Reel Life vs. Real Life


One reason TV and the movies distort life is that many of those who make the films and sitcoms are out of touch with the fulness of the truth.

There are a few things I learned very early in my career as a television critic:

  • No problem is so big it that can’t be solved in twenty-three minutes (thirty, counting commercials);

  • For all of its talk about public service and art, commercial television exists to sell soap;

  • There is often no discernible correlation between the real world and Hollywood’s perception of reality.

If you watch much television, you already know about the first two items—especially if you’ve heard about the TV ratings system and how it works. But you may not be as familiar with Hollywood’s skewed view of the world in which we live—a view that, more often than not, finds itself at odds with eternal truth.

In trying to reconcile that eternal truth—the gospel principles we are taught to live by—with what is billed as “real world” entertainment, it helps to take a look at how basic entertainment industry misperceptions shape the “reality” portrayed on TV and in movies.

I first became aware of the “Lalaland” mentality during a Hollywood press conference I attended with about 120 other writers from around the country. We were interviewing the producer of a new television series, a program featuring a tempestuous romance between a slightly chubby, gray-haired, grandfatherly detective and a gorgeous twenty-year-old model. One of the writers asked if there was a reason that several programs with similar premises were being previewed for the press.

“Are you kidding?” the slightly chubby, gray-haired, grandfatherly producer responded. “This is going on all over the place. Young women are discovering older men.”

Most of the critics around me chuckled and shook their heads. The critic next to me, knowing I was new, directed my attention to a beautiful twenty-something woman in the back of the room. “That’s his reality,” he whispered.

In that producer’s world, beautiful young women are often interested in powerful men nearly three times their age. For him, that’s just the way life is, and so he thinks nothing of producing a TV series about such a “standard” relationship. His ideas are reinforced by Hollywood peers who approach the scenario from a similar perspective. And he seems truly puzzled when critics suggest that the relationship is not going to be acceptable in the eyes of most viewers. (In fact, viewers never did accept it; the series lasted only a few weeks.)

The experience taught me an important lesson: “reel” life (the world as it is reflected on TV and movie screens) often bears only a passing resemblance to real life (the world most of us live in)—especially when we are trying to live within a gospel framework.

To put the problem in context, here are nine semi-indisputable facts about Hollywood’s most powerful people—writers, directors, producers, and studio and network executives—that will help us as we try to resolve the conflicts between the realities of our world and theirs.

  1. 1.

    Most of them are male. There are some incredibly talented men running film studios, producing TV programs, and creating Hollywood magic. But if most of the perspectives we see expressed dramatically are male perspectives, we’re only seeing half of the story. That explains a lot about the way women are presented, doesn’t it?

  2. 2.

    Most of them are Caucasian. Of course, there are notable exceptions, with some significant inroads having been made by black artists. Where are the additional perspectives of Hispanics, Asians, Polynesians, or Native Americans? Any way we look at it, Hollywood’s ethnic mix represents an extremely narrow cross-section of society.

  3. 3.

    Most of them are forty-five to sixty years old. The dominance of this age group is another limitation on perspective. Many of these people have lived and worked in the “reel” world for their entire professional careers. No wonder they’ve lost touch.

  4. 4.

    Most of them are wealthy. While it’s true that many Lalalanders experienced poverty in their childhood, most have forgotten what it’s like to do without. They don’t understand the economic realities and social pressures that face working-class families.

  5. 5.

    A handful of producers is responsible for most of what you see. Skim across the television dial five minutes before the hour—about the time programs are ending. You’ll notice the same production credits coming up again and again. The film world is a little more diverse, but the same people tend to make movies year after year. Of course, the main reason some of those names show up over and over in film and television credits is that these creative people are talented and the public pays to see their work. But the price we pay includes another limitation on perspective.

  6. 6.

    They belong to a tight-knit fraternity. Those involved in the entertainment industry go to the same parties, talk to the same people, read the same publications, often share the same philosophies. It’s awfully hard for a new person to break into the group. Ditto a new thought or idea.

  7. 7.

    Judging by their works, most of them are irreligious. While many Lalalanders have some religious training in their background, most have turned their backs on organized religion. It shows. Think about it: when was the last time you saw religion or religious people portrayed positively on TV or in a movie? Film critic Michael Medved accuses Hollywood of engaging in “an attempt to undermine organized religion.” 1 I’m not sure it’s quite that subversive. Religion just isn’t important to many of the people who make movies and television shows, so they assume it isn’t important to anyone else, either. That’s the religious perspective you see reflected on TV and movie screens most often: indifference, seasoned with a dash or two of misunderstanding and mistrust.

  8. 8.

    Judging by their work, most of them are amoral. Many in the entertainment industry are not sure if there is such a thing as morality. These individuals toy with the notion of right and wrong as if it is something that can be manipulated to suit different conditions and circumstances. They twist values to suit whatever social trend is chic at the moment. Goodness and virtue are relative for them, determined more by convenience and impulse than any sort of absolute standard.

    Does that reflect life for the ordinary viewer? I don’t think so. Most of us cling to long-established values and standards—marriage, with fidelity in the relationship, for example. But is this reality reflected proportionately on film and television screens? We can scan our newspaper’s TV and movie listings and see the deficiency of values.

  9. 9.

    Most of them are powerful. Because of the tremendous amount of money that can be earned from a film or television production, many of the creative people responsible for it carry enormous clout. Often they get used to having their own way and being treated as if they are more important than anyone else. It’s got to be difficult to maintain a clear perspective when you only look at the world in one direction: down.

Of course, they’re not all that way, any more than they’re all male, Caucasian, or irreligious. But the nine characteristics listed above are true of many in the film and television industry, which helps explain some of the offerings on TV and in feature films, and also helps explain why some very important elements—especially spiritual elements—are often missing from Hollywood entertainment. Those who produce it probably believe sincerely that they are presenting life as it is, when in fact they are merely peeking at reality through a very narrow window.

So what’s wrong with that? Doesn’t all art reflect the artist’s perspective on the world in which he or she lives? Yes, and we seem to innately understand this concept with most art forms. But for some reason we don’t make the same aesthetic allowances for film that we make for sculpture, music, literature, and painting. Perhaps film art tricks us by its very nature. It looks so realistic that we forget that the view of life on film is rarely more than someone’s dressed-up fantasy. Too many of us buy into the belief that Hollywood’s reality is … well, real, and we wonder what’s wrong with us if our lives aren’t like that. Then, sadly, some of us set out to conform to a reality that only exists in somebody else’s imagination.

That’s when we run into problems. It’s challenging to live God’s standards of modesty and morality, for example, if you are carrying around the mistaken impression that you’re the only one in the entire world who is living them. And program after program presenting life-styles and relationships in violation of Heavenly Father’s commandments—and making sins seem not only commonplace but somehow right—can make it tougher to choose wisely.

It should be noted that many in the film and television industries deny any cause-and-effect relationship between what is portrayed on screen and how viewers choose to live their lives. Once again, Michael Medved energetically challenges that denial.

“The leaders of the entertainment industry regularly downplay the significance of their own work, insisting that the fantasies they have created have no influence on anyone,” Medved wrote recently. “The networks and the studios have commissioned expensive studies from various experts to support their appallingly illogical contention that violence on screen has no connection to violence in real life, and that intensely sexual material does nothing to encourage promiscuity.

“This same industry then turns around and asks advertisers to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for 30 seconds of air time in the hope that this fleeting exposure will directly alter the public’s buying behavior! Don’t they grasp the internal contradiction here? On the one hand, we’re told that an hour of television programming has no real world consequences whatsoever, and on the other we’re led to believe that the 60-second spots that occasionally interrupt this program are powerful enough to change public perceptions of everything from canned goods to candidates!

“I happen to believe that the industry is right when it touts the impact of media images, but I can’t accept the contention that motion pictures and song lyrics and music videos and TV shows are somehow less influential than commercials.” 2

I agree with Medved; media images do leave a lasting impression on the mind—and sometimes on the heart and soul as well. Admittedly, those impressions and images are often wonderfully positive and helpful. But what do we do when they are not? How should we react when the teenage heroes of a popular television series decide to have sexual relations because to do otherwise would be, according to the series creators, “unrealistic”? Or when a popular cartoon character is asked to pray over a meal and says, “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing”? Or when the traditional family all but disappears from prime time and the feature film?

It seems to me there are four things we might do to respond to media “realities” that run counter to gospel principles and standards.

First, it can be helpful to develop a healthy skepticism about anything we see or hear in the popular media—whether it purports to be realistic or not. We can recognize that no matter how accurately a story is retold, it’s still a story designed to capture viewers. “Yes, we want to be accurate,” a docudrama producer once told me, “but our first priority is to make a good movie. If that requires that we create a sort of heightened reality, so be it.” In other words, expecting absolute realism from entertainment media founded on fantasy is unrealistic.

Second, seek out entertainment that supports gospel teachings while it pleases aesthetically. And if you can’t find very many acceptable movies and TV programs, at least don’t lend your support to those that defy God’s standards. The First Presidency’s counsel to youth of the Church applies to all of us: “Don’t be afraid to walk out of a movie [or] turn off a television set … if what’s being presented does not meet your Heavenly Father’s standards.” (For the Strength of Youth, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1990, p. 12.) Whether we intend it or not, every time we buy a ticket to an exploitative movie, we tell Hollywood that that’s what we want to see. Ditto for sleazy TV programs. The only way we’ll see more creative effort put into entertainment properties that espouse traditional values is if a few of them start making money, or if the objectionable materials stop making so much money.

As long as we’re talking about realism, let’s be realistic about this. I know that there aren’t a lot of exciting, high-quality offerings out there that are consistent with LDS standards. I also know how hard it is to resist a movie or a TV show that everyone is talking about. Each of us has to decide for ourselves how high we’re going to list “entertainment” among our priorities. But Hollywood doesn’t know if we close our eyes during certain scenes, or if we disapprove of the language that is used, or if we really, really wish that sexuality hadn’t been so graphically portrayed. All Hollywood knows or cares about is that we laid down our six bucks for the movie or tuned in to the program. As far as the folks producing this material are concerned, that’s the ultimate reality.

Third, we can and should voice our objections to inappropriate material, especially if we feel we have been exposed to it as a result of misleading advertising. Television stations and advertisers should be notified of your concerns (preferably in written form; telephone messages are too easily ignored or forgotten). Film producers need to hear the perspective of “real” people. And don’t hesitate to ask for your money back if you walk out of a movie. While it’s true your one voice may not make a difference, your voice joined with numerous others just might. So make sure your voice is heard.

Finally, we can think about the people and situations we see portrayed dramatically and reconcile them to gospel standards. Whether something is “realistic” isn’t nearly as important as whether it is right. Perhaps we could ask ourselves: if that couple is really so deeply in love, why don’t they make a commitment to each other through marriage? Aren’t there more literate and descriptive words that could be used in this situation than crude and vulgar profanity? Wouldn’t forgiveness be a better course of action than violent revenge?

The thirteenth Article of Faith encourages us to seek out that which is “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.” Such things may not always represent “life as it is.” But they certainly represent life as it should be. As far as our Heavenly Father is concerned, that’s the goal to shoot for—aesthetically or otherwise.

And that’s the only reality that counts.

[photos] Background photo by Superstock; film photo by Steve Bunderson

[photo] Photo by Steven Bunderson

[photo] Photo by FPG International

[photos] Photography by Steve Bunderson

Former newspaper television critic Joseph Walker works as a media specialist for the Church Public Affairs Department and serves as a counselor in the presidency of the Bountiful Utah Orchard Stake.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Michael Medved, “Popular Culture and the War against Standards,” Imprimis, Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College, Feb. 1991, p. 4.

  2.   2.

    Ibid., p. 5.