Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for November, 2008

A Whole New World? Be My Guest.

A colleague recently mentioned in passing that she knew someone whose role model was a Disney princess. (On a side note, does it matter if I mention that the person in question was not a five-year-old girl? If it matters, why does it make a difference?) I couldn’t help but laugh when I overheard this bit of conversation as I have a long-running quibble with my friend Shannon about Disney.

When I was younger, the first of the great modern animated Disney movies was just being released in theaters. As a result of the films, I was inundated with Disney culture throughout my childhood and I loved the movies dearly for the story, the animation, and the music. At the time, I bought whole-heartedly into the Magic that Disney was creating, and for the most part, I still do. However, as I grew up, I couldn’t help but think that in some way the whole Disney Princess culture was feeding into a larger societal problem. I certainly don’t think that Disney is to blame for this phenomenon, but I do think that Princesses serve to engrain a particular thought pattern into the minds of young girls and give them unrealistic expectations for their romantic lives throughout the rest of their lives.

I might have a strong cynical streak in me, but I’m still a sucker for romance when you get right down to it. I love being swept away by things, I love surprises, and I definitely believe in the idea of finding a great love. The problem that I have with the way things are going is that somewhere along the line the whole process became a little less about the person that we love and a little bit more about ourselves.

All of a sudden, it becomes about the grand romantic gesture; all of a sudden, it becomes more about you than the object of your affection. Behind it all there’s a well-intentioned, though misguided, attempt to make the recipient feel special, as though you’ve jumped through so many hoops to make something unforgettable happen, when, in truth, there’s always an element of “Look how hard I worked to make this come about, aren’t I special?” It’s about that kiss that will wake someone up from a hundred years of slumber and change his or her world in an instant, the slaying of a monster, or even dying to prove one’s love for another (and occasionally later being brought back to life because True Love cannot be vanquished, after all). It’s about a plane writing out an invitation to prom in the sky, it’s the creation of a floor plan of a house in candles, and, of course, it’s about opening our window to hear a boom box outside blaring Peter Gabriel. It’s about sending a love interest on a chase through Manhattan to end up in Times   her face on a giant screen, searching the world for a used book with a phone number, or making everybody in a stadium pay attention to you while you propose.

I can’t help but think that part of the grandeur of it all is the notion that other people will be amazed at the effort to pull off the stunt. For a second, the world revolves around the two of you and you create a phenomenal story to recount at the rehearsal dinner. Do we confuse the attention and adrenaline with romance? Perhaps I’m out of touch with things, but I’ve always thought that love is something more private and personal—each person feeling the rush is enough. Maybe it’s not always about the furor and the public presentation but a simple act of pausing in the middle of the street while walking your dog at night when the world is quiet and asking someone to hold a ring instead of a bag of poop.

I Play Well with Others

“I did WHAT?!”

While going through my personal journal the other day, I came across an entry that I had made almost five years ago regarding a sex survey that I had taken. I, like many other people who have spent any amount of time in high school, was briefly obsessed with online quizzes:  What “Friend” was I? What was my personality type? How pure was I? And, of course, What kind of sex have I had?

The document listed possible situations, partners, locations, and positions and, needless to say, it turns out that I’ve had a lot of sex. I don’t mean that I have had a constant stream of partners lined up my door and around the block, but I’ve been involved in a few long-term relationships and have definitely pushed the envelope when it comes to trying something new. In case you’re wondering, sex at the beach is all well and good until you have to wash sand out of crevices for days. Yes, crevices. Learn from my mistakes, kids. So, although I seem pretty mild on the outside, I could probably floor most competitors in a game of “Where have you done it?” Come to think of it, that’s most likely why I’m writing these articles in the first place.

In front of me, glowing softly on the computer screen, lay my entire sexual history. I have done many crazy things in my life, but nothing that I regret. I’ve always believed in playing safe but I will readily admit that I haven’t always done it.

Wait. What?

Before you get all judgmental and prepare to slap a big old “hypocrite” sign to my forehead, let me just say that the choice to stop using protection was always a conscious and deliberate one.

I’ve never really held the mentality that birth control was a pain, but I have to admit that I enjoy sex without protection as it means that I’ve achieved a number of things in a relationship:  I’ve waited for at least six months after I’ve started going out with somebody, I’ve had a discussion about our sexual histories, I’ve gotten tested, and I’ve been in an exclusive relationship. I also don’t know if it really feels any better but it is certainly cheaper (hey, I’m a realist).

Of all these things, getting tested is the most important for me. Sure, I think that many of the responsibilities that come with being sexually active might be embarrassing or scary (I will readily admit that I used to hoard condoms from the free clinic so that I would not have to go and face the cashier at the drugstore, and I’ll still take free condoms where I can get them.), especially for younger adults, but I think that the alternatives are much worse.

I certainly don’t believe in using fear as a motivator to prevent unwanted behavior, but I do believe that individuals should understand the risks of their behavior choices and that they should make informed decisions. I strongly believe that part of the solution to the problem is removing the stigma from the testing process and making safe sex an ingrained habit for people.

The truth is, however, that not everybody gets a good training in sexual health education and the results are often disastrous. For example, the Center for Disease Control just released some new data that shows that approximately 20% of individuals who have HIV do not even know that they have the virus. That number shocks and saddens me as this is definitely a case where what you don’t know can hurt you…and others.

Doin’ It Like They Do on the Discovery Channel?

I will be the first to admit that I watch a lot of television. I mean, my DVR is always threatening to delete an episode of The Amazing Race or Project Runway (don’t judge, you know you watch it as well) because it needs to make space for yet another show that I have added to the queue. I have long since come to terms with the idea that I am sacrificing hours that I could actually be outdoors (what good is sunlight?) but I do think that television has a lot of valuable lessons to offer if we just take the time to consider about the messages that we’re being presented with.

A study[i], published last week in Pediatrics, reported it more likely for teens exposed to a high level of sexual content from television to experience a pregnancy in future years compared with peers who had lower levels of contact. I would, in an attempt to avert the whole “media is corruptingAmerica’s youth” notion, point out that the study also mentions that a variety of factors contribute to teen pregnancy, including social, individual, and environmental influences. Still, the idea that young people pick up something from television programs seems worth exploring a bit further.

Observational learning posits that an individual can acquire knowledge simply through the act of watching an example (e.g., most people who have never fired a gun could probably take the correct grip due to their exposure to firearms on television). Taking this idea a step further, it seems likely that people who see sex on TV would naturally garner ideas about the act based on what they saw.

In retrospect, it seems quite obvious that American youth begin to formulate their ideas of sex and sexuality from things that they see on television. In our country, sexual activity is not something that is discussed in any real terms amongst most teenagers, and therefore it seems only natural that young people are getting their information from any source that they can.

For me, the problem arises when teenagers get a skewed sense of sex due to their television exposure. Sure, there’s an element of sex that is exciting (partially because it possesses a verboten quality) but what happens when young people are not exposed to the responsibilities that come along with having a sexual relationship? I get that every instance of sexual contact can’t be “A Very Special Episode” (or 7th Heaven for that matter) but does television have a responsibility to instruct its viewers in all aspects of sex? Is there a way to do this without losing others’ interest or making a big deal about it?

More than anything, this study brings about the idea that television, or media as a whole, cannotbe the only way that young people learn about sex. No matter what your feelings on the topic, it seems prudent to instruct young people in the matter so that they can make the decisions that are right for them. The challenge as parents (although not a parent myself, I’ve been exposed to many families through work) is that it’s scary to let your children go and hope that you’ve equipped them with the necessary tools to make good decisions. As adults, it seems all too easy to forget that we were once curious youth who did the best that we could to make our way in a world that constantly sent us mixed messages; looking back as people who have made it through the harrowing journey of adolescence, it seems all to easy to dictate the correct path as we have our answers readily at hand.

[i] Chandra, Anita et. al. Does Watching Sex on Television Predict Teen Pregnancy? Findings from a National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Pediatrics 2008; 122; 1047-1054

Gossip Might Be Glamorous, but Truth Is Stunning

“That’s so messed up!” I screamed into the phone.

A scene unfolded on the television screen in front of me as I quickly shelved the urge to throw my cell into the wall. Although ostensibly an adult with a general tendency to avoid teen drama, I enjoy watching—and discussing—Gossip Girl with my coworkers. For me, the show causes a certain amount of amusement, as its main characters represent a population that I could very well work with in my real life, but also interest because, as with the people it portrays, beneath the glamour and the manufactured façade lies a glimpse of truth that, for all its sophistication, its owner can never fully acknowledge.

Cast in the flickering candlelight and framed in shadow, Chuck and Blair continued to vie for the upper hand in a game that, as they would later acknowledge, no longer had a winner.

As mad as I was, I could not escape the thought that a perfect encapsulation of a quintessential teen experience lay before me. Granted, not everybody’s trials involved scheming, scarves, laced stockings, or a former attempted date rapist (how did everybody on the show manage to forget that?), but the underlying dilemma represented something that I suspect much of the audience identified with.

How do you say “I Love You” for the first time?

As teens, and quite possibly even as adults, we continually fret:  “When’s the right time to say it? Who should say it first? What if I hear it before I’m ready? What if I don’t hear it back?” Oh, and let’s not forget, “What if I hear it for the first time during my partner’s orgasm?”

One of the things I marvel at is our tendency to convince ourselves that we can’t say the words until we feel as though everything is just right, when in fact we’re buying time and building up the confidence to simply come out and declare it. We waiver in our conviction, content to let the sentiment fall half-formed from our lips:  “I…never mind,” we say. And although we are able to control our mouths, we can’t seem to be able to control our bodies:  our actions, our touch, scream out the words that we cannot bring ourselves to utter.

Saying “I love you” (and meaning it) seems terrifying as, in that one moment, you give another human being the key to destroying you. All of a sudden, the walls that protected you are down and although you are vulnerable, you are finally free. And that, at its core, is the fundamental reason why Chuck and Blair’s relationship, one built on a struggle for power, control, and dominance, will never experience those words no matter how much its participants long to hear them.

The whole thing is paradoxical as the very act of revealing your vulnerabilities demonstrates in a very real way that you are stronger than you could have ever thought possible; you are no longer defined by your fear. And the funny thing is, at the end of the day, after all of the anguish and anxiety, you get to that place where the words no longer have to be said because the emotion is simply felt.

“The reason we can’t say those three words to each other isn’t because they aren’t true.”

I quickly apologize to the show for ever doubting it. Here, at last, in an instance that both parties will deny, lies the culmination of many things for these two individuals:  the acknowledgement of tacit feelings, the abandonment of the game for an exquisite moment, and a realization that, in contrast to Chuck and Blair’s previous schemes, sex is not love and love is not sex—although the two are often bedfellows, they, like most couples, do not always come together.