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|Written by Lauren Cheal|
|Thursday, 19 March 2009 17:23|
For many of us, the lives we lead are split between the things we actually do in ‘real life’ and the texts we consume in a mediated world for entertainment. These acts of consumption come in many forms, but common among them are watching television, listening to music, reading a newspaper, and browsing favourite internet sites. In each of these cases, a piece of technology mediates our experience of the activity. That technology is further mediated by a program (a computer program, radio program, or television program). This is the world we live in: our leisure time and our working hours are spent in a mediated reality.
In the 1975 text Television: Technology and Cultural Form, cultural studies theorist Raymond Williams argues that, historically, the vast majority of societies that create dramatic performances have done so only sparingly. In 1850, the average Canadian might have encountered only a handful of cultural demonstrations throughout the year, most likely built around traditional holidays or celebrations. Williams holds that the medium of television (and to a lesser extent, film) has given people access to performed drama at a rate never before experienced. This is an incredibly interesting cultural observation.
What has this increase in drama done to the way we understand our own lives? What has it done to our understanding of relationships, crime, and medicine (all extremely common themes in the world of television)? Is it possible that when we consider the narrative of our existence, we model it after what we expect to experience given the common tropes in modern storytelling? If one friend asks another, “Why did you break up with your partner?” how often do our responses follow the story arcs we see on television every single day: “I thought we were meant to be together, but he won’t commit,” or “I love him, but I am not in love with him.”
Based on Williams’ argument, we can hypothesize that the types of drama produced in popular art forms like television may be the source of the drama we produce in our very own lives. Let’s take a look at an example.
Sex and the City is a show that deals specifically with relationships and love. It has its fair share of critics, but it is difficult to argue with the show’s popularity during its 1998-2004 run on HBO and in its widespread syndication since that time. The franchise also produced a movie in 2008, which was a box office success (with rumors of a possible sequel). The premise of the show is simple, four 30-something women living a glamorous life in New York City are looking for their different versions of “Mr. Right”. The show focuses primarily on sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her struggles with men and relationships. Her friends, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha (Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon, and Kim Cattrall) represent various stereotypes of modern women. Charlotte is a “Park Avenue Princess” extremely optimistic about love, and looking for a knight in shining armor. Miranda is a sarcastic and cynical lawyer who doesn’t believe in fairy-tale love. Samantha is the extreme example of a sexually liberated woman; she has a new sexual partner in each episode and has little interest in having relationships of any kind.
One of the major ongoing storylines in the series is the relationship between Carrie and Mr. Big (Chris Noth) – an emotionally unavailable executive whom Carrie loves, but who cannot commit to her or their relationship. They date for a while, break up, and later have an affair while Big is married and Carrie is involved with her other major love interest, Aidan (John Corbett). The arc of the entire series is about Carrie’s relationship with herself and Big and the things that get in the way of their eventual happiness (the movie continues this arc).
Early in the series, when the two are dating, Carrie tells Big that she loves him, but he does not immediately respond. The drama that unfolds throughout the rest of the episode involves Carrie waiting to see if Big feels the same way about her. The episode includes many conversations regarding what is appropriate for this kind of situation. Samantha offers her opinion about men and the touchy subject of love, “You know, it's so interesting. You can tell a man 'I hate you'...you have the best sex of your life. But tell him 'I love you'...you'll probably never see him again”. The episode culminates with Carrie drunkenly going home with another man and Big calling her the next morning to tell her that he does, indeed, love her too.
This example, from a series filled with similar story arcs, demonstrates the kind of dramatic narratives we encounter in popular television every day. A simple plot diagram of this episode follows this framework:
Exposition: Carries decides to tell Big she loves him
Inciting Incident: She tells him, he does not respond
Rising Action: She discusses this catastrophe with her friends, time passes without Big returning the sentiment
Climax: The couple attends a party, have a big fight, and Carrie leaves with another man
Dénouement: Big calls and admits to loving Carrie
These archetypical elements of storytelling are found in most texts. Built into this formula are roadblocks and stumbling points along the way. It isn’t exciting to watch an episode of Sex and the City where Carrie says “I love you, Mr. Big” and he responds, “I love you too.” That isn’t entertaining. We expect that there will be problems in their relationship; we assume that they will go through challenges and trials before finding that elusive happily ever after.
William’s argument that our exposure to drama, through television, has vastly increased suggests that we may now look for problems in relationships because we expect them to be there since the stories we experience on television tell us that they will be there.
It is important to recognize that drama is an exaggerated form of art – one that highlights the extreme parts of human life. It isn’t a realistic depiction of who we are in our everyday lives. Next time, before we say, “I love him, I’m just not in love with him,” perhaps we should stop and consider the role dramatic texts have played in creating that narrative.