Entertainment, Consumption and Shadow Values

"Work hard, play hard" can entail some contradictions

Posted Jun 24, 2009

I'd like to point out--in case you've missed it--that most people in our society have to work pretty hard to make a living. And in order to work pretty hard, they have to cultivate values like discipline, diligence, stamina, responsibility and so on. Now, suppose that these work-related values were so strongly held by most people that conflicting values such as self-indulgence, leisure, and hedonism were scorned. These super-workers would create a fabulous economy, right?

We need values of consumption, too

Wrong. These super workers would be terrible consumers. They would have little time to listen to music or watch TV, and they wouldn't see the point. The pleasures of fine food and fast cars would hold little appeal. These people would produce lots of goods and services but they would be uninterested in buying them. Fairly quickly, an imbalance between production and consumption would bring the economy to a standstill.
Our society has hit upon an interesting solution to this problem: our culture encourages the simultaneous commitment to values of work and values of consumption, even though these two realms of values may be in conflict. Ideally, we are disciplined, diligent and all that, but we are also self-indulgent and committed to the pursuit of pleasure.

But somehow, what we value in entertainment doesn't really count

There are some social and psychological costs to this "work hard, play hard" situation, but they aren't really where I want to focus today. Rather, I simply want to point out that the realm of entertainment is typically where we learn and indulge the values of consumption. And the devilishly clever thing about this is that we thereby avoid confronting the contradictions between our two sets of values. Because we have convinced ourselves that the values we indulge in entertainment aren't real, because entertainment is just play, we feel just fine about holding these values and denying them at the same time.

In my previous post I pointed out that the world of entertainment includes plenty of sexualized depictions of younger teen-agers. People value these depictions; they exist because people like to look at them. But few of those people will say "I value sexualized depictions of children." Instead we all look the other way, because you can't take entertainment too seriously, it's just for fun, etc. etc. Shadow values, very convenient.

Peter Stromberg is the author of Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You (2009, Stanford).  Photo by Manuel Van De Weijer