Some theories for interpreting the potential spiritual and moral influence of feature films and television

(These items are selections from chapter 15. The full chapter is available for downloading

The osmosis of values from films and television?

Just how much people in general, and impressionable children in particular, can absorb in the way of values from identification with film characters and ‘film worlds' is an open question and impossible to determine. It is nevertheless useful to consider a general process of personal learning in which individuals, even in a relatively unconscious way, can take on board the values and worldviews that are operating behind the scenes in films.

As noted in the previous section, to understand and follow the story in film, viewers need to enter into the worldviews and value systems that form the fabric of the narrative; if they do not give the film's implied worldview at least some plausibility as far as the story is concerned, then the story will have no perceived coherence – it will not be believable. Film worldviews or values systems are usually not articulated, but authors and film-makers presume that people can pick them up readily from the clues in their narratives. The capacity to make sense of stories (in film as well as in novels) is a basic human ability that quickly and almost unconsciously builds up an impression of the values out of which the characters operate. By entering vicariously into a story, the viewer in a sense ‘participates' in its worldview and temporarily acknowledges the values in the characters so that they can make sense of the action as consistent with the characters' motives. It is possible to absorb and ‘learn' values from this experience, just as one can learn from exposure to values in real life; there may be an attraction for the particular values embedded in some stories, and there may be repulsion from others.

When a film is over, viewers usually disengage from the story with their own worldview and values system remaining in a normative position. Almost intuitively, people will know that their values are different from many of those embedded in films, and they know when their values are the same as those displayed by particular characters. But if individuals do not have a reasonably well-developed set of beliefs and values (whether religiously motivated or not), or if there is a vagueness and fluidity in them, then perhaps they will be more vulnerable to influence from the value systems in which they are immersed when they watch films and television. Many years of exposure to the implied value systems and lifestyles in film might incline young people to a particular way of thinking and valuing.

The values and worldviews operative in film are presumed background. If viewers deal with this dimension to a story in an unreflective way, they may not learn to identify and articulate the underlying values; the film's worldview will then go largely unnoticed and barely scrutinised, but nonetheless it will be potentially influential; the more it remains unnoticed in the background, the greater its potential for spiritual and moral influence. For example, in many films the story presumes that casual sex is a natural and taken-for-granted part of a first date. The film is not arguing a case for this view; it is simply presenting it as ‘reality'. And reality is hard to argue against. If people have not clarified their own moral code on this issue, then it is probable that they could drift along with a film's inherent values (or lack of positive values) to some extent. They can get the impression that most other people share that same view; it looks attractive, fun-filled and not harmful; and this seems to give a popular justification of casual sex that can in turn affect their behaviour. When they are in a situation where a decision about this is required, they may lean towards the film-reinforced view that ‘this is OK'. Thus the value systems from the film world can form individuals' values by default.

Sometimes the values matrix in film may not so much be the source of values for a particular viewer but a reinforcement of values he or she already has. For example, one 5-year-old girl, whose personality was considerably more aggressive and boisterous than that of her siblings, said that when she grows up she wanted to become a gladiator like those in the television program. It could be that the Gladiators program was more of a cultural reinforcement and validation of her aggressive orientation than its cause. Screen violence could affect people in the same way. If screen violence has a cultural acceptability as public entertainment, then for some it could serve as a cultural validation of their inclination to violent behaviour (see section 15.7.16).

An educational response to the presumed worldviews in film would include efforts to help children and adolescents learn first how to identify the implied values in films and television programs and to see how the behaviour of the characters is meaningful and consistent with those values; then they can call into question how realistically that view represents reality; finally, the values can be appraised in the light of other standards – for example, the rights of people in democratic countries, human values and religious values, and the values espoused by the school.

For study of film portrayals of casual sexual relationships, the following sorts of questions can be proposed:

·         Do all casual sexual relationships in the real world run as smoothly and without embarrassment or hurt to either party as they seem to in films?

·         Are one or both of the parties in casual sexual relationships personally compromised in some ways that are not shown in films?

·         What if one partner becomes more emotionally attached and committed than the other?

·         Is it realistic that questions about contraception are rarely raised before casual sex portrayed in films?

·         Does casual sex in films overrate the significance of sex in the personal communication and bonding between people?

The activity of ‘deconstructing' a film story (sitcom or television commercial) to highlight the presumed values is a useful one educationally. This is central to the skill of being able to ‘read' film and television: subjecting them to the same type of evaluation that one might apply to a novel, identifying plot, characterisation and so on.

15.7.5  The ‘social reality' of film and television and ‘reality television'

Another way of putting the above argument is to suggest that film and television have a spiritual and moral influence through their communication of social reality – what people think real life is about (section 15.7.3). The film and television images and stories can build expectations about lifestyle. For some, the social reality within their own home and school calls into question what is projected by the media. Those who do not have this support are more susceptible to the social reality they perceive on the screen.

The emergence of so-called ‘reality television' as a popular category raises further questions about the social reality projected by television. The following suggests one way of analysing the spiritual-moral dimension to this phenomenon.

Analysing the spiritual-moral dimension to ‘reality television': More than meets the eye

At first sight, a spiritual-moral dimension to reality television seems unlikely and hardly worth pursuing. Much reality television appeals to the ‘winners over losers' mentality; viewers have a sense of participative power in voting the outcomes; there is criticism and humiliation in the sequential ousting of competitors; the raw emotion of participants is on show for all to see; even for a day, ordinary people can become celebrities; and celebrities can display their ordinariness as gardeners. The potential for spiritual-moral content seems limited, and what is there seems not worth recommending, especially when the driving commercial purpose of doing anything to achieve viewer ratings is taken into account.

On closer inspection, however, reality television demonstrates a spiritual-moral dimension both in the onscreen participants and viewers, even if this is not particularly influential or novel. Nevertheless, part of an education that advances young people's critical interpretation of television culture is learning how to discern the psychological and spiritual dynamics in what is consumed as public entertainment. There is a spiritual-moral dimension to ordinary life, even where this is filmed for broadcast television; tapping into this dimension is a part of what attracts viewers' interest, even if superficially. There are both positive and negative spiritual aspects of reality television; both need identification and evaluation. It has been around long enough now to have subcategories.

The ‘how to' programs

There is an ever increasing number of popular ‘how to' programs that focus on lifestyle, whether it be in gardening, renovation, house buying, cooking, travel and makeovers. This is the ‘softer' side of reality television. Beneath the surface is the presumption that lifestyle, environment and personal fulfilment are linked. Having a specifically designed garden promotes a more ‘organic' and ‘holistic' lifestyle – in other words, making a living space more spiritual or bringing the spirituality of nature into the living space; the green and freshness of nature have a calming influence; time needs to be put aside for the relaxed enjoyment of an attractive ambience. The renovators are striving to make the most of their homes; they may want to create some tranquillity and symmetry that can impact on their lifestyle. Cooking an attractive and healthy meal is an art, with respect for the ingredients, and needs to be more than just functional; the eating thereof is a communal celebration. Travel is proposed to be more about enjoyment of other cultures and nature than about material pleasure. The makeovers show how good looks and designer clothes are important for success. While these ‘messages' may end up trapping people to some degree in a slavery to externals, they do highlight people's basic need for affirmation and acceptance.

Many of the programs start with a bad situation that is to be made good. There is the dishevelled garden; the dreary, untidy room; the poorly dressed person; and the face and hair in need of a makeover. The wrong is to be made right, the ugly made attractive; assets are to be enhanced. Running through all of this is a common theme: ‘becoming a better person' – like a spirituality of desirable change. It is ironic that the most common participants' exclamation when they first behold the change is ‘O my God!'

All of these programs presume that enhancement of quality of life in all its dimensions is desirable. Their focus is not exclusively commercial, and their appreciation by viewers is not exclusively hedonistic. They highlight people's spiritual and moral needs, even if the quality of what seems to satisfy these needs is sometimes questionable. In an age and culture that are materialistic and secularised, it is an important step to be able to identify a spiritual-moral dimension in action, since this can be a valuable starting point for enhancing this dimension in one's own life. For people who are religious, it identifies the spiritual points where their beliefs can affect their behaviour.

The reality competitions

Big Brother, Survivor, Temptation Island, Bachelor, Bachelorette, Idol, Wife Swap, The Fat Club, Hothouse, My Restaurant Rules, My big fat obnoxious fiancée, Amish in the city, Boy meets boy, Dancing with the stars, Australia's next top model, Extreme makeover, What not to wear and the like offer a voyeuristic window on the behaviour of ordinary people put into an artificial ‘reality' competition, or of celebrities put into an artificially competitive situation. These programs represent the ‘harsher' side of reality television; they are what most people understand as ‘proper' reality television. There are many variants: for example, The weakest link was a game show incorporating ideas from reality television.

The participants are easy enough to identify with. They are not reading prepared scripts, but they inevitably display the motives and moral codes they operate out of (or the codes they would like to put on show). Watching a program develop over some weeks engages viewers in processes of identification and moral evaluation. In identifying more with one participant than another, or in hoping that one will succeed while others are eliminated, viewers are judging the appropriateness of behaviour and morals. Feeling an identification with a particular participant is like a gauge of who you are and what are your priorities. The longer their favourite survives, the more viewers' personal valuation of the participants is validated. Expressing judgments and voting support for favourites is like a confessional statement. Viewers are articulating a moral point of view; they can enjoy kicking out the transgressors and they can delight that the ‘solid citizen' wins.

For this type of program, the very name ‘reality television' creates spiritual and values problems. For example, twenty-five women engage in ‘behaviours' that increase their chances of being chosen by the ‘bachelor' – and this before cameras for public consumption. Or teams on an island are required to perform bizarre endurance tasks. This is contrivance and artificiality masquerading as reality, hardly a window on reality. And it is a values problem for viewers who think the ‘reality behaviour' will give them some clues for their own experience. Also, this format takes what would normally be trivial matters in relationships and portrays them as if they were matters of life and death; in contrast, what are normally weighty matters in the formation of a relationship can be trivialised and devalued. In an episode of Bachelor, one woman is totally devastated at being eliminated; she says she has ‘nothing left' identity-wise because she had invested ‘her all' in being successful in the competition. These programs display strange twists in values precisely because they make the valuation process into a sham for the pursuit of ratings.

Implied meanings, identities and values are plentiful in these programs and they can be readily teased out. For example, many of the contestants themselves have used the phrase ‘survival of the fittest' to justify the choices they make in eviction or elimination. This implies that hurt and humiliation are a natural concomitant to the advancement of some individuals at the expense of others – not all can be ‘winners'. This is also indicative of ‘economic rationalism' where the painful discarding of some is just the natural cost-cutting needed for the economic advance of others. The ‘casualties' are merely the unfortunate ‘collateral damage' incurred while the ‘just cause' of the successful and powerful is furthered.

One of the dominant themes in these reality programs is criticism and humiliation. In programs like the Weakest Link and Shafted, the humiliation is ritualised in game show format. It is puzzling why viewers enjoy the constant experience of participant humiliation and its associated emotions. Perhaps it feels good to see others, and not themselves, being humiliated. Why people can be interested in, and take pleasure from, the pains of others, whether real or fictional characters, remains problematic, and hence a good question to ask in relation to analysis of the media. Perhaps the reactions triggered are so basic and visceral that it is difficult to classify them – like asking why people enjoy food or sex. The German language has a word that identifies this emotion: schadenfreude meaning ‘taking joy in the misfortunes of others'.

Another aspect of the viewer appeal of these programs is the presumption that any ordinary individual could become a celebrity given the opportunity to participate. Perhaps this appeals to the secret desires of many who dream of becoming stars. In this way bored people can feel some sort of affirmation of their ordinariness when watching the evidently bored and boring Big Brother contestants on show in primetime television – with enough sexual titillation to keep up the ratings. Here you have ordinary people, not trained as actors or journalists, but who are prepared to give up privacy and expose a lot of their inner selves, becoming temporary television personalities whose lives in the ‘big house' are discussed by viewers all around the country.

The public evaluations

The talkback television programs span a range of taste and quality. They include Dr Phil, Judge Judy, the various talk show hosts like Oprah, through to Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer and Cheaters. They are all about moral behaviour and relationships. Dr Phil engages in a type of public moral counselling. With Socratic questioning and a confrontational style, Dr Phil seeks to get participants to review their behaviour and motivation; better self-knowledge, acknowledging rather than obscuring behavioural consequences, and accepting responsibility for one's behaviour are proposed as keys to personal growth. Viewers can test their own intuitions, interpretations and moral judgments with those they see on the program; they are engaged in the diagnosis of personal and social problems – a diagnosis that inevitably impacts on their own outlook.

The Jerry Springer Show also evaluates behaviour, usually the more bizarre types; the displays of emotion, the aggressive confrontations between participants, accompanied by chanting from the studio audience, are hallmarks of its entertainment appeal. There is an interesting similarity between Springer and the imperial role at the ancient Colosseum; Springer deftly asks questions and makes comments that seem to guide the chanting judgments of the studio audience to either a ‘thumbs up' or ‘thumbs down' evaluation of participants. Perhaps it is not surprising that the title of Springer's biography is Ringmaster! At the end of each program, Jerry sums up and delivers a short secular homily that includes personal advice on the problems displayed earlier in the show. An interpretation of the Jerry Springer Show is provided elsewhere.

As will be noted in more detail later, exercises in public moral evaluation in medieval Europe were carried out in church homilies and morality plays. Now similar moral discourse has become part of public television entertainment, subject to the usual constraints of its ratings performance.

Reality Is Stranger Than Fiction

This form of reality television is related to the cinema verité genre of documentary, where real life is filmed and presented without much commentary or explicit interpretation. In this stable are programs like Real TV, Cops, World's wildest police chases, Police, camera, action, Worst drivers, Real sex in the city, Trauma: Life and death in the ER, as well as shows on disasters and other miscellaneous topics like ‘brides' (perhaps Funniest home videos also fits this category). For example, Bridezillas traces people's quest for the perfect wedding, even where this costs up to $300#000 or more. This taps into the need for affirmation noted earlier – the brides need to feel special and unique, even if just for a day.

For programs like these, it is difficult to see what aspects of spirituality, if any, are involved. For their viewer appeal, they seem to rely on basic human curiosity about what is different, strange, and traumatic – as long as it is graphic and eye-catching. Perhaps this draws on the same curiosity and emotions like shock, sadness, sympathy and so forth that people feel when they witness some local traumatic event like a house fire or a car crash, or when they see disasters or crime reported in television news. Perhaps too, if television is always on the lookout for the new and the bizarre that might catch some viewer attention, it does not have to rely exclusively on fiction – there is more than enough bizarre reality that can be recorded and played back on the airwaves.

Real TV or not TV – that is the question!

Learning how to ‘read' television's values-embedded content is an important skill needed by the discerning viewer. This is a more pressing issue the more that television becomes a touchstone for reality and a criterion for authenticity. Television is not acting as a spiritual or moral teacher; it does not claim spiritual and moral authority. But, to varying degrees for its different viewers, it serves as a publicly available practical guide for life. It provides life content that can be influential when it perceived as a window on reality.

While reality television seems to have passed its zenith in Australia, it still retained a strong presence in 2006, even though eclipsed in popularity by the forensic crime genre – CSI and its relatives. In mid-2006, CSI Miami was rated the most watched television drama on the planet; it had English, French, Spanish and German versions, with subtitled formats in other languages.

15.7.9  Television drama/sitcoms as 21st-century morality plays

Elsewhere we described the public educational role of medieval morality plays. They were productions in the town square that helped medieval Christians sort out their moral identity. The various motives and moral pressures affecting them were often personified as characters in the plot. It was like ‘Medieval Kohlberg'!

Given some familiarity with these plays, it is not difficult to see the similarity with many contemporary film and television dramas, sitcoms and talk shows. Comparisons with medieval morality plays can be a useful starting point for considering the de facto moral reference points that television provides for viewers.

The TV talk shows have brought moral decision-making into the arena of public entertainment.  People's live are under review – in public. Viewers can vicariously join in, comparing their judgments with those of the program host and the audience. The shows range in style from the sedate, interview journalism of Michael Parkinson, to the evergreen Oprah, through Tyra Banks and on to programs such as Ricki Lake and Maury Povich, which seem to trade on the emotion generated from past hurts; here the participants tell their stories with much scope for confrontation or possible reconciliation. From the point of view of television spectacle, some of these programs, like the long-running Jerry Springer show, highlight confrontation and in-your-face comments from the interviewees and the audience; vigorous expression of emotion is common. By contrast, the Dr Phil show seems to have successfully mastered the televising of individual and family counselling. Then there are the popular host shows (Rove Live etc.) and the late-night hosts like Letterman, Leno and O'Brien where the diet is a mixture of interviews, humour, music and variety.

The talk shows are good examples of what William Kuhns described as television apparently taking on functions that formerly were the province of religions and the churches. The talk show hosts are like contemporary high priests presiding over the moral discernment process. The Judge Judy program is like the old Catholic confessional. The penitent confesses sins – sometimes there is conflict in determining truth and justice – and the judge gives the penance; there may not be absolution but there is a sense of resolution.

Ongoing soap operas and sitcoms can also be interpreted as contemporary morality plays. The characters personify various moral (or immoral) approaches to life. It is not improbable that to some extent they can serve as influential moral exemplars for individuals who are gradually working out their moral identity.

This phenomenon also illustrates Postman's theory that television is trivialising human discourse.An entertainment focus is now becoming important for perceiving and interpreting the proceedings of the law courts. The OJ Simpson televised trial, the videotaped evidence of President Clinton before the Starr Grand Jury, and more recently the reconstruction of the Michael Jackson courtroom ‘drama' are examples of television taking over human discourse for entertainment purposes. It is not surprising then that election campaigns have also become ongoing television drama (or sitcoms, soap opera – depending on how they are perceived).

15.7.11  Story and imagination: The role of film/television in both enhancing and diminishing the imagination

When someone reads a novel, the comprehension process is in a sense ‘linear' and ‘logical', beginning with the reading of a succession of words. The author uses words that will draw readers into the story, imagining that they are close observers of what is unfolding. Their imagination is stimulated to construct images of the action as they follow the story; it is like a computer processor converting the words scanned off a page to mental pictures and emotions for the internal screening of the story. When a story is being read, the imagination does a considerable amount of this work. A certain level of basic literacy is needed for this function and for the ability to enjoy reading stories.

When a story is told through film, the saying ‘little is left to the imagination' is a good description of what happens. Not only do viewers not have to read the text, but they are presented directly with a wealth of visual images – the imagination does not have to work so hard. Does this stunt the imagination that would otherwise be exercised when a story is read? Perhaps. However, the images in a film also stimulate the imagination by giving it many images that can be recalled – usually more imagery than the individual could otherwise generate unaided. Perhaps it is through this effect on imagination, especially through embedded, emotive images, that film exercises a subtle, relatively unconscious influence on people. This applies just as much if not more to television; the implanting of images seems to be a key psychological process in television advertising: it is not an appeal to reason, but to the attractiveness and desirability of images as an inducement to buy. The imagery in television stimulates emotions and insinuates itself into people's life expectations, hopes and dreams.

Michael Warren described the media enhancement of imagination as follows:

Since the 1930s or so, with the development of radio, film, and television, graphic depictions of ‘how things are' have become both increasingly accessible to all and increasingly vivid. These developments change not only the means by which reality could be imagined; they make the imagination of reality more tangible and vivid. The way an imagination of life is communicated has shifted dramatically – and I use this adverb in its literal sense.

When a book is read, a lot of active mental work and discipline are needed to convert the print into an emotionally engaging story. Film and television have a more direct, experiential way of doing this: viewers can become involved with much less effort, in a relatively passive fashion. This is why for most people it is easier to be captivated or distracted by film or television than by a book. All one needs to do is open one's eyes and listen, and be drawn into a story.

15.7.12  Media-orchestrated imaginations: How film and television can affect behaviour and personal development

As regards change in behaviour and personal development, the imagination functions like a pathfinder or trailblazer by which individuals imagine what they could be like and try this out in advance before they make any decisions about personal change. This can influence their idealism by helping them explore the best possible world. Imagination can show the way ahead for personal change – facilitated by favourable imaginations and inhibited by unfavourable ones. Active imagination is a continuing experiment in self-understanding and self-expression; hence it is an important part of identity development.

While imagination is an intrapersonal function, its content is not completely determined by internal drives or emotions. Warren argued:

Overlooking such [social construction] processes, some prefer to ascribe imaginations of the self to psychological processes arising from the conflicts and dynamisms within the person and the person's emotional environment. Though one's vulnerability to certain imaginations of the self may indeed be based in the psyche, the actual production of various imaginations is less a psychological than a social reality, the end result of networks of persons and agencies seeking to imagine the world for the young.

This thinking has consequences for psychological theory about human behaviour and development, as well as for media studies. It complements the theories that ascribe power to genetically driven developmental tasks such as those proposed by Freud and Erikson, and to theories that stress personal interaction such as Rogerian theory or Transactional Analysis. The impetus for change in behaviour and personal development can be energised from within the individual, but it can also be subtly conditioned by external cultural elements like film and television, which are not always acknowledged as socially constructed agents of change.

Imaginations of the self that originate from outside the person are important for identity development. Warren stressed the need for educators to look critically at the imaginations of life generated by film and television. He drew attention to the power wielded by those who construct these imaginations.

The stories [from film and television] tend to have a taken-for-granted quality to them; people see them but are in general unable to think about how they see them. During the teenage years, young people try on various imaginations of themselves in an effort to find one that fits. These imaginations are part of a broader project in young people's lives: they are trying to imagine the kind of person they wish to be, what their future life will be like, and the kind of person they wish to share it with. If the process of establishing an identity is in part a process of imagining for oneself possible forms of behaviour, possible attitudes and values, possible goals, and ultimately a possible future, then those who propose these imagined possibilities wield special influence.

An educational response to this problem seeks to help students learn how to identify and evaluate not just the imaginations of life presented on television, but the ways in which these are developed and marketed.