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The monkey theory of media criticism


So the reason I skated in a few seconds before midnight last night was I found myself taking an unexpected trip to watch The Hunger Games. (The theatrical presentation was messed up, but I’ll save that complaint for the next time I write about home theater and how commercial theaters are not really up to par these days.)  Today, Man Boobz alerted me to this review on Fox News. If I had seen it yesterday, I definitely would have included it. It’s a perfect illustration of everything I was talking about.

The Hunger Games itself is also a great illustration of my point. I recommend you go see it. It’s the sort of film that used to get screenwriters blacklisted. If I were to sum it up in a sentence, I’d say it was about how the haves get the have-nots to fight each other in order to protect themselves.  In case you aren’t familiar with the premise for some reason, it’s set in the far future. There’s a wealthy capital that supports itself by exploiting twelve powerless surrounding districts. A few decades before the story, they rebelled. Now, the capital makes each colony contribute a boy and a girl each year to fight to the death in the Hunger Games. The winning district gets extra food for a year. All the others are kept just above starvation.

When making a movie like this, you have to be very careful. The story can’t be told without violence, but you need to emphasize the horror and unfairness. You definitely don’t want the audience to start rooting for Katniss, the heroine, to kill all of those mother-fuckers. I think it succeeded beautifully at this. It never basks in the violence, just shows a few frames here and there, often unframed and out of focus, like we were getting a glimpse of it, but couldn’t stand to look. Not coincidentally, it’s rated PG-13, so this worked out several ways. It’s like a perfect study both in how violence isn’t always meant to be taken literally (this represents a lot of conflicts that don’t necessarily leave a lot of bodies) and in how depicting something isn’t the same as endorsing it. Inn many cases, you have to depict something to argue against it in order to show what’s wrong with it or to make it clear what, exactly you are objecting to.

In the linked review, Fox New’s Keith Ablow starts off sounding like he could be a liberal do-gooder with a very low opinion of teens, and possibly everyone other than himself and no appreciation of context. He doesn’t seem to see any difference between watching The Hunger Games, the film and The Hunger Games, the gladiatorial reality TV show that the film is about. He has a simplistic view that teens will see violence, and decide violence is cool and go do some. At least he’s consistent. He previously worried that girls would see Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars and decide they want to be boys and then go cut their boobs off or something. He seems to very simplistic and frankly insulting “monkey see, monkey do” model of psychology and therefore doesn’t want anything in the media that people shouldn’t imitate, except for adultery. Adultery is okay. Apparently, we should promote Newt Gingrich’s constant cheating on his wives as the fact that he was able to pull it off makes him more qualified to be president. Maybe Republicans don’t count or we want boys to aspire to grow up and cheat on their wives, because that will encourage them to work hard to have the resources to do so, and society benefits.

At any rate, even if you had never heard of Ablow and the fact that he’s writing for Fox News didn’t tip you off, this line should tell you he isn’t some academic liberal worried about the corporate media’s influence on our children: “Females will be further distanced from their traditional feminine characteristics that (sadly, some wrongly insist) suggested they were not being real ‘girls’ if they were extremely physically violent.” The feminists want to arm all our girls and encourage violent revolution, which would be bad, because it isn’t ladylike, apparently. Also, who refers to women as “females”? He sounds ridiculous. And isn’t he a man who talks about feelings for a living? Some guardian of traditional gender roles. Plus, he didn’t like Harry Potter, because it distracts from real-life problems or something. It almost makes me want to go track down and read those mystery novels he wrote so I can find out what he would consider acceptable fiction. Almost.

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