Mind The Gap
Over the course of a long and varied life that’s involved a significant amount of travel and living & working in a wide range of different countries, I’ve developed some basic heuristics that have helped me to interpret the world around me. One of these heuristics is that popular entertainments tell us far more about a culture than is at first apparent.
We humans aren’t very good at coping with the complexities of reality so we tend to retreat into simplistic fantasies as these are easier for our limited cognitive faculties to cope with. As entertainment is largely about fantasy, it’s not surprising that we adore our entertainments. It’s also not surprising that for the most part our entertainments are simplistic and formulaic. These are, after all, the very qualities our brains crave.
What’s far more interesting is that our entertainments often accidentally reveal deep truths about ourselves and our cultures. This is because our entertainments very often play the role of compensatory mechanisms for what we lack in real life. It’s this aspect of entertainment that can often enable us to discover the emotional tectonic plates of a culture.
When we think of Japan, what comes to mind? Yes, of course the shinkansen, the excruciating surface politeness, and the regimented lives of the people. But what do Japanese people themselves fetishize? Golf is the number one sport in Japan. At first this would seem very odd, because nearly all Japanese live in astonishingly dense urban environments in which space is at a premium. Golf, conversely, requires large amounts of wide-open space.
And that is precisely its attraction for the Japanese. We crave what we don’t have, and our entertainments act as surrogates for us. Once we realize this, we have a way to see what sits underneath the surface of a culture. We have access to its yearnings, its compensation mechanisms, and therefore we can see what is missing.
Staying with the Japanese for a moment longer, we see this perspective also explains manga and anime. As everything in Japanese culture is buttoned-down and emotions are repressed, what could be more appealing than characters who are perpetually bubbling with uncontrollable emotions and whose anger and determination permits them to escape from the stultifying norms of social convention? When one’s life comprises a seemingly endless succession of identical days spent commuting and doing largely pointless tasks until retirement, the allure of a magical world of flying creatures and irrepressible protagonists is powerful indeed.
Moving on to the British we see a similar phenomenon. The British are famous for bland tasteless food, so it’s hardly surprising that cooking and baking shows are incredibly popular. In addition, as most British people live in identikit tiny dwellings, we can also understand the appeal of reality TV shows that feature endless do-it-yourself home improvements, shows that feature large well-kept gardens, and costume dramas that transpire mainly in mansions and palaces. The latter are also much loved because the British tend to dress very drably; what better compensation than to spend hours gawping at actors and actresses clad in shimmering gowns and popinjay outfits?
The original appeal of the James Bond franchise was that although most Brits could aspire to nothing better than two weeks of annual summer holiday spent in a dreary rainy seaside town with a beach entirely consisting of pebbles, for the price of a cinema ticket they could for a couple of hours glimpse a world that wasn’t small, dismal, restricted, and perpetually getting just a little worse with the passing of each tedious day. When Bond used a gadget, it worked! Such a contrast to British household appliances at that the time.
Let us now skip across the Atlantic to visit the USA. Hollywood has done a superb job of creating an alternative universe in which people are slender and interesting and have adventurous lives. It’s cannot surprise us, once we understand the concept of compensation mechanisms, that in reality 90% of US citizens are fat, ignorant, and spend their lives moving from jobs they hate to the sofa where they consume endless procedurals, sports programming, and violent video games. Additionally, in the world created by Hollywood, many characters are attractive and sexually active. In real life US citizens are for the most part sexually repressed, have sexual intercourse far less frequently than their European counterparts, and enjoy it so little that 70% of US women report rarely or never experiencing orgasm — in stark contrast to (for example) French women who report usually or always experiencing orgasm 70% of the time they have sex.
We can also note that Hollywood-generated characters rarely mention god. As the USA is an excessively religious nation in which everyone seems to have a different interpretation of the deity formerly known as El, this discretion is essential in order for entertainments to avoid accidentally upsetting one highly vocal group or another. In a god-infested nation it’s best to avoid the topic as much as possible — except for the endlessly tedious (but carefully non-denominational) saccharine-addled life-after-death trope that infests far too many US shows and movies.
Lurching wildly from one large pseudo-democracy to another we come to India: land of extreme and nearly inescapable poverty and squalor. It’s eminently predictable that one of the most popular TV genres began with a show called Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? As a heavily caste-based society in which upward mobility is unachievable for 98% of the population, the fantasy that anyone can rise from the mire if only they can answer a few simple questions is powerful beyond description.
And as India is an incredibly chaotic, dirty, frenetic society in which almost nothing works as it should, the appeal of cricket with its orderly rules and leisurely pace and crisp clean linen clothing is likewise fully explicable.
Of course, we can’t take this concept too far. Not all entertainments are pure compensation mechanisms. It’s doubtful that Russian television will feature a series about highly moral FSB operatives roaming the world with a mission to save people from assassination attempts, nor a series about a Russian leader staunchly committed to preserving the rule of law so that ordinary citizens can feel safe and secure. North Korean television will almost certainly not commission a comedy show that makes fun of their morbidly obese psychopathic dwarf leader. Chinese entertainments are highly unlikely to have characters rejecting Communist Party dictats and embracing individuality, freedom of thought, and sexual licentiousness. No US entertainment is ever going to feature a character whose primary characteristics are intelligence and a well-stocked mind.
But as a general heuristic for detecting the secret yearnings of a culture, it’s not a bad guide — and certainly far better than mistaking fiction for fact. Furthermore, as we are all becoming more homogenized, living similar lives regardless of geographic location, it’s predictable that we’ll all begin to yearn for the same kinds of escapism.
In the USA hardly anyone cooks any more: it’s all mixes and microwaved food if it’s not takeout. The UK isn’t far behind. So both nations suffer from an excess of absurd cooking shows. Likewise as people around the world become increasingly obese, the attraction of gawping at slender people doing athletic things becomes greater and greater. We can diagnose our own pathologies by means of our heuristic just as readily as we can diagnose the gaps of other cultures.
So the next time we find ourselves watching a popular entertainment it may be worth asking: what is it really telling us?