Summer Musings: The moral of the story

When the media criticizes entertainment for being a bad influence, it overlooks the audience’s ability to form a nuanced conception of right and wrong.

By Jane Huang

One of my favorite running gags in the television series How I Met Your Mother is Barney Stinson’s unreserved loathing for the titular protagonist of The Karate Kid. His reasoning is that the Karate Kid’s tournament victory was unjust because his rival (and bully) had spent much more time training. The Atlantic’s Web site recently published, in apparent seriousness, an article entitled “You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids’ Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?” Although The Karate Kid doesn’t crop up as an example, the author seems to share Barney’s distaste for films depicting underdogs who inexplicably overcome all obstacles to achieve unrealistic victories.

What I’ve concluded after years of reading media commentary is that literally everything is a bad influence. Usually people’s complaints are about promotion of underage drinking, disregard for authority, or increased interest in dating a vampire, so it’s oddly refreshing to see someone criticizing certain films for encouraging kids to pursue their dreams too much, given that this is generally regarded as a wholesome message to send.

I support a more relaxed attitude toward the “bad” messages that our entertainment supposedly perpetuates. I don’t feel comfortable with the idea that we should censors stories with lessons to which we object. Of course, I will concede certain exceptions. For example, a character should probably not give false medical advice unless it is explicitly emphasized that what he or she is saying is incorrect. In many cases, though, who is to say that our interpretation is the correct one? The Harry Potter series used to be criticized because it supposedly encouraged children to practice witchcraft, which was definitely not my takeaway from reading the novels.

At any rate, no piece of entertainment exists in a vacuum. Sure, there may be plenty of children’s films that feature protagonists whose dreams are implausibly realized, but there are also plenty of emotionally scarring Hans Christian Andersen tales to cure any reckless optimism inspired by those films. However, it’s not as though the latter have a greater claim to the truth than the former. It should go without saying that sometimes hard work will lead to success, and sometimes it won’t. Sometimes drinking alcohol has horrible consequences, and other times it makes people’s weekends more enjoyable. And so on. However, judging from the hand-wringing that goes on over the media’s messages, you’d think that reading a single book with questionable themes would wipe out every bit of knowledge and nuance that ever existed in your mind before. It’s possible to enjoy the snappy dialogue from The O.C. while also recognizing it’s not a good idea to get into brawls with water polo players (or with people who don’t play water polo, for that matter).

It’s important that people explore books, films, and television series with different themes and points of view. One work might lend insight into what another work lacks and help us to evaluate it critically. I don’t mean this in the sense that we should be able to write dissertations on, say, The O.C. I mean that people should be allowed to learn the kind of influence entertainment should have on their lives. After all, isn’t it much more interesting to see which pieces resonate with people rather than to declare which ones ought to?

Jane Huang is a fourth-year in the College majoring in chemistry. Summer Musings is a new Viewpoints blog that publishes every Tuesday and Friday through September 27.