For all the artistic toil invested in movies and TV shows, reaction to them has become a Rorschach test that frequently reveals more about certain viewers — and the prism through which they see the world — than about the creative minds involved.
This “eye of the beholder” dynamic has grown more persistent in our polarized times, especially with the pundit class drafting pop culture as a means to reach younger consumers and as ammunition in the so-called culture wars, assuming that everybody filters each facet of their lives through an ideological prism.
Hence we get a campaign like Bill O’Reilly’s push to expose TV critics’ political affiliations, with the Fox News host convincing himself that documenting party registrations will somehow illuminate any negativity directed at his channel. In fact, all the crusade truly does is highlight O’Reilly’s self-obsession and translucently thin skin, causing him to see enemies and “smear merchants” around every corner.
Critics, admittedly, aren’t immune to human quirks and pet peeves that influence how we react to material. For the most part, though, reviewers are charged with judging productions on their merits and within the intended context, whereas the chattering classes — under the intoxicating influence of talkradio and cable news — conscript even innocuous entertainment as evidence of a yawning cultural divide.
Among recent instances, consider the Parents Television Council’s latest study regarding religion on TV and the shrill broadsides aimed at “Happy Feet,” which sent various conservatives into spasms of indignation bordering on high camp.
Former film critic-turned-radio pontificator Michael Medved fumed over the animated musical’s political overtones, saying its “propagandistic theme suggests that the biggest menace for the lovable penguins is the human race” and that “a subtext appears to plead for endorsement of gay identity.”
Based on Medved’s searing appraisal, the mind boggles at the thought of him re-examining the Disney classics, inasmuch as ol’ Walt clearly pushed tolerance in “Dumbo” (long ears = gay?) and slipped in environmental warnings about man and guns in “Bambi.”
Along similar lines, the PTC’s analysis of religion, “Faith in a Box,” fixates on the kind of minutiae that help stereotype the devout as being utterly humorless — taking umbrage, among other things, over “The Simpsons” for Homer saying, “God has a white beard and invented the Da Vinci code.”
Not surprisingly, the group concluded that TV is “hostile to people of faith” — even though its report determined that general expressions of faith were depicted positively 70% of the time. Moreover, the evaluation period doesn’t encompass the premiere of NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” which offers the most organic portrayal of religion’s role in small-town life in memory, without resorting to fanciful angels or teenage visitations from God.
So beware, Bambi and fellow showbiz denizens: Men are in the forest, and increasingly, they’re coming armed with an agenda.
Baby boomers lost a link to their childhood with the passing of animation legend Joe Barbera, who died this week at 95. The zesty business in which he flourished, however, has long since left us.
Partnered with William Hanna, Barbera delivered such seminal characters as Yogi Bear, the Jetsons and the Flintstones, providing countless hours of enjoyment for millions who sat too close to the TV for too long and sport the eyewear to prove it. The shows were hardly perfect, but they were perfectly attuned to a post-war generation that would adopt and nurture the nascent medium.
As market forces shifted, though, the U.S. cel animation business the duo helped birth began to wither. In the 1970s and ’80s, companies like Hanna-Barbera and Filmation outsourced animation work overseas, then were absorbed or folded. Local children’s programs, hosted by the likes of Sheriff John or Hobo Kelly, faded from view.
Like everyone else, kids now possess more entertainment options than ever, with channels narrowly slicing them into little demographic slivers: Noggin caters to preschoolers, while the Disney Channel is infatuated with “tweens,” a made-up term for 9- to 14-year-olds. All these different TV strata allow each network to proclaim itself No. 1 with somebody.
Yet as for the children’s business Barbera pioneered, that world’s as much a thing of the past as the one the Flintstones inhabit.