Thursday, March 17, 2011

TV Love is Warping Our Brains

You always hear bout how movies have supposedly warped young girls' perceptions of romance. All those romantic comedies and fairy tale films set them up to expect impossible happily-ever-after scenarios, and raises standards for potential mates so ridiculously high, they can never possibly be reached. I'm sure this is true for some unfortunate, starry-eyed kids, but I never really bought it. There are so many other messages about love and marriage embedded in our media, especially in TV. And we all watch a lot more television than movies. Portrayals and attitudes toward relationships can be entirely different depending on what you're watching. I've included some examples below.

Sitcom Love - There are several different kinds of sitcoms, but they can be easily separated into two categories: shows where the central couple is already married or in a long-term relationship, and shows following singles. In the former case, happily-ever-after means dealing with all the day-to-day aggravation of suburban life or coupledom, usually with the added complications of in-laws, wacky neighbors, cute kids, and colorful friends. Clashes with the significant other are rarely very serious, but they are constant. Expect an awkward dinner at least once a week. If you're still single, it will take two to five years of active pining for any serious attraction to be consummated, after which your life becomes very boring very quickly. All the excitement of sexual tension evaporates the second love is reciprocated, you see. On the other hand, being single provides opportunities for romantic experiences with a parade of attractive guest stars, who never stay longer than an episode and can be instantly forgotten once they're gone.

Soap Opera Love - In addition to the multi-year pining requirement, all sorts of other obstacles can crop up between potential lovers to keep them apart. Insane ex-lovers! Scheming relatives! Horrible secrets from the past! If a couple manages to get through the obstacle course and say "I do," their happily-ever-after tends to be short-lived. Someone will be kidnapped, or have to disappear because of mob ties, or one of them turns out to be a clone. It's all very exciting when it's going on, but it's also frustrating as hell. The more perfectly matched a couple is, the less likely it is we'll ever see them happy together for any meaningful period of time. If they're totally wrong for each other, however, fate and the writers will have them in bed together within an episode and a half, usually as part of a plan to wreck whatever storybook romance is in their closest proximity at the time. To raise the chances of success with the opposite sex on a soap, your best bet is a strong career in villainy.

Crime Drama Love - Most prime time dramas are really soaps, so I thought it best to single out the crime drama, which operates by a very different set of rules. This does not include such programs as "Castle" and "Bones," which have male/female pairings as their leads, obviously intended for future romantic entanglement. No, I'm talking about the cop shows and the investigation shows that are intent on showing audiences the seedier side. If you're a hero or a principal player, you're asexual. Love lives are kept almost entirely offscreen, unless somebody's significant other needs to be kidnapped or killed off for a season finale. If you're a suspect or a victim, your love life is a train wreck. Crime dramas are hotbeds for romance gone awry, or happily-ever-after endings that turned out horribly, horribly wrong. Falling in love leads to anguish and trauma and getting read your Miranda rights - if you haven't already been pushed out a window or shot in the head.

Reality TV Love - The newest television genre is also one of the most versatile. You have the dating shows, where the only way to find love is to put your potential paramours through a long series of contrived contests, usually determined by luck and a willingness to embarrass oneself. Winners get the headliner until the next season of the show rolls around, and castoffs often get a chance to be the prize themselves. You have the freak shows, with titles commonly prepended by the words "The Real Housewives of," which suggest that a spouse is of secondary importance to material possessions and well-honed catfighting skills. Occasionally you will have the gentler documentaries about love in adversity, following dwarf couples, couples who never heard of birth control, and couples flaunting bigamy laws - until they inevitably become shows about lawsuits and breakups and why it's a bad idea to expose your personal life to a media circus.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Easily the television show that had the most impact on me in my formative years. "Buffy" had a little of everything. Buffy and Angel got the storybook romance, very short-lived of course. Xander braved a rough, demon-infested dating scene before, before he finally found the right hellspawn to settle down with - and then chickened out in the end. Willow had an adorable high school fling with werewolf boy Oz, but realized she liked girls when she got to college. Spike and Drusilla proved that even the most stable, centuries-long relationship based on mutual bloodlust and evildoing couldn't stand up to infidelity. Spike and Buffy were so very wrong for each other, which is probably why they were so much fun to watch. But what I really loved about "Buffy" was that there was ultimately no perfect person for anyone. The characters changed, they grew up, got over crushes and breakups, and their relationships changed with them. Destiny usually didn't work out and there were never happy endings, but nobody ever gave up on love either.

So yes, most TV romances are terribly unrealistic and shouldn't be taken at face value. But there are a few shows that can be candid and have some good insights into relationships and still be entertaining. Our media may be rife with skewed depictions of love and marriage, but there's good in there along with the bad. And sometimes a little idealism can be helpful. I mean, if hopelessly shallow kids like Bella and Edward from "Twilight" can be happy together, maybe the rest of us can find somebody to love too.

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