On being fed an emptiness
An interesting subject was brought up on the blog The Last Psychiatrist the other day. It starts innocently with an international reader’s response to the author’s entry about lamictal, a mood stabilizer. Essentially, what the reader has come to understand about America is that we are a ridiculously well off country that lives in excess but somehow still needs drugs in order to stabilize issues that may not even be there. And, to a degree, the reader was valid. However, the blog’s author, the titular Last Psychiatrist, spun his response in an interesting direction. America is a country of mercantilists rather than merely capitalists, because Americans want what they’re told that they want. It’s not about having things but rather the idea of having things. Shoes are nice, but Nike shoes say more. A car is nice, but a Lexus says something about you.
I don’t believe that the proper word is mercantilism, though. I’m trying to make that work, but it doesn’t work in my mind. The closest word I can find is materialism despite the fact that the pursuits of the people aren’t necessarily in objects in and of themselves but a greater idea beyond the physical entity. Again, it’s not just having a car that matters but rather the specific type of car. Capitalism might have started off a theory that pushed toward materialism, but now we sell people ideas.
The media is fueled by the belief that there’s more out there than the material. When you watch commercials, you’re not watching objects for sale but the ideas behind them, the lifestyles they support, and a special metaphysical weight that must be inherent in them. Dr. Dre’s Dr. Pepper commercial doesn’t sell you a soft drink. It sells you Dre’s special party drink. Hedon Penitentiary’s acne cleanser ads aren’t selling acne protection. They’re selling you the high end acne protection that renders zits invisible on television! (Note: In reality, they use makeup to cover it rather than merely cleaning the star’s face.)
But it’s not just present in commercials for store products. America sells much more than that. As The Last Psychiatrist points out, America sells the idea of happiness, or at the very least the idea that none of us are living our lives the right way. If you’re not happy and pleasant all the time, you’re not properly happy. Take some drugs and you’ll be fine. Wait, are you too energetic and focused on achieving completion of work assignments? Then you must be manic, so take these drugs and you’ll be fine. But our culture isn’t intending to sell the drugs. It seems more focused on selling the insecurity. There’s always something wrong. There’s always something else you should do, buy, or think. There’s a baseline that you are most certainly missing – you and you alone.
This insecurity is what sells romantic comedies. Many are an over-idealized spectacle of self-sacrifice or a man’s desire to change entirely for a woman. There is a romanticism prevalent in many of these films that is certainly attainable but lacking in individual expression of love. It’s unfortunate that I report that there are woman out there who use such films as blueprints for the foundation of what they expect the perfect romance to be if someone truly loves them. It becomes disconcerting and frustrating when these expectations are not met by an otherwise acceptable partner.
I’ve also seen these idealized romances breed a total disregard in viewers, too. Instead of believing in the fairytale romance, someone will dismiss the idea of true love as fictional because of how it is displayed in fiction. Instead of searching for the most ideal partner, the viewers may instead opt for more convenient romances or situations where basic needs are met. Another reason not to prey on insecurity is because it breeds more insecurity.
Romcoms aren’t the only perpetrators of selling insecurity. What about the alpha males in action films? What about the wise ass jerk with a heart of gold in comedies? (Note: There are many crossovers here with the romcom.) Hell, even the softer scifi out there suggests that someday our flaws will be fixable thanks to a McGuffin – and it’s usually not the MacGuffin itself that ends up being wrong but someone’s abuse of it instead. These all suggest that there’s something that we’re lacking but exist as templates for a better life. There are things we can get to make our lives better. Memorize these one-liners to be more likeable and/or macho. Follow these steps for the ideal romance.
The inherent problem is that popular fiction presents an exaggerated reality, either too good or horrible to be true. You don’t get reality as it is when you turn on the television or go to the movies. Reality isn’t fun because the message would be that things can be good or bad depending on how you want to look at it and how much responsibility you are willing to take. And why should I want to take responsibility when I can just buy some drugs or a party drink? Why should I look into my nutritional habits as well as personal routines (like how often I touch all over my face) when I can buy the protection of the stars? Why look for a romantic match when I can expect us all to latch to the same ideal of romance? The greatest insecurity on which the media preys is the notion that we are each incapable of taking care of, taking responsibility for, and deciding anything for ourselves.