds, jocks, scientists, … as groups; and e.g. of the frequency of murder and love-at-first-sight as events.

In some cases, such portrayals can have a degree of justification to get the plot moving, for comic effect, whatnot. However, care should be taken, especially when deviating from reality (as with e.g. domestic abuse): it is one thing e.g. to exaggerate a stereotype that broadly matches reality—an entirely other to push a stereotype which does not match reality. (As a special case: Pushing a false stereotype to fit an agenda is obviously inexcusable.) Similarly, using exaggerations that are recognizable as exaggerations and stereotypes that are recognizable as not-necessarily-true can be a legitimate way to achieve a comedic effect. For instance, “Modern Family” drew many laughs on obvious exaggeration—and did so over the entire line of characters, including men and women, heteros and homos, adults and children, U.S. citizens and immigrants, book worms and party people, … Even here, however, there must be sufficient truth in the (pre-exaggeration/-generalization) core that the core is recognized (or the humor will not be funny) and that the truth is not turned on its head (or ethical issues arise).*

*However, room must be left for individual weirdness, e.g. in that having a single specimen from a certain group displaying a certain behavior can be funny without reference to stereotypes and without being harmful. Doing so with two or more people on the same show is different because it would imply a norm for the group. (Ditto if the same behavior is displayed by several group members on different shows.) For instance, Doc Brown (of the “Back to the Future” franchise) works well as a stand-alone character—he is a scientist and a screwball. However, if one or two other scientist, behaving the same, had been added to the movies, this would have risked the imposition of a norm for scientists—he is a screwball because he is a scientist.

Unfortunately, not all these groups* of portrayals are harmless. Looking at the case of a wife-beating husband, e.g., we have a harmful stereotype that does not match reality and which is taken at face value by most viewers—it helps with creating or cementing a misguided world-view. (While, in contrast, the stereotype of a man who forgets his wife’s birthday, while not necessarily more truthful, is neither very harmful nor taken at face value in the same manner.)

*Looking at any given individual portrayal as a stand-alone choice, it might be beyond reproach, e.g. because there are men who beat their wives (even non-reciprocally), which would make a ban on such portrayals unfairly limiting. However, when the same show has an undue frequency of such portrayals (e.g. when the topic of wife-beating arise with multiple men throughout the run) or when the overall media repeats such portrayals again and again in undue proportions (e.g. in that wife-beating husbands outnumber husband-beating wives ten-to-one or that the frequency exceeds the real-life frequency in an undue manner), then we do have a problem. This applies in particular when the portrayed character belongs to a group rarely featured. (Contrast e.g. the effect of having an individual gay character being a child molester today vs. forty years ago: today, it would be seen as an individual flaw; back then, it might have been seen as a gay flaw.) Also cf. the previous footnote.

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Written by michaeleriksson

May 11, 2019 at 10:39 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] mentioning “Breaking Bad” a few weeks ago, I was motivated to re-watch the series—especially, the last season, which I had […]

  2. […] The above is written for humorous purposes, deliberately playing on stereotypes, in conjuncture with a more serious text to follow presently. From a more serious point of view: […]


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