Television:it's Only Make Believe

ALICE STEINBACH

April 02, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

For a while there, the current television season threatened to be one of the best ever. Dramatically speaking, it had everything: stories of love, greed, sex, power, violence, revenge and mystery, all presented in intricate detail.

Who can forget the riveting He Said, She Said drama starring Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas?

Or the Mr.Smith-goes-to-Palm-Beach-and-has-a-sexual-encounter with-Patricia-Bowman story?

And, please, let's not forget the Harry and Leona Helmsley story or the unfolding saga of Hillary and Bill Clinton.

"I can't remember when I've been so gripped by people on TV," a friend told me recently. "Once you've seen Harry and Leona, it kind of makes Blake and Krystal Carrington seem like cartoon characters."

If you stop to think about it, you could make a case that television has assumed the role in our lives of a comic book: When we turn on the set, we are tuning into a cartoon world that bears little resemblance to the real world.

When, for instance, is the last time you saw yourself -- or anyone you know -- reflected on television?

Probably not in "Baby Talk," a series about a single mother in New York raising an infant son, whose adult-like thoughts we hear in a voice-over.

Probably not in "Empty Nest," a comedy about a pediatrician whose two grown daughters -- one a bubble-headed cop and the other a whining neurotic -- have moved back in with him.

Probably not in "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill," a story that revolves around a designer-dressed public defender who drives a Mercedes.

And despite the glowing tributes singling out "Golden Girls" as a TV show that "finally portrays mature women," if you're an older woman you probably don't see yourself in that one either. Think about it: One of the golden girls is an empty-headed dunce; one is obsessed with youth and sex; and one is a woman who is derided for her lack of sexual partners.

Perhaps I am being too demanding. Television, after all, is supposed to be fantasy, isn't it?

We are supposed to ignore the fact, aren't we, that even in a wonderfully funny show such as "Cheers," Sam Malone can still safely sleep around the way some folks did before AIDS. And it's probably wiser not to notice, between laughs, how the three women on "Cheers" -- Carla, Rebecca and Lilith -- are portrayed.

So, what's the problem?

The problem is that even while we're laughing at such shows -- or crying at others -- we are also receiving important cultural and emotional messages. And, according to a recent study done by the American Psychological Association on the societal impact of TV, such messages reinforce stereotypes having to do with gender, race and age.

But it really doesn't take a study to confirm what many of us already know: Much of television is devoted to two-dimensional characters living in an out-of-date world.

Which is one of the reasons why a real life drama such as the Hill-Thomas confrontation held us in its grip.

"I'd like to see more shows dealing with issues such as that and less dealing with the extramarital affairs of TV lawyers," a friend said. She added that the last show she could relate to at all was "thirtysome-thing."

Another friend, a black woman in the news business, lamented the absence of black women on shows that are not "black": "I love 'Murphy Brown' but there are no black people on that show. I love 'Seinfeld,' too, but there are no black people on that. It would be nice to see yourself as part of the everyday world and not have to be part of a 'black' show."

And studies show that if you're an ethnic minority, you are almost invisible on television.

But it's not just women and minorities who don't see reflections of themselves on television -- men feel that way, too.

"One of the reasons I like 'Seinfeld' is because it is the one show that reverses the roles and shows that men have just as much anxiety about dating and sex as women do," said a male friend, who admits he never misses the show.

Still, when asked to name the television show that most reflected some of their own life, a majority of the men and women I talked to named "Roseanne."

Why? Because it shows people who are overweight and still eat unhealthy food. Because it shows a family that fights a lot. Because it shows a messy house. Because it shows people who don't come up with all the right answers in 30 minutes.

In other words, "Roseanne" is not like TV; it's more like life.

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