Entertainment Literacy

Why we need to think about the effects of entertainment

Posted Jan 22, 2010

Some schools today have "media literacy" programs that teach students to be thoughtful interpreters of what they see and read in the media. Such programs often focus on news and opinion reporting, but they should also include the topic of "entertainment literacy." By this I mean that we need to be more aware of the ways in which entertainment conditions our thinking, values and behavior so that we can make conscious choices about how we use and react to entertainment.

This is especially important because entertainment (such as TV, movies, novels, sports events, and so on) aims to provide powerful emotional experiences. As we all know, our emotions can strongly influence our assumptions and actions in ways that remain at least partially outside of our awareness. Thus it is possible to be influenced by entertainment without really knowing that this is happening.

A good example of this is what I call "romantic realism." These are images that are similar to the world we live in, but somehow better. Think, for example, of a TV ad for food: the beautiful food sizzles and bursts with flavorful color, it is surrounded by gorgeous people having great fun as they consume the food. It's like life, but better. Romantic realism is sold directly to people (movies, for example) and is also used to promote products.

There is a cumulative effect of observing these romantically realistic images day in and day out: We begin to be convinced, on an emotional level, that there is a world like our world but a little bit better. We begin to wonder why our own lives are marred by imperfections. We are prone to fantasies that our lives could be transformed "if only" If only I could get a new cell phone, if only I could lose weight or get cosmetic surgery, if only I could get a date with Mary...

Another example: Entertainment is so enjoyable that it begins to transform other institutions to become more like entertainment. Consider, for example, what we call the "news." The news is supposed to make us better informed citizens. But people also expect the news to be entertaining, and news programs that do not meet this standard will not survive. Thus, to take a single example, much of our news today is actually about celebrities and entertainment.

In general, entertainment promotes a range of values we might not consciously endorse, but which are nevertheless very important to us and our economy: fame and celebrity, self-indulgence, demand for stimulation (the lack of which is experienced as boredom). This does not in itself mean that entertainment is a bad thing. Rather I just think we would benefit, both as individuals and as a society, from a clearer understanding of how entertainment actually affects our emotions and our experience. Entertainment can be a lot of fun, but it may also contribute to a sense of dissatisfaction with real life.

To learn more, visit Peter G. Stromberg's website. Photograph from fotologic.