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Shifting the Narrative

I responded to a Facebook post by Donald Maass, of Donald Maass Literary Agency, with this observation: "My hobby horse is that writers, and other entertainers, are responsible for the messages we send and the mental viruses we perpetuate. A little exposure to toxicity isn't fatal, but a steady diet would explain why we are where we are."

He asked me to elaborate. I could not do that in a short post, so I am answering here with a slightly longish answer.

In my five-plus decades on the planet, I have seen the narrative in entertainment shift dramatically. From the lovable Sherriff Andy Taylor in Mayberry to every cop is crooked in Chicago Blue. Gang bangers went from being the bad guys to being the misunderstood hero. Entertainment tells us there is so much gang violence we can't stop it. Body counts in movies and television have risen to ridiculous numbers and there are never any consequences shown. So apathy sets in. We hide in our homes and stream and let the wars run amok on our city streets. Cops are being shot daily and citizens are being mishandled weekly. Children are victims of drive-by shootings. This is a reality, but we rarely see the other 98% of people behaving with civility. It skews perception to the point where the focus feeds the problem.

We have gone from the racist and hateful Archie Bunker illuminating our biases to dysfunctional friends and families normalizing name calling, emotional, verbal, even physical abuse all in service of a good laugh, especially in "reality TV." We dig under rocks to find the most bizarre and damaged and hold them up for ridicule so we can feel better about our lives instead of getting them psychological care. We push them to act worse to get better ratings, damn the real-world consequences. We crow with outrage when they prove to be worse than we originally intended. But still thousands tune in to The Kardashians and Real Housewives to watch rich bitches muck wrestle.

We raise arrogant, entitled, narcissistic people to celebrity status and reward them for notorious behavior to the point where we now have kids fighting, making bomb threats at school, taking weapons to school, and shooting up schools to get attention. Again, as long as it makes You Tube or the nightly news so that everyone knows their name.

We have normalized stranger danger and violent sex scenes to ramp up the ratings. I mean, we all trash rooms, tear up clothes, and stop elevators to express our passion, right?  And then we have The Bachelor and Bachelorette franchise to further lower the tone. Then we wonder why our children are searching for love on telephone apps.

College life is depicted as a series of drunken bacchanals that would rival actual rites of Bacchus in too many to count motion pictures. And if a girl passes out and they photograph it while manhandling and raping her or a boy gets sodomized in the back of a school bus, it's just boys being boys or Animal House locker room talk. We give them a little slap on the wrist and move on. Men have always been that way, right? Wrong. That is an insult to all the good men out there and poor role modeling for our sons, but hey, as long it trends on social media. This is a perfect example of writing about something that needs to change instead of glorifying it.

Second place has become the first loser. Everything is a "battle" or "war" now and winning is the ultimate objective. Greed is good and everyone is corrupt from corporation heads, to our government officials, to the president, so why try to fight it? Once more, apathy sets in and we stay in our homes and pop popcorn and enjoy streaming House of Cards and Scandal.

There are rational people who see this stuff for what it is, sure. But there are masses of people fed this steady diet of garbage that never "read healthy." For every person who reads The New Yorker or Discover or National Geographic, there are thousands that read check-out tabloids. Therein lies the demise of our culture and the danger of encouraging apathy.

So, yes, I believe that writers and entertainers are responsible for the messages and mental viruses we perpetuate in our books, magazines, newspapers, movies, screenplays, and scripts. When we look at our content, we should consider the theme, tone, and message we wish to convey. Just because you can, should you?

I am not saying we shouldn't write about what is real or call attention to the problems in our society that need fixing. I would say that is our highest calling. However, you can write about something that is without suggesting that it should be.

I am not saying everything should be superficially happy happy joy joy. Rather, it is time to shift the narrative to reward and focus on people working toward being their best self and modeling healthy behavior in support of the betterment of our species. They need more screen time. Shows like Blue Bloods portray characters with character. You can add enough dramatic tension to good stories with admirable heroes to make them entertaining without drowning your audience in treacle.

I could write a thesis on this topic, but I will let this post stand as my "short" answer to a deep question.

I explored the topic in previous blog posts:

Toxic Messages Part 1

Toxic Messages Part 2

Subliminal Messages in Romance

Bad Romance

Next week, we will return to our regularly scheduled exploration of genres.


  1. I like shows like Blue Bloods as well. Love the character development and the storylines. New shows like "This is Us" also do a good job of building characters that are easy to relate to, with mostly encouraging plots. It's sad that this country is so divided and that we can't find common ground with people with differing opinions. Conflict just for conflict sake has no part in our daily lives. Thank you for your thoughtful post.

  2. It is hard to find shows like Blue Bloods these days. My childhood was full of them. They are now derided as unrealistic, but I think they contributed to my overall belief that the world is a good place and they inspired me to be a better person.