(Mild spoilers for “Pineapple Express” appear in this post)
Via Andrew Sullivan, Martha Bayles on the impact of entertainment on young men in America:
consider that the problem facing American society these days is not that it neglects the education of young women but that it screws up the socialization of young men. The most powerful shaper of popular attitudes is the entertainment industry, and what is it doing? This short article in today’s New York Times sums it up very effectively — all the more so because it is so bizarrely uncritical.
This mentality can be summed up simply: Young men have no minds, souls, or characters worth bothering about; they care about nothing, respect nothing, and aspire to nothing. They are pure appetite and aggression, just waiting to be pandered to for money. So may the best panderer win.
Already I am tired of the fuss over Michael Phelps, who has won eight gold medals but seems to have less charisma than a carp. But at least he aspired to greatness and achieved it. Without sports — and, of course, war — what other challenges are presented to young men? Being the biggest gross-out on the block?
Sayles makes two serious errors here. The first is that this particular (and particularly lucrative) sort of filmmaking is by any stretch the sum or even the principal output of the “entertainment” industry which is aimed at young men. It is interesting to pretend for a moment as if the entire genres of science fiction and fantasy don’t exist, as if “Lord of the Rings” didn’t make a pile of money off of teenaged males. Further, it grossly misunderstands what those movies actually are about. Many of those films, particularly those which originated from producer-director Judd Apatow (Superbad, Pineapple Express) are particularly about the dangers of resisting maturation and socialization.
Take the recently released “Pineapple Express”. This movie could not be more explicit in rejecting the anti-social and immature impulses of its characters. The character of Seth Rogen begins the film an unrepentant pothead who is dating a high-school girl seven years his junior. Over the course of the film, Rogen will both reject the prospect of continuing to date a high school girl and renounce smoking pot. Rather than encouraging the immature behavior of their characters, films like “There’s Something About Mary” and even “Animal House” are unremittingly negative on the implications of the arrested behavior they revel in.
But the second error is in my opinion the more serious one. The entertainment industry is not the “most powerful shaper of popular attitudes.” Popular attitudes are the most powerful shaper of the entertainment industry. And, from literally as long as entertainment has existed, a major aspect of it has been entertainment which is intentionally trangressive against popular attitudes.
The impulse to transgress against the forbidden is a human universal. The ability for a word, image, or action to shock and to violate is what grants it mass appeal. Entertainment is, as much as anything else, escapism. We cannot do the sort of vile things that Ben Stiller shows us. Our inability to act that way is what causes our desire to see others do it. Seeing the activities in the context of an explicit fantasy frees us to revel in those suppressed desires.
What insults the intelligence of the young men who enjoy these films is not that they are treated as young people with only aggression and appetite. What is insulting is the idea that they are not aware of the distinction between reality and fantasy, and that what they are willing to pay ten bucks to watch for a couple hours is the sum of their being. It is an excuse to say that we don’t understand today’s youth, and we have no interest in trying.