TV Review: Girls (HBO) – Intellectuals without Intellects

January 29, 2014
Girls, nothing more, nothing less.

Girls. Nothing more, nothing less.

Critic’s Pet

For those of you who don’t have premium cable or get HBO through public TV as I do, the network has a show called Girls that has created a lot of publicity since its launch in 2012. It is a half hour show about a twenty something struggling writer in New York named Hannah Horvath. Her life revolves around her friends, work, boys, family, parties etc. There are no murders, no vampires, no spies or exotic locations (unless you think of New York as exotic). Just the everyday humdrum that we all share. This may sound painfully trivial, but most critics beg to differ,

“Lena Dunham’s [the creator of the show who also does the role of Hannah] much anticipated comedy about four single women in New York is worth all the fuss…” (Alessandra Stanley, NYT)

“Girls represents an exciting moment in television history because, like a handful of other shows (MTV’s ‘Awkward,’ most notably) it not only makes great use of the medium but has the creative guts to realign it for a new century and a new generation.” (David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle)

“It’s the distillation of a distinctive, incisive and brutally funny point of view and most importantly, it’s its own thing.” (Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post)

“Girls has potential to become a once-in-a-generation work that helps define a shared era.” (Hank Stuever, Washington Post)

“From the moment I saw the pilot of Girls, I was a goner, a convert.” (Emily Nussbaum, New York Magazine)

Millennials, SWPLs, Hipsters

A recurring word in the reviews is “generation.” Critics love to think of Girls as the voice of the so-called Millennial generation. But only the part of that generation which they think of as socially relevant – the White, liberal, urban people, sometimes referred to as SWPLs. This reminds me of Judith Rich Harris who I wrote about in my previous post, and her ideas of how we develop from children into adults. We don’t think that much about who we are as individuals but more about which social category we fit in. That social category becomes our tribe. Which explains why critics love the show – they are just cheering for their team, or in this case their junior team.

This tribalism is made painfully obvious when Hannah dates a Black guy but breaks up with him because he turns out to be a conservative. By that happy accident her world is again as White as that of any SWPLs watching the show, who can appreciate her effort to fraternize and be liberally inclusive while at the same time be ok with the fact that all their friends are White. The ethnic friend fantasy should never become real. At least not unless the friend in question has been properly whitewashed. Needless to say, SWPLs see racism everywhere.

The Genius Working at the Coffee Shop: From Modernity to Hipsterity

But in spite of the boring social and political correctness, Dunham does try to portray the Millennial SWPLs unique situation – with both sympathy and criticism – although she says little of why they are in their particular situation; it’s just some existential backdrop that works as a common denominator for the characters. Their world is one of economic recession, in sharp contrast to when they were kids, and it’s socially confused; no one seems certain of what is right and wrong or how to behave. This insecurity occasionally creates some much needed nervous energy to the show, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying because it lacks meaning and never leads to any conclusions. It’s just weird rather than interesting.

At any rate, the young SWPLs in Girls find it hard to navigate this increasingly confusing and harsh reality. But they aren’t mere victims, but also pretty full of themselves. Dunham’s self-criticism (because she must be counted as a SWPL herself) is evident: this tribe is deluded and narcissistic. That insight saves the show from complete disaster, but it doesn’t save it from a clear failure in my view. Dunham tries to go for brutal honesty, but the question of where this delusional and inflated sense of self-worth comes from is left glaringly unanswered.

My personal guess is that the unflattering aspects of SWPLs have emerged gradually over a long period of time. An early incarnation of this tribe arose from Enlightenment, the modern people as I call them for lack of a better word, who in the 1700s embraced the new thing called science and wanted to implement the same rationality to society. These radicals were smart, creative and principled – an elite in many respects. But they were also naïve and blank slatist, not understanding that they too constituted a social category or tribe and were governed by the same psychological mechanisms as other tribes. So the moderns allowed more or less anyone admission to their tribe thinking the newcomers were genuinely like themselves. And being financially successful and generous they could bring in a steady stream of new members most of whom weren’t as intelligent, creative or civic-minded as they were, but instead more traditionally tribal and hostile towards outsiders.

And so the modern tribe became today’s SWPLs. They live in gentrified White neighborhoods (if they can afford it), and wear clothes that scream gay casual friday to mark their tribal distinctiveness. They get their degrees in sociology, arts or some other subject that doesn’t require too much brainpower. They eat organic food, recycle and perform all their other rituals but have much less of the inner qualities of their original modern ancestors. And this dumbing down, I believe, is the unique situation that Dunham doesn’t want to look into too carefully – the growing gap between an intellectual, elitist self-image and the horrifying reality of being a mundane, average person.

The Inexplicable Tragedy of Regression to the Mean

A phenomenon related to this decline is that of regression to the mean. This refers to the way intelligence (and probably a lot of similar traits) is inherited. Children don’t just inherit the average of their parent’s respective intelligence. Instead they’ll average somewhere between their parent’s level and the average of the larger population they belong to. So two SWPLs with IQs of 120 will have children whose average IQs might be around 110.  And being blank slatists, they can’t just accept this as a fact of life but will be disappointed or blame themselves or try to convince themselves that their little Hannah, working at the coffee shop is just as smart as they are. It’s just the economy, or all the existential issues that this new and highly complicated world entails. Or it could be a psychological problem. SWPLs have a lot of psychiatric conditions that supposedly make them look interesting rather than just dumb. (In Hannah Horvath’s case it’s OCD.) Because if all that’s wrong with her is an IQ of 105 then she is just like a regular White girl who listens to Taylor Swift. And Mom doesn’t like Taylor Swift, partly because her fans are the wrong kind of White people, and partly because Taylor Swift has talent and intelligence, and in the back of her head she knows that her daughter has neither.

The Modern Storyteller Fail

While you could make a decent show about a plain Jane and her equally plain friends, Girls also suffers from the modern kind of story-telling that I’ve mentioned in a previous post which fails to recognize that good meaningful stories have a basic archetypal structure – good versus evil and such. Instead Dunham just makes up little sketches and when she has enough to fill half an hour that becomes an episode. I’m in no way exaggerating when I say that these episodes can be seen in any random order. There is no beginning, no end, no one is really good and no one is really bad, no strong conflicts. It’s just one trivial event after another.

The critics don’t mind this because they are the small clique who love the modern nonsensical crap, and they also look at Hannah and think their deadbeat daughter really is special after all. The rest, I imagine, look at Dunham’s perky boobs that the camera lingers on for long periods of time in every single episode. One critic, Tim Molloy, had the audacity to ask Dunham about the purpose of all the nudity (more than I have ever seen in a TV show) and got this vitriolic response from Dunham,

Yeah. It’s because it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you are not into me, that’s your problem…

On top of this, producer Jenni Konner asked Molloy why he thought he could talk to a woman that way, and producer Judd Apatow wondered how things would go with Molloy’s girlfriend after his misogynistic question. Which supports my idea that the gap between self-image and actual performance among the SWPLs has been growing for a long time and is not a problem exclusive to the Millennials.

But ultimately, boobs, even real and perky ones, will not keep the audience interested. Only storytelling can do that. That’s why no one really cares about the films from the 1960s and 1970s. And this is why no one really cares about Girls either,

Viewers (in millions) of the latest ten episodes of some HBO shows.

Viewers (in millions) of the latest ten episodes of some HBO shows.

This lack of interest is also interesting in that it shows how little people care about what these SWPL critics think. In spite of all the superlatives from all the big media, the Emmy, Golden Globe and BAFTA awards etc, the ratings haven’t even momentarily risen above the abysmal level that they been on since the show started. That’s gotta hurt.

I’m thinking if Hannah hadn’t wasted her time on that sociology degree, and practised really hard she might have been able to be a backup singer for Taylor Swift,


Why a Good Story Must Be Archetypal and Why Modern Storytellers Must Lie About It

December 9, 2013
Der Supermensch.

Der Supermensch.

A Fascist Called Superman

At the highly liberal Salon.com, contributor Richard Cooper is criticizing the superhero trend in movies. The superhero, Cooper says, is “essentially a fascist concept.” Superheroes are the worshipped strong leaders who by their innate superiority rule over the weak-willed masses and fight their enemies with force and often cruelty. At the same time Cooper acknowledges that he enjoys this genre,

…why can’t I stop watching these movies? Because my imagination is shaped by superheroes: fights and chases are iconic, mythic triggers for me.

He ends the article with a wish that someday there will be a more liberal superhero who uses his intelligence rather than force and who reforms society rather than conserves the established order. Like Recycle Woman or Organic Food Girl?

Archetypes – The Elements of Stories

Don’t get me wrong; I recycle and I eat a fair amount of organic food too, even kale. That’s my choice. But when it comes to storytelling, we don’t have as much choices as we might think. Stories in all known cultures and in all historical records, sometimes going back thousands of years, display certain common elements. Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung was among the first to discover this and he called these universal elements archetypes. In his book Man and His Symbols, he describes the archetype of the hero like this,

The universal hero myth, for example, always refers to a powerful man or god-man who vanquishes evil in the form of dragons, serpents, monsters, demons, and so on, and who liberates his people from destruction and death.

and,

These hero myths vary enormously in detail, but the more closely one examines them the more one sees that structurally they are very similar. They have, that is to say, a universal pattern, even though they were developed by groups or individuals without any direct cultural contact with each other—by, for instance, tribes of Africans or North American Indians, or the Greeks, or the Incas of Peru.

And it’s not just the hero; there is a whole bunch of archetypal characters and motifs that can be found all over the world as well as in extinct cultures, such as the Wise Old Woman, the Trickster, the Flood, to mention a few. Jung concluded – quite correctly I believe – that the reason why these characters and motifs are so similar across different cultures must be that they are a part of innate human nature.

Two Kinds of Human Nature – Traditional and Modern

So it seems like archetypes are something like hardwired predispositions, and that a good story is one which will resonate with this wiring. But this begs the question: why is Cooper and people like him dreaming about stories that aren’t archetypal and don’t resonate within us? Well, obviously his political views contrast with the archetype of the hero. Even though he appreciates the “mythic triggers” of the archetype he is still dreaming of something else. The question then becomes why does anyone have political views that, at least in part, go against their nature?

One explanation could be that he and his ilk represent a different kind of human nature. Personality psychology has shown that there are plenty of individual and group differences. One such difference, perhaps the most important, is the variation on a dimension of traditional versus modern. This dimension has been explored by among others social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in the context of his Moral Foundations Theory, although he usually talks of conservatives and liberals instead. According to Haidt, we base our moral judgments on six moral foundations – Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Liberty/oppression, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion and Sanctity/degradation, but we vary in how much we rely on the different foundations. He found that traditional people – non-Westerners, conservatives, children, uneducated and lower class people – rely on all these foundations fairly evenly, while modern people – Westerners, liberals, adults, educated and upper class people – are much more limited to mainly Care/harm and to a lesser degree Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression.

What Haidt says about these foundations is essentially what Jung said about his archetypes – that they are not a matter of choice but a part of human nature, an innate way of thinking, although Haidt clearly states that the moral foundations are a product of evolution.

Another version of the traditional/modern dimension is presented by blogger hbd* chick, who distinguishes between clannish and modern peoples, a difference that she theorizes is based on inbreeding. The clannish peoples are those who have been inbreeding for a long time and live in extended families where everyone is closely related. This means that they can pass their genes to the next generation through close relatives to an extent that others for obvious reasons can’t. So an inbred clan of highly interrelated people will display a huge amount of group loyalty, not just for the closest relatives but for the entire clan – and that in a nutshell is what clannishness is. And since they do everything together that naturally leads to a conservative and traditional lifestyle with little or no individualism that could threaten the group coherence.

At the other end of this dimension we have those peoples who have outbred for a long period of time and for this reason become less interested in family and instead more individualistic, but also more inclusive and civic-minded since the view more people as ingroup members. These modern peoples are most notably those of Northwestern Europe and their descendants.

Both moral foundations theory and the theory of clannishness suggest that the modern person is partly detached or elevated from his innate tendencies. The moderns in Haidt’s theory have to some extent abandoned the three moral foundations that most of us view as the most traditional, old-fashioned or even primitive – Loyalty, linked to the tribal or outright clannish behavior, Authority, linked to the idea of innate superiority, and Sanctity, the foundation linked to religious belief. In a similar way, we find that the peoples who have outbred for a long time have weeded out the genes responsible for familial altruism and evolved into (relatively) free thinkers. These peoples started the Enlightenment and to this day democracy and human rights are strongest in their nations.

The Modern Storyteller

Now, given that a modern person is partly freed of moral foundations and clannishness, it would make sense to argue that such a person is also partly freed from his archetypal predispositions too. Because archetypes are so intertwined with these concepts it would be impossible to disentangle them from each other. The archetype of the hero alone incorporates many of the traits and concepts that the traditional/modern dimension is based on. He clearly represents Authority, but also Loyalty/Clannishness as the person who unifies the group, and Sanctity as he is often a half-god.

This means that if the modern person is relatively free from conventional morality and clannish/tribal tendencies, he is also less prone to archetypal thinking, which should make him a pretty poor storyteller.  And yet the film industry is full of modern people. How can that be given that film is the prevailing art form for storytelling? Short answer is that they are bound by the laws of the free market which forces them to make archetypal movies. But there was a brief period of time when modern people were dominant in Western culture – the 1960s and 1970s – and they could do pretty much as they pleased. They made arty, existential, surrealistic and generally experimental films. Given the amount of modern films created during this period the film studios no doubt thought it was the next big thing. But like any stories that lacks that archetypal magic, they appealed to the critics – a group that is clearly modern – but they were never a big hit with the broader audience. This is well illustrated in the IMDBs rating of the top 250 movies, as you can see from this chart,

IMDB2

The overall trend is towards increasingly better movies. This inflation is most likely because anyone can vote and most people have short memory and live in the moment – a lot of those who vote have probably never seen a movie from the 1930s or 1940s. But even so, we can see how the films of those modern decades rate lower than the surrounding decades. The same effect can be found in the critic-based ratings of Rotten Tomatoes top 100.

Rotten Tomatoes

Critics have better memory so there is no inflation here, and as I said before, they are also more modern than the regular audience – and yet they too show a similar dislike for the movies of the 1960s and 1970s.

Modern Frailty and Charades  – Spoiler Warning for The Kids Are All Right (2010)

So the modern people of the film industry were left with no choice but to go back to making archetypal movies. And somehow they manage that pretty well. This may seem illogical but it illustrates another important aspect of the traditional/modern dimension – while traditional people are stable (rigid or stuck in their ways you could say), modern people are imbalanced. This is because being traditional is relatively easy – you rely on your traditions and the social support of your group. Being modern means you have to make your own decisions with no traditions to guide you and with little or no advice from like-minded people. In reality, this often fails and the modern person is constantly falling and when he does he falls back into some form of traditionalism. One example of this is the rich feminist who insists on gender equality but marries one of the very few men who is richer than her. Another is the multiculturalist with a recurring daydream of having a Black friend, but who pays good money to live in a White neighbourhood. They are usually in denial about these regressions into traditional living and will perform rituals and charades to convince themselves that they are true to themselves.

These charades naturally find their ways into the movies too since they enable film makers to make good movies while maintaining a positive self-image. A great example of this is the movie The Kids Are All Right (2010), written and directed by archliberal Lisa Cholodenko. The movie begins with a modern family of two lesbian mothers who have one biological child each, both from the same sperm donor. And so the film unravels without any reference to their biological father because the modern view is that blood is not thicker than water? No, the kids look up their father and the whole movie is about the dynamics and conflicts between him and the family. And then, right at the end of the movie it is as if the director suddenly remembers that she is a modern person, and makes a scene in which Nic, one of the lesbian mothers, argues with the biological father, Paul, and tells him that the children are not his and that if he wants a family he should get his own. And as soon as Paul is out of the picture Cholodenko hastily wraps things up since the archetypal energy is gone. Audience captivated, self-image preserved, mission accomplished. The critics, who share the director’s predicament, were even more enthusiastic than the regular audience. It was a complete success – except for those last minutes after Paul has left and that energy is gone but a scene or two are needed for a proper ending.  Everyone knows the movie is over and yet it’s just awkwardly hanging around. Or put differently: being modern.

No wonder these guys need therapy. Or superman,


All About Your Pop Culture Personality

April 8, 2013

 

Loves Morrissey.

Mexican Emos, probably at a Morrissey concert.

Entertainment: An Uncharted Territory

There are plenty of silly tests and quizzes that will tell you what kind of person you are based on your pop culture preferences. But is there any real research on this? Surprisingly little, according to psychologist Peter Rentfrow and collegues who went through some of the major scientific journals on personality from 1932 to 2008 and found that only 0.6 percent of the articles had any words referring to entertainment in their subject headings.

And yet entertainment is everywhere. Americans spend over 9 hours per day watching TV, films, read books or magazines, or listen to music. TV is the major medium accounting for 5.5 of those hours. They spend almost as much money on entertainment as they spend on health care – and no country spends more on health care than America. Most likely, other Westerners are similar in this regard.

The Study

So given how important entertainment is in our culture and the lack of research on the connections to personality, Rentfrow & Co made a study to examine people’s preferences for different entertainment genres and how these preferences relate to personality as well as other demographic factors like age, gender, race, intelligence and education.

They used three samples of participants: 1946 university students (the so-called convenience sample), a community sample of 736 residents of Eugene-Springfield, Oregon, and an internet sample of 545.  They then constructed a 108 item questionnaire called the Entertainment-Preference Measure (EPM) in which they rated the 108 genres or combination of genres and mediums (for instance Romance Books is one item and Romance Film another). They also had participants do an intelligence test and a measure of the Big Five personality factors .

Emerging Factors: The Big Five of Entertainment?

Next, they did their statistical mojo in which correlations between all the 108 genres were compared to see if they clustered into any separate factors, which they did. The major divide was found between what the researchers, surprisingly politically incorrect called Highbrow and Lowbrow. Furthermore Highbrow turned out to consist of two separate factors, named Aesthetic and Cerebral where as Lowbrow was made up of three factors called Communal, Dark and Thrilling for a total of five factors – two fancy and three folksy. To get a general idea of what these factors look like here are some of the major items in each of them,

  • Aesthetic – classical music, arts and humanities TV shows, art books, opera music, foreign film, classic films, folk music, world music, philosophy books
  • Cerebral – business books, news and current events TV shows and books, educational TV shows, reference books, computer books, documentary films, science TV shows
  • Communal – romance films, romance books, daytime talk shows, made-for- TV movies, soap operas, reality shows, pop music
  • Dark – horror movies, heavy metal music, rap and hip hop, alternative music, erotic movies, erotic literature, cult movies
  • Thrilling – action movies, thriller and espionage books, spy shows, science fiction TV shows, films and books, suspense movies, war movies

The Correlates

If we sum up all the major correlations between the above factors and the demographic and personality data, we get some interesting, and sometimes surprising, portraits of different types of people.

The correlations for the Aesthetic preference are fairly predictable. This taste correlated slightly with the female gender, a little stronger with intelligence and education. It was unrelated to race. On the Big Five it correlated strongest with Openness, slightly less with Agreeableness and slightly (inversed) with Conscientiousness.  Looks very much like the typical liberal.

The Cerebral preference was slightly correlated to with the male gender, age and education. It was unrelated to race, and surprisingly, it was also unrelated to intelligence. This may partly be explained by the personality profile; this type was slightly correlated with Extraversion, inversely to Neuroticism (that is emotionally stable), and to Openness. The combination of Conscientiousness and lack of Neuroticism most likely make them very organized and efficient, thus compensating for their average intelligence. This type may correspond to the ISTJ of the MBTI personality measure, a type which has been found to achieve academic success with relatively little intelligence. Closest stereotype would be a nerd although this is also a slightly conservative profile.

The Communal preference was correlated most strongly to the female gender (although these factors emerged independent of gender so there is a male bunch with this taste too). It was clearly correlated with low intelligence and low education. It was slightly correlated with African American ethnicity/race. This crowd is extraverted, agreeable, slightly conscientious and low on Openness. This type of person is very common, which explains why there is always a reality show, a talk show or a soap opera on when you turn on the TV.

The Dark preference was most strongly linked to a young age and to the male gender. There was a slight correlation to Hispanic ethnicity as well as intelligence and education. It is linked to Extraversion, but this was almost entirely due to the facets Provocativeness and Self-Disclosure. Further, they were low on Agreeableness and Conscientiousness and high on Openness.

Finally, the Thrilling preference was most clearly linked to the male gender. It was unrelated to race and there was a slight correlation to low education but there was very little data on intelligence for this type. In terms of personality they were unrelated to all the Big Five factors except for Openness were the younger university sample showed a slight positive correlation and the older community sample showed a slight negative correlation. This is consistent with the trait known as Sensation Seeking which is largely outside the Big Five.

What to Make of It All

There are some obvious limitations to this study. The samples are mainly White middle class. The community sample was 98 percent White – why pick a a town like Eugene-Springfield which has so little diversity? It seems psychologists, who to 95 percent identify as liberals, avoid people who aren’t White middle class like themselves. There is also the question of to what extent minority students are representative of their respective groups. There is a possibility that they are white-washed or perhaps genuinely more similar to Whites than to their own groups.

Still, the racial connections to cultural preferences and personality that were found make sense to me. According to Nielsen, Black people watch more of the light stuff featured in the Communal factor. The Hispanic link to the Dark factor accords with for instance the Mexican Emos, although I don’t know exactly how common they are. I get the general feeling that a lot of latin culture is dark, bizarre and sexual in line with this finding.

More robust was the finding that the highbrow Cerebral factor wasn’t related to intelligence, but the lowbrow Dark factor was. The fact that Cerebral and Aesthetic were correlated (making up the Highbrow factor) suggests that personality may be more important than intelligence in deciding cultural preferences.

Personally, my preferences were a little bit in most of these factors, although I fit the liberal Aesthetic factor best, even though I’m more of a social conservative. They even share my taste for Bluegrass, a genre that originated among White low-IQ people in the Appalachians. Awkward…

 


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