Popular Culture: TV--and America--On the Couch

Is TV today's Rorschach test of America?

Posted Aug 03, 2009

A hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud developed the notion of the projective test, like the Rorschach, as a means of indirectly assessing people's psyches and identifying their deepest needs and emotions. Though the value of projective tests has been questioned, I would suggest that such formal tests aren't necessary anymore. We need look no further than television (let alone celebrity magazines, the Internet, and spectator sports) to find out what's on the minds of Americans these days. So, in the name of increasing our understanding of what makes America tick, I thought it would be interesting to put the television-viewing habits of America on the couch and see what we can learn.

The hot trends in American television these days fall into three general categories: procedural crime shows, shows related to supernatural occurrences and abilities, and reality TV. The popularity of these types of shows opens a window into the current American psyche that is both fascinating and troubling.

The nature of procedural crime shows, for example, the Law & Order and CSI franchises, is that there are bad guys on the loose-murderers, kidnappers, rapists-and a crack (and very attractive) team of good guys, led by a man or woman of principle and wisdom (is it any wonder that the leaders of several of these teams have names such as Gideon, Jordan, and Horatio?) who persevere against immense odds to solve the mystery and catch the bad guys, all in a neat and tidy 60 minutes.

The fact that these shows dominate the Neilson ratings says something more about America than just that these shows are entertaining. Whether from the threat of terrorist attacks, catastrophic natural disasters, or economic uncertainty, many Americans feel great doubt and fear for their immediate safety and future well-being. It seems as if every time we turn on the television, open a newspaper, or go on line, the bad guys are winning. Whether it's the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan or the economy, it's easy to feel unsafe and hopeless in the face of such bad news. More than ever, in this unpredictable and dangerous world, many Americans need clarity and comfort in fantasy where it doesn't exist in reality. Procedural crime shows offer us this certainty and predictability; viewers know what will happen every episode-the good guys always win!-and isn't that a relief and reason for hope?

The latest genre of television shows that has gained popularity are those in which the good guys not only win every time, but, to remove any doubt at all of the outcome, they are endowed with special powers that guarantee their triumph over the evil doers, for example, Smallville, Medium, and Ghost Whisperer. And did you ever notice that few of the bad guys have superpowers too? Why not? If the good guys do, why don't the baddies? That's not fair. But we need that imbalance for two reasons. If only the heroes have superpowers, then we are guaranteed that they will always win, thus providing even more certainty about the world to viewers than the regular procedural crime shows. Also, in such a scary world where many Americans feel powerless to change it and many have lost faith in others to protect us, the notion that there are superhumans out there-even if only on television-makes us feel safer and more secure. Children have always enjoyed this sort of fantasy in superhero comic books, but now it's the adults who need that comfort.

Last, but far from least, reality TV (e.g., American Idol, Survivor) presents an entirely different projective test with which to diagnose America. Reality TV isn't reality at all, but rather offers viewers an alternative universe vastly different than the reality in which Americans live. In the real world, many people are old, unattractive and overweight, but on reality TV most everyone is young, attractive, and slim. In the real world, success takes time and comes from talent, hard work, and perseverance, but on reality TV, people become rich and famous quickly and with little ability or effort. In the real world, life can be routine and boring, but on reality TV, life is a whirlwind of excitement and drama. In the real world, love develops infrequently and in fits and starts, but on reality TV, love occurs often, easily, and between perfect strangers in a matter of days. In the real world, it isn't acceptable to be dishonest and mean to people, but on reality TV, deception and cruelty is not only encouraged, but admired.

Reality TV transports viewers to a place where life is interesting and exhilarating, and anything and everything goes. Reality TV, with its preoccupation with humiliation and schadenfreude, also makes viewers feel just a little bit better about their own lot in life because their lives-however mundane they may be at times-sure are better than being one of those pathetic losers they see on reality TV every week. In sum, reality TV presents a guilty-pleasure fantasy world where all of the winners (which the viewers would be, of course) are young, attractive, sexy, talented, rich, and famous (and the losers are those other people), where we are all happy, and where we can treat others any way we want; as Freud might put it, reality TV is our Id unleashed.

All three of these popular genres of television shows are a projection of anxiety and discontent that many in America experience from feeling insecure, insignificant, unsatisfied, and powerless in their lives. No wonder tens of millions of Americans have such a strong desire to escape to a world in which we are both safe and powerful, and where we can live exciting, noteworthy, and hopeful lives.

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