Kim Kardashian, Big Media and the Infantilization of America

After giving a speech on the devastating effects of media bias (a light topic, I know!), a student asked, “How is anyone going to hear your message when they are obsessed with the Kardashians?” I pulled a scientific sounding response out of my…er …left ear, but I suspect her question was better than my answer. Dr. Michael Beckwith once advised, “Be involved; not enthralled.” How do we make his medicine taste yummy?

Daily bombarded by magazine covers, reality TV and click-bait articles fixated on Kim Kardashian's booty size, we are urged to make our deodorant matter more than the new Fed Chair. Keeping up with the Kardashians may be fun, yet, addicted to their latest histrionics, we may be too busy to look behind door number two. Isn’t that the idea?

While the mindless fare of “reality” or other TV programming offers a welcome break in a stressful world, you are no more than a Nielsen number and a potential consumer. Titillation is key. A flesh-fest accompanied by bad language on cable TV is de rigueur, as if using ninety iterations of the world sh*t improves the writing overall.

Beyond TV's few original, even exceptional ideas, formulaic procedurals feature cops so pretty they just stepped out of a calendar. Most are so skinny they couldn't bench press my big toe. Instead of modeling professional behavior in the workplace, particularly for women, we get hyper-sexualized medical examiners in budget-busting fashions too dear for any rational person to risk ruining on the job. They sport seven-inch stilettos to a crime scene with peak-a-boo blouses that advertise breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Male counterparts, in homage to somebody’s cockeyed idea of feminism, are often portrayed as semi-competent dolts with kick-ass women for partners. Why does one person have to be ineffectual in order for the other to attain stature? And what makes advertisers or producers think that successful women desire to lord it over men who cannot tie their shoelaces? Hint: that is not the goal here.

Most troubling, since news broadcasting now resides under Networks’ entertainment umbrella, the messaging and imagery is aimed generally at keeping us in a childlike or agitated state driven by scandal, hate mongering or idol worship. The lines further get blurred when fictional TV procedurals use “real” newscasters to deliver fake news, encouraging us to think of entertainment as fact and vice versa.

Our own President yucks it up on Jay Leno and weeks later, threatens to unilaterally invade Syria without first consulting Congress. The line between reality and absurdity gets hazier every day.

Blogger and columnist David Harris Gershon bemoaned TIME for featuring magazine covers that market lightweight fare to Americans instead of the grittier content offered to the rest of the world:

"[P]erusing TIME's covers reveals countless examples of the publication tempting the world with critical events, ideas or figures, while dangling before Americans the chance to indulge in trite self-absorption."

Softball articles along with Kardashian and Snooki worship amount to attempts to dumb down American culture, keeping us fixated in a kind of viewer economy where we are “enthralled” to watching riches we will never enjoy.

In his 2009 article, “Buying Brand Obama,” Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize winning former mid-east bureau chief for The New York Times, criticized our fascination with junk politics:

“It is about keeping us in a perpetual state of childishness. But the longer we live in illusion, the worse reality will be when it finally shatters our fantasies. Those who do not understand what is happening around them and who are overwhelmed by a brutal reality they did not expect or foresee search desperately for saviors. They beg demagogues to come to their rescue. This is the ultimate danger of the Obama Brand. It effectively masks the wanton internal destruction and theft being carried out by our corporate state. These corporations, once they have stolen trillions in taxpayer wealth, will leave tens of millions of Americans bereft, bewildered and yearning for even more potent and deadly illusions, ones that could swiftly snuff out what is left of our diminished open society.”

Hedges painted a stark picture, yet The New York Times just reported that the divide between the haves and have-nots is greater than ever. Advertisers, producers, bankers or politicians who would keep us enthralled do so to their advantage, not ours. Busy hamsters running around the same wheel are no threat.

However, Scott Rasmussen’s article “Reality is Catching Up To The Political Class” argues that Nicco Mele’s book, “The End of Big” illuminates a trend which could get us hamsters off that wheel:

“The devices and connectivity so essential to modern life put unprecedented power in the hands of every individual — a radical redistribution of power that our traditional institutions don’t and perhaps can’t understand.”

Rasmussen insists:

“In America, power is decentralizing and individuals are being empowered. While the trend has been building for decades, the politicians are just starting to recognize it.”

The Sequester this year was good case in point, he notes. Chicken Little threatened that the sky was falling, yet this generated little more than a yawn, careening the political class closer to irrelevance:

“…young people today are eager to serve their country, but they don’t think politics and government is the way to do that.”

“They are more likely to be social entrepreneurs, working outside government to create innovative and measurably successful solutions to the nation’s problems.””

Social media and an end to old-fashioned gatekeepers give us unprecedented power to declare our displeasure with any medium or product that infantilizes or diminishes us. It would be a mistake to think that those atop the food chain will relinquish their stranglehold easily, so if what Mele writes is true, we can expect the efforts at distraction to increase. We get to decide whether we will allow it.

Optimistic perhaps, but it is yummy to think that we, too, can have a platform as big as the ones we are now force fed. The sense that our actions can reverberate may make being “involved, not enthralled,” more palatable.


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