The Mental Illness of Pop Culture

Our family “unplugged” from cable many years ago. And honestly, if it weren’t for documentaries and our daughter’s cartoons about dragons and horses, I’d probably be okay with ditching our various streaming services too. I feel existentially fatigued with the toxicity of pop culture now and what the lords of media are pushing these days.

If you are looking for something cheerful or harmlessly funny or characters that are unquestionably good, you are out of luck these days. If you are looking for dystopian fantasies and shows that fetishize suffering and making objectively bad decisions, Netflix and Amazon have enough dark content to last you ten lifetimes.

I’ve watched the first few episodes of several popular television series these days, including fake Southern belle Reese Witherspoon’s Big Little Lies (seriously, no true Southern woman would make a show where the mothers are smoking joints while sitting in traffic while their daughters auction off their virginity online… this storytelling is the antithesis of good society) and ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder. I try to be entertained at first, but I find myself increasingly watching shows as a 19th-century anthropologist observes the customs of some “savage” tribe. Unsympathetic and more than a little disgusted but curious to see how far the differences go. I don’t like feeling that way about my own culture.

I wonder about the audiences that binge watch these shows. Do they notice that literally every single character is fundamentally immoral? Do they legitimately like that aspect of these shows? Or do they like the Candy Land wardrobe and Instagram-ready mansions and they just don’t care about the plot or character development? Do they see aspects of themselves and their personalities in these characters? Does watching stuff like this aggravate existing mental or social problems? Are folks who watch content like this more likely than others to commit suicide or develop an addiction themselves? Are they more likely to become bullies?

Both the lords of pop culture and their audiences seem to have lost the concept of an antihero as well. An antihero is someone who has basically good impulses, but chooses not to follow rules that are created by institutions that do not have good impulses. The main characters of dramas today are not antiheroes. They are simply bad people. What does it say about our media climate that the writers for these shows don’t see that? What does it say about audiences?

We are currently at what could potentially be the tipping point in an unprecedented era of prosperity in the United States, which is unquestionably the richest country in the world. Politicians fret about income inequality, but even our poor live in luxury compared to the rest of the world. You wouldn’t be able to tell that from our pop culture, which is obsessed with physical violence, rape, mental illness, and drugs. It almost makes you wonder how dark our society is going to get when we inevitably experience a bona fide rough patch.

The opposite is true for the (very much dying) literary world now. There are endless books on virtue and mindfulness and returning children to a wholesome world. See, for example, the bestseller On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books, which takes an Aristotelian view of literature and recommends the ancients as an antidote for the depression of contemporary culture. Or Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination. Or the trend toward putting young children in “forest schools” or “nature schools,” where they spend the day playing in the woods. The constant refrain: Choose to be better than this. Choose to live well in a world that is choosing to live badly.

The media is full of talking heads explaining how we live in “two Americas” now and how the country is spinning toward some sort of second civil war. I wonder if that is true, but it has nothing to do with politics. Are there two Americas, one that is aggressively mentally healthy and another that is aggressively mentally ill?

4 thoughts on “The Mental Illness of Pop Culture

  1. The upside of this, however, is that not wanting to consume this stuff means more time with family in the kitchen, more time reading, more time gardening, more time hiking. Or whatever it is that fills you with joy. And that’s a very good thing.

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