A Note: Some of the essays I write read differently in tone than some of the other content on my blog. The artist in me rebuts being limited to one genre, one voice, or one audience. I would say this essay fits into that category. I hope that’s okay and that you will bear with me as I explore different thoughts and ideas.
Something I’ve been recognizing lately is that among the many reasons why I really need Jesus, I need Jesus because, without him, I am too prone to snobbery. This is something I’m kind of embarrassed to admit because it is the complete antithesis to the Gospel, and though I think I do have some legitimate criticisms to make, this is ultimately a me problem.
I came to this realization when I started analyzing my media and literature choices of late. Since James was born, my leisure time has been dramatically reduced—wildly enough. I mean, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but raising a child is somewhat time-consuming. But as a result, I’ve become quite picky about how I choose to spend that time, and this has, perhaps unfortunately, brought out my inner snob.
The conundrum I find myself in is that the less time I have to spend watching tv, reading books, etc., the more I am wont to ask of these outlets. Time has become so precious that if I don’t feel the book I am reading, the show I am watching, etc. is adding to my life in some way, or at least that it contains some kind of intellectual or artistic merit, I just have no buy-in. I just feel too guilty about it, it feels like such a waste of time. Does anyone else struggle with this?
This might seem surprising at first, but I find that books are the worst offenders. I was thinking about this the other day, and I started to wonder if I actually just hate books. I’m probably the only English teacher in the history of education to question this, but I think it might be true. I don’t hate all books, I just hate most modern ones, especially modern fiction. I just don’t find the writing to be very good or the stories to be that compelling. To me, they’re like the literary equivalent of a sub-par film, except they take longer to get through. So maybe it’s more accurate to say they’re like a sub-par television series, but unlike a television series they cost money for me to access (unless I want to wait 16 weeks for the library e-book to no longer be on hold, which again, I have no time for). I would like to think that I’m merely afflicted by what Fran Liebowitz describes as an “excessive reverence for the written word,” and that this is the source of my derision, but it’s possible that it’s just wanton elitism.
Speaking of sub-par television, I also find streaming tv series to be highly problematic. Am I the only person who doesn’t understand why all of a sudden everything has to be a series? Seriously, if you scroll through Netflix, it seems like 75% of the new programming is a series. Who are the people watching all of these shows? It takes way too much time! Because it takes so much time, I find myself obsessing over the decision. It actually gives me anxiety trying to think about choosing one to watch, so I usually just watch the trailer or a 2-minute clip for about 10 shows and then turn off the tv instead. Maybe this is just my opinion, but I simply don’t think every idea needs to be a series. Honestly, I think it’s really just a sign of poor editing. Very few stories are actually improved by serialization. In fact, many would benefit from being truncated.
Being a Christian doesn’t help either, because I find that I am developing an ever-increasing disdain for flagrant profanity, unnecessary nudity, and drug use in media. I don’t want to sound prudish or judgemental, because I do watch mature programming; I’m not arguing that we replace all programming with the Hallmark Channel, I just don’t think it’s necessary to keep pushing the moral envelope further and further in order to make a story compelling.
Furthermore, too often I think these tropes are actually used in place of good writing. I’m not sure exactly when crassness became a substitute for creativity in film and television, but I’m pretty sure Netflix is at least partially to blame. In the past, you had to buy premium channels like HBO in order to get this kind of content on TV, but since HBO was so expensive and because they were limited to 24 hours of available time slots, they had to produce high-quality content in order for people to feel their investment was worth it. Since the advent of Netflix and other streaming services, premium channels are no longer limited by the bounds of time slots or FCC restrictions, and they have so much money that they can pretty much throw it at any project at random and just see where their chips land. If the show makes money, great. If not, they haven’t really lost anything.
Of the recent series popularized on Netflix, Bridgerton is one that I find particularly devoid of value. I got about 25 minutes into the pilot before deciding that it was worthless smut. That I even gave it the benefit of 25 minutes is indicative of my reverence for historical period pieces. For those who haven’t seen it, Bridgerton is essentially about a bunch of very good looking young people gossiping and having sex in over-saturated Regency period attire. It’s a pastiche of the genre but with none of the endearing restraint of its source material.
It offends my sensibilities, somewhat, on a moral level because of its cheap representations of sex. But more than that, it offends my artistic sensibilities. It borrows heavily from Jane Austen but misses so much of the value of her work. Jane Austen’s novels are not enduring because they are pleasant love stories; though they are pleasant and comparatively more accessible to the modern reader than many other texts of the time period. But they were also witty, satirical, and even subversive in many ways. Bridgerton takes on the romance and social mores of an Austen novel, removes all of the nuances, and adds, as CNN columnist Kate Maltby puts it, “breeches and orgasms.” And unfortunately, they get away with it because the modern audience isn’t asking them for anything more. But I am.
The show does usurp a number of genre conventions, such as a traditionally all-white cast of characters, but to what end? The diversity of the casting choice is indeed a move in a powerful direction for the genre and perhaps the only redeeming quality of the series, but much in the same way that women have historically had to leverage their bodies for access, I fear that Bridgerton asks the same of its black actors. Is it really progressive to put a black body onscreen as a re-imagined Georgian sex symbol with an exotic twist? I don’t really think so.
So this is why I need Jesus. That something could offend me artistically more than it does morally is evidence of my unsanctified self. It is without a doubt true that I am somewhat snobbish in my tastes, and I need to be more forgiving of popular culture. But can I possibly be the only one who feels this way? If it doesn’t uplift, inspire, challenge, or enrich our lives in some way, what’s the point? I suppose “because it’s fun” is an acceptable answer, but isn’t it possible for something to be fun without being so petty? As a family, we recently started watching the new PBS Masterpiece remake of All Creatures Great and Small. Now there’s a show that is fun, leisurely, and yet still ultimately good.
I’m currently reading Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington (which is excellent by the way), and I’d like to echo the wisdom Washington expresses when he says to a young relative, “every hour misspent is lost forever.” These lesser forms of entertainment, he decries, “may amuse for the moment, but [leave] nothing solid behind.” I guess I just wonder whether our entertainment is leaving anything solid behind and if it’s not, whether we might benefit from making a different choice.