Friday, March 30, 2007

The Culture Wars And Other Thoughts

I can't place precisely where I've heard everything, but there seems to be a great deal of response to Laura Session Stepp's book Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both, in the non-print, non-picture media (also known as radio). I know I heard a story on NPR, and I believe several of the local shows have talked about it. And I'm positive I heard WTIC's local liberal radio personality, Colin McEnroe, talking about the book's thesis.

Rather than go back and link to everything I've read the past few weeks, allow me to briefly summarize what all the fuss is about. (Although if you like, you can read the New York Times story about the book here) Basically, the book is a collection of interviews and personal anecdotes that supposedly indicate the state of the sex lives of American girls in high school and college. According to the book, the "hook-up" culture that is prevalent among young people today fails girls emotionally, and yes, sexually. Critics of the book argue that the book presents the same tired stereotypes of women as helpless and perpetuates a worldview that women need to be protected from sex. I have read through some of the book (I certainly wasn't going to pay for it), and to be fair, I think the book avoids the worst sorts of stereotypes. And, as I heard being discussed on the radio yesterday, surely there are negative emotional consequences from "hook-up" culture for men as well.

But regardless, this debate is not the real question I wanted to raise. McEnroe's comments on the radio yesterday caught my ear, especially seeing as he's not any sort of a conservative or social reactionary. McEnroe made several references to pop culture (most notably rap music) as to one possible reason why this "hook-up" culture has proliferated. But I'd question, 1) whether this culture is as widespread and ingrained as suggested, and 2) whether pop culture actually has and reflects this culture.

The first observation is merely personal, but the second is more normative. I'd really question the assumption that popular culture really encourages our youth to reject relationships and pursue sex without attachment. Yes, we're inundated with hip hop videos and lyrics that portray women as sex objects. But aren't there an equal number of R&B songs about love and heartbreak? And moving beyond music to popular films and television shows, I think one will find that marriage and relationships are portrayed far more positively than one night stands. Really.

How many sitcoms show a husband and wife combination in an effective, loving relationship- or at least a relationship that's a lot preferable to the rest of the world out there? Look at the Simpsons, which has reaffirmed Homer and Marge's marriage countless times in the nearly two decades they've been on the air. The single (like Patty and Selma) and the divorced (like Millhouse's dad) are always shown as lonely, miserable.

Movies like the 40 Year Old Virgin reinforce notions of commitment and love, while rejecting hook-ups."Steve Carrell's character doesn't find real happiness until he finds love= the real sad thing about him was that he was 40 and alone, not that he was a 40 year old virgin.

And among shows that showcase young people, haven't we always seen plenty of relationships- sure maybe there were hook-ups, but relationships are always shown to be more fulfilling, hook-ups more hollow. Just watch a rerun of Dawson's Creek, The O.C., or Friday Night Lights (from what I've heard).

Now I'm not saying that there isn't a contrary mindset out there among certain groups of young people, I'm just saying that this mindset is not well represented in popular culture. I just find this to be a subject of interest because despite all the talk of declining family values in Hollywood, it seems as the though the products from Hollywood just reflect a more modern take on many of the values professed by the religious right. Sure we see a lot more sex and violence, and there's more bad language, but in the end, marriage is still a happy ending, and the family may be more diverse, but it's still just as necessary.

If pop culture really says something about us, then surely these values are present in the hearts and minds of the youth of America as well. What exactly does this mean as far as "hook-up culture" goes- I'm not quite sure. But surely, there's a lot more than what meets the eye, and there's much more complexity than an author, her critics, and a radio show host might otherwise indicate.


Blogger A Fan For All Seasons said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:44 PM  
Blogger A Fan For All Seasons said...

I think you're right on some issues here and far off on others.

First, I think you're right that pop culture mirrors current trends in society. However, it's not like people were Puritans back in the early 90s, it's just that behavior had a stigma attached to it. When pop culture starts to exploit this behavior, more and more becomes acceptable to air, and that makes the behavior more and more acceptable.

I also think you are looking at the wrong aspects of pop culture. Think about it, we're talking about 15-16-17 year old kids here. These kids aren't watching "Everybody Loves Raymond" and marital sitcoms. They're watching MTV, they're watching "The Girls Next Door" on E!, they're watching the edgy, dirty shows they aren't supposed to be watching. Have you watched MTV lately? Look at the show "Next", where people can go on 5 dates in one day, or "The Real World", where the focus has shifted from real people in real situations to beautiful people hooking up non-stop. When MTV does air music videos, you see videos of rappers or rock stars surrounded by beautiful women, or you see beautiful women signing about getting laid. What teenage guy, nay, what guy doesn't fantasize about promiscuous sex with beautiful women? And women, as shallow as this will sound, they tend to objectify themselves for men. Why on Earth would they wear thongs or skirts that barely cover their ass or even push-up bras? With pop culture, these fantasies are slowly becoming reality.

Teenagers don't generally dream about finding the love of their life in high school. This is a time period where their hormones are raging, and what used to be satisfied by a good date and a kiss is being erased by oral sex and intercourse, because, why not? Everyone else is doing it. Take 40-Year-Old Virgin for example. Do you think a teenager would rather live like Andy and not have sex for 40 years, or do you think they'd rather be like Jay, a guy who can pick-up and nail beautiful women. They don't care about his insecurities, they think it won't happen to them, and that they can have their cake and eat it too.

I'd also argue that Hollywood isn't showing marriage as a happy ending. Shows like "Everybody Love Raymond", "King of Queens", "'Til Death", etc. All of these shows show the man and wife constantly bickering. Maybe in the end of an episode everything is all better, but when every couple on TV is always angry at each other, that can't be seen as a positive image for marriage.

Now here's the thing. I certainly do think that current programming and some of the values held by America's youth are disturbing. However, I think eventually, the mindset will turn to how you view current pop culture. I think as these teens grow older they'll realize the benefits of a happy, stable relationship and see the problems with the hook-up culutre. But if you think our current pop culture isn't exacerbating the problem, well, you're sorely mistaken. Take it from a college student.

8:48 PM  
Blogger A Fan For All Seasons said...

FYI, I deleted my original post because of some terrible typos. You'd think my journalism background would remind me to immediately proofread whatever I write.

8:50 PM  
Blogger QU 3L said...

I wanteds to respond to your insightful comments and I've been mulling this over for a few days.

First, I actually agree with you about some of what kids are watching. As I said, I only wanted to point out that the issue was complex. I did not mean to imply that all the culture that kids see mirrors what I was discussing, only that some of it does. Remember that kids today are bombarded with more media than any generation ever before, and because of that, they're exposed to far more differnt points of view and ideas that the kids of the past were.

I'd prefer not to take sides in this aspect of the culture wars, nor do I wish to comment on whether pop culture reflects how things actually are or whether it shapes how things actually are. It's a difficult question and I think the truth is that while pop culture may set trends, these trends have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is with all of us. The truth is, I think pop culture both reflects and shapes us, if that makes any sense.

Just to take issue with your characterization of marriage in pop culture, I think what you describe reflects more on how me view life, not marriage in particular. As I said originally, marriage is seen as being the most preferable arrangement, regardless of the flaws that it may have.

The final thing I'd point out is that I don't buy any notion of "crisis." We may have experieinced a significant "culture shock" in the past several decades, but if you look at the statistics of kids having sex in high school, those numbers have remianed steady, if not declined over the past 10-20 years. And that's even assuming that all this sex is a problem. When you look to real worrisome trends- teen abortions, teen pregnancies- you find that they are all down.

What we have now is a culture that is changing so fast- thanks a great part to technology- that the more thought out aspects of our value system are having trouble keeping up.

2:41 PM  

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