Posts Tagged ‘social commentary’

The Social Impact of Gossip Girl on the Teenage Youth

December 21, 2009

“My life is basically planned.  First I will go to Harvard, then I will be a business head of a genetics firm, and then at forty, I will have a husband and two girls…I will do anything it takes to get into Harvard,” declares 17-year-old Nightingale-Bamford student and NYC Prep star, Camille Hughes.  While Camille’s Ivy League bound ambitions are not too different from that of the other brilliant girls at her elite prep school, what makes Camille stand out is that she and her family seem to think that doing “anything it takes” might entail playing a key role on a reality show in order to gain admission.

Enter:  NYC Prep, the Bravo produced reality TV show chronicling the lives of six affluent high school students that call Manhattan home. From the overt references to characters on Gossip Girl such as the headband-wearing Camille to the cold and fashion-forward PC, it seems like the producers may have asked the cast to act like the characters seen on GG, but perhaps a deeper internalization of the popular, CW television program had already taken place for these college-bound juniors and seniors (not to mention the thousands of other teenage fans).

Throughout the second season of Gossip Girl, one of the main issues the teens faced was the college admissions process, and Blair and Serena fight both coyly and physically over acceptance into Yale University, Blair’s dream school.  Serena, whose top choice is Brown, decides to interview at Yale in order to seek revenge on her frienemy, Blair, who maliciously sends Serena down the runway in a dress that Jenny Humphrey designed.  Humiliated, Serena says to Blair, “I’m just tired of trying to hold myself back, so I don’t outshine you…From now on, I’m going to be who I am, and if you can support that and not be threatened and competitive, then great. If not—” Serena then walks away towards a future of limelight, tabloids, and Ivy League schools leaving her once best friend in the dust.

See the rest of this scene here & some of the girls’ other college related feuds here:

Keeping to her promise, Serena outshines Blair during her interview at Yale.  “I have to say your application is most impressive, Ms. Waldorf,” states Blair’s interviewer at Yale, “there’s just one thing I’d like to know.  Tell me something about you that is not in that packet.”

“Not in there?” Nervously asks Blair.

“Do you like to drive race cars?  Can you cook authentic Szechuan?  The young lady before you told me a delightful story.  She was in a fashion show.  Just for fun,” states the interviewer.

“I know I must sound rather traditional in comparison to that young lady, but isn’t tradition what that Yale is all about?”

“Well, yes, but we are trying to change that image. Too stuffy.”

See the rest of Blair’s Interview here:  

In the very next scene, Serena is seen talking to Chuck discussing how she has been invited, instead of Blair, to the dean’s house for dinner, an event that could potentially get Serena “on the short list for early admission.”  Indeed it does, for Dean Baraby calls Serena stating that he would “like to issue a press release that you came up to visit our glorious campus.”  This and Serena’s acceptance over Blair in “You’ve Got Yale!” essentially tells Gossip Girl viewers that in order to succeed and go to Ivy League schools one must not only “be different” as the famous Coco Chanel quotation implies, for one must also be a Page Six regular and an18-year-old socialite.

This 21st century born insecurity states that only those who obtain fame, fortunate, and the media’s attention will be successful, and this fear is manifested in characters like Camille Hughes.  In order to escape a fate akin to Blair Waldorf’s (“Just because Yale is lost doesn’t mean I’m going to a non-Ivy, reading Beloved six times, and experimenting with lesbianism,” Blair says of attending NYU), Camille decides to follow Serena’s limelight exposed example and star in a reality show.  In doing so, she taints the Nightingale-Bamford name, forcing Dorothy A. Hutcheson, the head of the school, to send out an e-mail to parents and alumnae stating that Nightingale had nothing to do with Camille’s escapades.  Hutcheson wrote that, “We counsel our girls to avoid such exposure, knowing that best intentions are usually subsumed by a media machine that too often simplifies the many facets of a Nightingale education into a shallow and stereotypical view of independent schools.”[1] Shortly there after, it came out that Camille and her family had decided to look for an alternative education, and to date Hughes is enrolled at the Professional Children’s School in New York City.  While one Nightingale representative indicated that the school was “‘expecting her back this fall’…some school-community members whispered that she was politely asked not to return.”[2] Regardless of whether Camille was kicked out or not, New York Magazine’s Chris Rovzar seems to think that, “Either way, being on the reality show, and attending PCS, very well might end up hurting Camille’s chances of getting into Harvard. But considering that the school accepts only about 7 percent of its applicants, this all may just add up to an excellent, comforting excuse as to why Tufts ends up being the school for Camille in the end.”  Here, Rovzar is paying tribute to an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine states that she went to her safety school, Tufts, much like Blair’s matriculation at NYU after hazing a Constance-Billard teacher.

Thus, it seems plausible that Camille Hughes’ “will-do-anything-to-get-into-Harvard” attitude ironically encouraged her to take part in NYC Prep, the source of her downfall in the end.  After all, Gossip Girl’s college-related episodes such as “New Haven Can Wait” and “You’ve Got Yale!” aired during the fall and early winter of 2008-2009, which means that these were the most current episodes of Gossip Girl to date when NYC Prep was being taped.  (The first episode of NYC Prep aired on June 23, 2009, and it can be implied that Bravo shot the show about six months in advance.)

While this is one example of how television shows like Gossip Girl might be negatively impacting the youth, there are of course many others.  Young women might be mean to one another in order to be more like the manipulative Blair or they might diet in order to be as skinny and beautiful as Serena.  These teenage dramas tend to imply that they are “reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful” (Aristotle, 30).  In other words, shows like Gossip Girl attempt to glorify celebrity, glamour, thinness, and popularity in the daily lives of “Manhattan’s elite,” whilst belittling scholarship, kindness, and other “dorky” activities associated with the lowly Brooklyn scene, and as a result, their self-conscious, insecure, youthful, and sponge-like viewers internalize their idols’ actions and mimic accordingly in a reverse “mimesis” fashion: instead of  a show imitating nature, nature instead mimics the imitation.  While not all Gossip Girl influences are as easily tracked as Camille’s attempts to act like Blair and Serena, it seems that Gossip Girl and shows of its kind might be blurring the line between fiction and reality contaminating the minds of the American youth in the process.


[1] http://www3.timeoutny.com/newyork/kids/blog/2009/06/04/the-next-great-reality-horror-show-for-nyc-parents-nyc-prep/

[2] http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2009/09/harvard_dreams_crushed_for_nyc.html#ixzz0Zcp6TEcK

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as Social Commentary

December 18, 2009

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is an interesting show to consider while thinking about social commentary on television. Generally speaking, comedy is a very powerful space in which to comment on society because, in its wit and whimsy, it is not considered a threat to the standing social order (According to Mac in the episode “Paddy’s Pub: Home of the Original Kitten Mittens,” what do people love more than comedy?). It’s Always Sunny, with its crude, raw humor and ridiculous situations can seem to the viewer mindless, a barrage of voices yelling over one another with no underlying intentions other than comedic entertainment. Another interpretation is that the messages are so obvious (I keep in mind here episode titles such as “The Gang Gets Racist”, “Charlie Wants an Abortion”, and “Dennis and Dee go on Welfare”)they are ineffective, tongue in cheek, even mocking of the messages themselves. I would argue however that It’s Always Sunny is both of these things and for that reason it is a show that can truly be considered an effective method of social commentary. This is because the audience is both aware and entertained; the viewer does not feel manipulated or bored. In this way It’s Always Sunny serves both purposes, that of a forum for entertainment and that of a forum for social commentary.

It is interesting also to explore the concept of comic relief, the necessity of humor in the digestion of serious issues. It is written on the Wikipedia page for “Shakespearean Fool” that “clowning scenes are intended as an emotional vacation… they appear in Shakespeare’s tragedies most often straight after a truly horrific scene” (Wikipedia, Shakespearean Fool). Shows like Always Sunny forego the dramatic scenes altogether, dealing with a serious issue entirely with comedy. In this format, the audience is exposed to an intense, dramatic, and totally serious problem yet is never forced to deal with it in a serious way. In this way a sober message is delivered but the viewing public is not molested, if you will, left feeling violated by the on screen display. For example, in the episode “The Great Recession” the character Frank loses all of his money in a pyramid scheme, and, totally unable to help himself given the economic circumstances, he tries to hang himself. It doesn’t sound funny, in fact it reflects an increasing trend of suicide during times of economic downturn (check out this article, Economic Crisis Increases Stress and Suicides at http://www.depressionforums.org/articles/1254/1/Economic-Crisis-Increase-Stress-and-Suicides–/Page1.html). The scene itself however is humorous, silly even, as Frank’s neck is so thick his attempt is thwarted (you can watch it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKZ_TjlQ4dc). The audience is left laughing but with a lingering unsettled feeling, one which stems from the reality and severity of such a situation.

Creator of the show Rob McElhenney situates Sunny within the realm of social commentary with his statement that “there always interesting things to deal with [in the show] as long as American culture continues!” Every episode finds its basis in a particular aspect of culture and exploits it, makes it almost surreal with pageantry. It is this process of pulling out perhaps un- or under addressed social problems that makes comedy, and more specifically Sunny so able to impact its viewership. By focusing in on one issue per episode, be it gun control, underage drinking, or homelessness, the show is able to really articulate said issue, forcing it into the minds of the audience for later contemplation.

The blogging community has latched on to It’s Always Sunny, hailing it as a more complex, sharper Seinfeld or South Park. One blogger writes that this is because the show “is hilarious but smart, and subtle” (http://www.comicbloc.com/forums/showthread.php?t=63804). Bloggers and a cult following of hardcore fans were responsible for the show taking off in the first place which makes it an exciting discussion point for those interested in television. One comment on the IMDB page for the show describes Sunny as “cleverly written” and praises the creative control allowed due to the creators also being the actors and assistant producers (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0472954/#comment). A particularly interesting blog entitled “Modern Media” looks at Sunny from a more academic point of view. The author refers to the show as a successful satire which “brings to light some of pressing issues of our time, while disguising social commentary in hilarious and absurd comedy” (http://whatmodernmedia.blogspot.com/2009/11/satirical-success-its-always-sunny-in.html). She goes on to address the fact that Sunny considers social issues from multiple perspectives, referencing the episode “Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass” which addresses smoker’s rights from the view point of non smokers as well as smokers. The episode takes it one step further by putting the ideal of total American freedom under the microscope. The gang decides to have an “anything goes” situation at the bar which starts as all fun and games but ends with drug addicts shooting up, incestuous siblings making out, and finally a fatal game of Russian roulette (http://www.hulu.com/watch/26320/its-always-sunny-in-philadelphia-too-much-freedom and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8FT3blpT0A ). This is a perfect example of Sunny, and comedy on television, as social commentary.

So how and why is comedy able to play such a role, to be simultaneously immersed in and beyond culture to the point that it is able to comment on it? First, and most importantly, humor is persuasive(http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/0/9/0/8/6/p90861_index.html) . According to this study, humor has persuasive capacities because it gives the impression of non mediation, a sense of naturalness despite the theatricality and excessiveness. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is over the top and unrealistic, but the comedy itself feels real and unforced, thus the show is particularly powerful in reference to social commentary. The “Modern Media” blog entry also points out that the show always revolves around Dennis, Dee, Charlie, Mac, and Frank, or “the Gang” which creates a relatable and accessible group mentality. Additionally, the characters are not glamorous or made to embody unattainable beauty; rather they are too short, too tall, have silly tattoos and subpar wardrobes. “The gang” are just like you and me, awkward, quirky, and ever so slightly insane. The ability of the audience to identify themselves in the characters (or at least more so than in other more distant, high production television) is yet another way in which the show provides an active way for the audience to participate in social commentary.

In conclusion, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is an active forum for social commentary, one that reflects the concerns of the creators and the audience. Comedy has been a powerful social tool throughout the ages (despite Aristotle’s preference for drama) and Sunny is one more example of how comedic convention has adapted to changing technology yet is still able to perform the same function, that of social commentary.

Social Commentary in South Park

December 18, 2009

Social commentary in art relies on the imitation of reality—be it through comedic satire, dramatic realism, or somewhere in between. Thus, the nature of that imitation has a substantial effect on a work’s social commentary. In Poetics, Aristotle argues that a work’s “mode of imitation” is affected by its medium, its “objects” (the way the artist portrays humanity through characters), and its “manner” (the artist’s method of imitation). In the case of South Park, its medium is television, its “objects” are characters of lesser intelligence and moral fiber than most real people, and its “manner” is animation. These elements all contribute to an imitation of life that is exaggerated and simplified, which in turn makes the show’s social commentary fairly heavy-handed and simplistic.

Because South Park is an episodic television program, social issues are tackled in about twenty-three minutes. This leaves writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone with little room for nuance. Even if they wanted to, it would be difficult for them to reflect the true complexity of real-life social issues in such a short amount of time. In contrast, a serialized television program can explore in depth the many facets of multiple social issues, over the span of many episodes (the best case of this being, perhaps, HBO’s The Wire). The medium of television, and more specifically episodic television, contributes to the simplicity of South Park’s social commentary.

South Park’s social commentary is also affected by the way Parker and Stone portray humanity through fictional characters. According to Aristotle, in comedy, people are represented as “worse than they are.” This is certainly true in South Park, in which much of the humor is derived from the idiocy and moral bankruptcy of its characters. This can be seen well in the episode “Follow That Egg,” which comments on the gay marriage debate.

In this episode, the governor of Colorado is faced with a bill that would legalize gay marriage, and he must decide whether or not to veto it. Meanwhile, Mrs. Garrison, a formerly gay male schoolteacher who had a sex change, wants the governor to veto the bill, mostly because she doesn’t want her ex-boyfriend to marry his current boyfriend. Through these two characters, Parker and Stone portray opponents to gay marriage as ignorant and hypocritical.

The governor doesn’t see why gays shouldn’t be able to marry. He says, “What argument can I use to deny them their right to a family?” But, feeling pressure from both sides, he offers a compromise, in a speech in front of both proponents and opponents of the gay marriage bill. “You homosexuals will have all the same rights as married couples. But instead of referring to you as ‘married,’ you can be… ‘butt buddies.’” This is a thinly veiled critique of the concept of civil unions. Of course, no real politician would be so ignorant and out of touch to propose this compromise; the governor’s stupidity is exaggerated for the sake of humor. The effect of this portrayal is a heavy-handed critique of those who would deny gays the right to marry. There is very little subjectivity and nuance when Parker and Stone weigh in on this issue.

Watch a clip of the governor’s speech here.

The effect of South Park‘s negative depiction of humanity can also be seen in Mrs. Garrison’s role in the episode. Her reasons for campaigning against gay marriage are selfish, and hypocritical in their homophobia. When she says, “Marriage is a holy sacrament, between a man and a woman [pointing to herself with pride],” frequent viewers recognize the hypocrisy of this statement. She herself has undermined, and continues to undermine the conservative ideals of family values she claims to uphold, having once been a gay man, and now a transgendered woman. This is another critique of gay marriage opponents, highlighting the fact that they are sometimes hypocritical (take for instance conservative senator Larry Craig’s 2007 arrest for soliciting gay sex in an airport). The depiction of this hypocrisy is so exaggerated, though, that the social commentary is very heavy-handed and one-sided in favor of gay marriage.

Finally, South Park’s ‘manner’ of imitation—that is, animation—also greatly affects the nature of its social commentary. Because Stone and Parker are not limited by the laws of physics or the high cost of special effects, they can use visual imagery that exaggerates real-life situations to the point of absurdity. This too contributes to the heavy-handedness of their social commentary. This can be seen in the episode, “Goobacks,” which is a comment on the issue of immigration.

In this episode, people from an impoverished, dystopic future, symbolic of immigrants from developing nations, travel back in time en masse looking for work. They are racially ambiguous, and can’t speak English. The working-class residents of South Park resent them for supposedly taking their work. They repeatedly shout, “They took our jobs!” with a mumbling, provincial inflection, and brainstorm how to solve the problem. They decide to “turn gay,” so future generations will be prevented, and the time-traveling immigrants will cease to exist. Eventually, their plan turns into a massive gay orgy, made possible by animation.

From "Goobacks"

The image of the orgy is so absurd that the social commentary becomes very removed from reality. Parker and Stone exaggerate the men’s xenophobia so much that it is no longer an accurate representation of real life. There is no nuance in their dealing with the issue of immigration, only a clear-cut judgment: anti-immigration protesters have let their fear and hatred of immigrants reach ridiculous proportions.

Parker and Stone are of course aware that their absurd imagery and storytelling often distances their show far from reality, and that audiences have come to expect this from them. This can be seen in the episode “Trapped in the Closet,” which is a critique of Scientology. There is an extended animated sequence where a Scientologist explains the mythology behind the religion: an absurd story about an alien genocide that occurred 75 million years ago. Realizing that their audience might take this for a hyperbolic parody, Parker and Stone prominently superimpose the words, “This is what Scientologists actually believe,” over most of the scene.

You can watch that scene here.

South Park is an excelent example of how a work’s artistic qualities, including its medium, portrayal of humanity, and method of storytelling can affect its social commentary. Because a) it’s a television program, b) it portrays people as less intelligent and moral than they usually are, and c) it’s animated, South Park’s depiction of reality is very simplistic and exaggerated. This, in turn, makes the social commentary fairly heavy-handed and simplistic.