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Cleverness of me     

Posted by Katherine Putnam on October 17th, 2011

“Oh, I’m clever! Oh, the cleverness of me! Conceited? Not me. It’s just that I am what I am, and I’m me.”

I’ve composed roughly a dozen blog posts in my head over the past however-many-weeks, yet none of them have made it online. This is probably due to the fact that: fall shows have started up, Lisa and I are attempting a two person book club, I’m lazy, I have the tendency to think about posting while I’m driving or at work or otherwise unable to write my thoughts down, etc, etc.

Let’s see how many of those vague thoughts I can recapture and immortalize on the interwebs, shall we?

Lisa and I got together Tuesday night for another discussion of Middlemarch, during which time I found myself thinking that we sounded very smart and learned. (Please imagine a haughty, pompous tone when reading the previous sentence. And feel free to pronounce it “learn-ned,” as I am doing in my head.) We’re trying to maintain our English major-y…ness. As a human being with the normal gaps in self confidence, I feel that Lisa is doing a far better job of it than I am. She’s reading a lot more and blogging a lot more and her writing makes me wonder why I’m even trying. But I love her, so whatever jealousy I feel is mainly low key. Envy aside, I did preen a little as we managed to work references to Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights (among other works) into our discussion.

As a former English major, I’m hyper-aware of the lack of keywords like “theme,” “symbolism,” “motif,” “foreshadowing,” “foils,” etc in our conversations. I’ll excuse us by stating that: this is our first attempt at resurrecting our college-era brains, Middlemarch is fairly dense (there’s a quip in there about my head, I’m sure of it), and that I feel we will likely get to all that jazz once we’re completely through the book and are able to view it as a whole. For now we seem content to discuss our reactions, our predictions for future chapters, and do the normal literary-attempts-at-character-psychoanalysis. Or something like that. We also manage snippets of conversation relating to the trouble with false perceptions, poor views on love and marriage among some characters, character motivation, and how much we hate this one totally paranoid, totally arrogant, totally chauvinistic character. (We’re exercising our barrier-breaking feminist vision, folks.)

Of course, talking about a poorly-behaved, self-centered character we abhor naturally allowed us to turn the conversation into a mega-rant on the unimaginably abysmal writing on Glee. We both admit that we’re watching this season in the same manner that we watched the last: like one watches a train wreck. We know how awful it is. We know how awful it is likely to become. But we just can’t look away. And, as I may have mentioned once or twice in this post, we’re English majors and, therefore, we must analyze the characters and criticize the writing. In this case, we bemoan the fact that the writers of Glee refuse to let the characters develop and seem content to keep them trapped in little two-dimensional shells, doomed to behave and react in a Wile E Coyote manner: same situations, same problems, same reactions, same mistakes, lather, rinse, repeat.

It’s baffling to us how a show can create interesting characters and (vaguely) interesting (mildly cliche) situations, yet fail to see the potential for growth, change and development that those situations provide for the characters. The general mindset seems to be, “Well, in the pilot episode, this is how the character behaved and this is what they wanted…we can’t allow any of that to change or we’ll lose our fan base!” Maybe. I’ll admit that I have a very low opinion of most of the millions of television/movie viewers in this country. I think that many of them are content to watch the same drivel over and over, just in slightly different packaging (cough anyKatherineHeiglmovie cough). But I don’t buy into the “some of our audience is dumb and can’t handle change/development/a journey to maturity/fresh ideas/a section of film that goes more than three seconds without cutting to a different angle/subtlety therefore we must tailor everything to that portion of the market.” No. No. Stop it. It’s the same issue I have with most children’s programming/films. If you only give them dumb things, they’ll only be able to handle dumb things. If you challenge them, if you give their brains a sliver of a dollop of a pinch of a benefit of a doubt…they might surprise you. They might adapt. It might take a little explaining after the viewing. It might take some discussion. It might require a little brain-sweat. But it might just be worth it.

So, Powers-That-Be-Of-The-Glee-Writing-Universe, let’s stop worrying that progress will kill your (possibly insipid) fan base and instead try and do a little justice to the characters. Stop making them have the same tantrums every episode. Stop making Sue an irrational (frankly at this point annoying), motivation-less villian just because you can’t figure out what to do if she isn’t the Glee Club’s only opposition. Stop with the creepy student/teacher bromance/baseless idolization between Schue and Finn. It’s creepy. It’s weird. Just stop it. (And let’s all stop pretending that Schue is this great, insightful, caring, invested teacher. He’s not. He’s incredibly selfish, ridiculously short-sighted, blinded by his own disaster of a social life, and shows irrational, single-minded favoritism for the equally selfish, compared-to-other-singers-on-the-show-far-less-talented Finn. He may occasionally spare a few seconds for the other students in a time of need, but since they don’t blindly idolize him like Finn does, well, it’s hard for him to muster up the empathy. Or heck, keep this strange and annoying plot point, but at least call them out on it. Point out the flaw instead of trying to pass it off as a positive thing.) Learn how to let a character arc span more than an episode. Seriously. It gives you more room to flesh out the dilemma and allows space for the characters to reflect and react. Stop forcing a single episode conflict/ridiculously contrived resolution a la Full House. It isn’t real and it isn’t compelling. It makes the stories feel like disjointed fragments of a larger, mostly unrealized idea. Why have we brought Quinn and Santana back into Glee so quickly? Why is Mike’s struggle with his father’s expectations limited to the span of an episode? Will any of these issues be revisited or will they be swept under the rug and excused away with a super awkward we’ve-never-heard-the-adage-“show don’t tell”-before monologue? Learn how to listen to and respect the characters you created, instead of forcing them to behave contrary to the very nature you imbued them with, simply because you’re too lazy to write for them. Stop pushing Puck to the background of episodes simply because he’s the one character that seems to have evaded your clutches and managed under-the-radar-character-growth. Stop putting Finn (your most flawed and, yet, most boring character) on a pedestal and demanding that the other characters AND your viewers blindly worship him. Start getting creative. Start thinking outside the box. Realize that, just because a show is set in high school, the characters DON’T have to behave like mindless high-school-sitcom-stereotypes. High schoolers are as varied in interests, personalities, maturity levels, intelligence, motivation and character as any other segment of the population. Stop forcing them to be stereotypes. Finally, realize that your poorly written, slapdash show still sends out a message, regardless of your lack of intentions. For example, if you make Rachel choose Finn over her hopes and dreams, that sends a message to girls everywhere that a man is more important than everything else in their entire life. Yes, high school students make bad decisions. You can show that. But be aware of how you treat those mistakes. Realize the power you hold, and use it to challenge your audience, not to belittle them or mislead them.

Phew. How many of you were interested in THAT rant? Hopefully it wasn’t too off-putting. I realize that the details won’t make a lot of sense for those who don’t watch Glee (and no, I’m not suggesting that you maim your brain by going out to watch it…once you’re sucked in, it’s hard to escape from its hamster-wheel of a plot), but hopefully my criticism makes some sense.

The fact is, I love television and film. (Although my first love still is books…if you squint). That’s why I come down so hard on Glee: I can’t stand to see TV/film done badly. However, this passion does not mean that I am blind. I know there is a bit of a bias (especially in the Christian sector of my life) against people like me: people who would be content to watch and analyze and criticize TV shows and movies all day long. This bias stems from a belief that people like that are either a) lazy, b) brainwashed, sinful pawns of a secular media, c) pretentious and snooty, d) sniveling, pasty geeks, or e) all of the above. (And yes, the same stereotypes are applied to voracious readers, except print media is held to be slightly, only slightly mind you, less evil than these talking pictures.)

Yes, I am neon white. I can be lazy. I am often a bit snobby about my opinions (only because they’re right. Just kidding. Nah, I really wasn’t). But I really resent (and am often hurt by) the Christian mindset that the only “good” or “worthwhile” or, heck, “edifying” entertainment out there is the two-dimensional, white bread, the-characters-are-so-perfect-and-the-conflicts-so-nice/trite/unrealistic/unmoving/resolved through-over-used-hokey-plot-devices genre of “family friendly” movies (preferably those produced by Christians), and anyone who watches anything else is a sinful heathen. Now, look, some of these family friendly movies are alright. And when you’re looking for a movie to watch with small children, yeah, where else are you going to go? But the fact remains, looking at these movies from a wider perspective, that most of them don’t have anything to say. Okay, sure, they must say something. But when you really look at it, they say about as much, and have about as much impact on our intelligence, beliefs, conscience, and empathy, as an episode of Full House. (Which, incidentally, is the smallest amount of impact you can have…next to having no impact. Burn!)

Look, I’m a Christian. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I believe that he was born to the virgin Mary. I believe that he was fully God and fully man. I believe he lived a sinless life. I believe that he was crucified, paying the penalty for our sins through his death on the cross. I believe he rose again on the third day, and that by believing in him, we may have everlasting life. I. Am. A. Christian.

But I’m a Christian who watches movies that are rated PG-13 and–gasp!–R. I watch movies that contain sex, violence, drugs, foul language, and a myriad of other sins. And you know what? I’m sick of feeling guilty about this. I’m sick of defending my decision to watch movies that depict the diversity and fallen nature of humanity.

Why do I choose to watch such movies? I watch them because, as I stated above, they depict the diversity and fallen nature of humanity. This is the same reason that I love reading fiction, and part of the reason I became an English major. As a member of the human race, I’m curious about what makes us tick. Why do people behave the way they do? What informs our reactions and emotions? And, since I’m a Christian asking this question, what makes us sin? I know the pat answer, the most basic answer is because we are human; we’re fallen and, save for Christ, separated from God. But what motivates each specific sin?

Why do I want to know this? An honest answer involves some variation of “I don’t really know.” But when I try to puzzle out my own motivation, aside from the cat-killing curiosity, all I can say is that I’m only me. I’m limited to my own experiences and understanding of the world. (My own “situatedness,” as Crystal Downing termed it.) By immersing myself in a story, I open myself to worldviews, decisions, mindsets, characters, what-have-you that I otherwise may never experience for myself.

Why is this important? I’ll admit that I disagree with many of the worldviews presented in films (and books). Why do I want to spend two hours of my life on something I don’t believe in? Because I believe that a faith that can’t be challenged, that can’t withstand opposition, can’t be trusted.

We’re constantly told that our world contains many shades of grey, and I think that’s true. We are not God. We cannot make the absolute and final judgments that He can, and I don’t believe He calls us to make those judgments for Him. Christ called for us to love one another; yet he also called us to believe and follow the one Truth.

There’s a challenge.

How do you balance fighting to overcome your sinful nature while showing love to people who may make that fight more difficult for you? (Because loving others does often tempt us from our path. Then again, it takes so little to tempt us.) One thing (tool? weapon? what metaphor do I reach for here?) that can help us with that struggle is empathy.

Am I making sense? Has my muddled rhetoric lost you? I fear I’m not making the kind of sense I want to make. Let me share a little book club story, and hopefully things will become a little clearer.

In Middlemarch, there is a young woman, Dorothea, who enters into marriage with a significantly older, scholarly clergyman named Casaubon. Dorothea enters the marriage filled with love and admiration for her husband, believing that he will desire to share his knowledge with her and, more importantly, that he will love her as she loves him. Casaubon, on the other hand, only wants a submissive, worshipful wife who will serve him however he pleases, but otherwise shut up and stay out of his way unless he needs her. You guessed it: this is not a happy marriage. Casaubon does not set out to hurt Dorothea, but he does at every turn by belittling her and denying her even the barest scraps of affection. When a new character, Will, enters the drama, you almost rejoice when you find out that he loves and admires Dorothea. You’re happy to see her happiness blossom under his friendly (for she does not realize his feelings) attention. You wish she would love and marry Will.

But wait, Dorothea already is married.

This was the moral conundrum that Lisa and I found ourselves in while reading an earlier section of the book. Neither of us believe that adultery is acceptable. Neither of us would truly be happy if Dorothea cheated (emotionally or otherwise) on her husband. But we felt for Dorothea. Caught up in her story, we hurt when she hurt (i.e. whenever Casaubon was cruel or cold).

When repeating (as we had both done over and over) that she did not condone adultery at all, Lisa moved on to make a new, intriguing point. (As I had no recording device on me, this is merely my best attempt to sum up her point.) She said that reading Dorothea’s plight gave her a compassion and empathy for those stuck in unhappy marriages that she never had before. We didn’t (and still don’t) know if Will and Dorothea will end up in an adulterous relationship. But that wasn’t Lisa’s point. Her point was that, while she still believed adultery was wrong, she had a new ability to feel compassion for those who commit it.

This, I believe, is (one of) the point(s) I was trying to make. If we’ve never been tempted to adultery, it is difficult to empathize with those who have. Empathy doesn’t mean we have to agree with a person’s action or decision; it means that we can see and understand what motivated them to behave that way. Empathy, I believe, helps us to bridge the conflict between loving others and loving what is right. Too often we either love others and throw morality aside or we cling to right and wrong and turn our backs on our fellow man.

So why do I watch films filled with the dark, gritty realities of our sinful nature? Because they challenge me. They challenge me to really understand and nail down what I believe, but they also challenge me to make a better effort at understanding and offering compassion to others. They show me situations and characters outside my realm of experience (a man with a delusion*, three drag queens looking for love and acceptance**, sons seeking murderous revenge***, an abused woman seeking solace in an affair****) and, by doing so, dare me to define my own beliefs while still striving to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Because, despite the lessons in compassion (and hey, I’m not saying those lessons always stick as well as they should), I do still use what I watch as a way to hone what I believe. I don’t accept everything I see. I don’t condone every character’s behavior. I do believe that “reality” (violence, language, sex) can be, and often is, used gratuitously in films. But I prefer the mental and moral workout that comes from wrestling with my feelings and reactions to a film than the brain static that results from “clean” films like The Tooth Fairy. Barf. (No, I’m not going to dignify that movie with a link. Find it yourselves if you so choose; I refuse to help you.)

And, just in case I’ve made it seem like I don’t watch anything that isn’t rated R: that’s not true. I believe that G or PG movies can challenge an audience just as well as a PG-13 or an R rated movie can; but I’ll argue that while the challenge may be just as good, it doesn’t mean they can offer the same challenge. Up raises different questions than Away We Go, and vice versa. One isn’t better than they other, but they offer very different opportunities for discussion and growth.

So, in conclusion: hi. My name is Katherine. I am a Christian. I am a big fan of movies and television. I watch anything from G to R. I am opinionated. I question and critique everything I watch. I do my best to take something away from even the most reprehensible of characters or plots. And, to tie back to my original Glee rant, I don’t have a very high tolerance for poor (and irresponsible) writing.

I hope this has made sense. I hope this gives you a better idea of who I am and why I…rant what I rant and watch what I watch. (Except Glee. I don’t know why I watch that. But I do know why I rant.)

Cheers,

Katherine Elyse

 

 

P.S.- Sometimes I use bold text just to emphasize a point. Other times bold text signifies a link to another site or a video. Make sure you check!

 

*Lars and the Real Girl, PG-13
**To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, PG-13
***Four Brothers, R
****Waitress, PG-13


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