Column: The perception of normal

While having dinner with some family friends a few weeks ago, a comment was made that happened to snatch my attention away from my steak.

“Have you seen that show ‘Desperate Housewives’?'”

“Yeah,” my aunt replied.

“It’s unbelievable! You don’t think people really think housewives are like that? How can they put that on TV? It’s embarrassing.”

This conversation is a perfect example of how popular culture permeates perceptions of reality. Television shows, music and film (especially good ones) highlight the exceptions to normal life. This is not really surprising, because, for better or worse, the exceptions are what’s interesting.

But along with highlighting the exceptions, television, music, film and books also exaggerate them; highlighting and exaggerating the abnormal contributes to the problem perpetuated by popular culture. When an exception is exaggerated in such a public and popular way, it can permeate a person’s thought process and actually become what many measure similar situations against. More simply, the exception is perceived as normal.

Now, let’s get back to “Desperate Housewives.” First off, and I’m pretty sure most will agree: all families have their peccadilloes, their skeletons. What “Desperate Housewives” does is grossly exaggerate these peccadilloes and drag the skeletons out of the closet to blow them up on the front lawn. The show is designed to be a satirical, sardonic, dark comedic expose of the American suburban family (albeit it does come off as campy, grocery-store novel-esque, and shallow … but I’ve reluctantly given it the benefit of the doubt).

As ridiculous as it sounds, this show influences perception. And it is not just “Desperate Housewives.” “Dallas,” “Melrose Place,” and countless daytime soap operas all do the same thing. They all exaggerate and highlight the exceptions until they become perceived as the standard.

For instance, take the concept of a “trophy wife” or “trophy husband.” A man or woman marrying someone significantly younger is obviously the exception. But I know whenever I see or hear of a couple like this I disapprovingly think to myself, “Look, he went and found himself a trophy wife.”

Why do I think this, and why do I automatically use a term that carries such a negative connotation? The answer is simple: television shows like “Desperate Housewives” highlight and exaggerate this, as well as other familial oddities. Then that exaggeration permeates popular culture, language and thought so that when I see a young woman married to an old man, I (and I bet you do, too) think of the negative. For all we know they might be happily in love.

Here’s another example, and one that might seem a little more palpable. Consider the movies “Bad Boys” and “Bad Boys II” (pre-trip to Havana – after that it just got ridiculous). These two films portray the exception to police work. Dashing around, guns a-blazin’ like the Lone Ranger ain’t police work. Most police work is done in a lab, walking a beat or filling out paperwork – it is mostly academic work.

But that is not what I imagine when I think about the police and when I daydream about being a cop. I, like most people, daydream of dashing around, guns a-blazin’ like the lone ranger. When little kids, and even adults, daydream about being police, they romanticize it and dream of being Mike Lowry, not Officer Krupke. When in actuality, while no less heroic, police work mostly resembles the job of Officer Krupke.

While these two examples seem beneficial at best and tolerable at worst there are other examples of this problem that are far more appalling. The film “Birth of a Nation” is a horribly racist film from the early 20th century. However, it was also the most technologically-advanced film of its time and was considered a masterpiece. But this piece of pop culture helped to perpetuate a system of racism.

It is for this reason that we must be so careful when we watch television or movies or even listen to music or read books. The exceptions that are highlighted and exaggerated could be so distorted that its influence might lead to continuing or reinforcing harsh racism or other social ills.

“Birth of the Nation” isn’t the only historical piece of pop culture that has helped to perpetuate an abhorrent stereotype; countless books and films have done this over the course of history. The exception being perceived as standard is not a new phenomenon – it is a systemic problem when interacting with art.

Keep in mind, however, that it is not always harmful. When it comes to police, this highlighting and exaggeration ends up romanticizing the profession – there isn’t anything wrong with that. If anything, it gives people more to look up to, because everyone loves the lone ranger dashing around with guns a-blazin’.

Each show, film, song and word must be looked at individually, because there are so many different exceptions and so many different standards in society that we can’t presume to either glorify all exceptions or vilify all of them. In short, we must glorify the ones that deserve glorification and vilify the ones that deserve vilification. This is not easy, but like it or not, “Desperate Housewives” is art. So is “Bad Boys,” “Bad Boys II” and “Birth of a Nation.” Looking at each work of art individually is how we must interact with and interpret art.

If history has taught us anything, it is that, whether beneficial or harmful, it is still risky to perceive the exception as standard.

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