The search for shame

Culture | Genres, generations, and generosity get old

Issue: "Kosovo: What's next?," April 10, 1999

The gift of shame
Have we no shame? Of course not. That's why we watch tell-all TV, celebrate divorce, and accept bad behavior, says culture critic James Twitchell. His radical conclusion: People who misbehave should feel bad about themselves because of their actions. In Mr. Twitchell's book For Shame (now in paperback from St. Martin's Griffin), he says that the rubbing away of this very important bit of socialization is the American breakdown. Other periods, say the 1950s or the Victorian era, may have been hypocritical, oppressive, and downright rotten, he argues, but life then was more civil because ordinary people were expected to behave. The cultural elite was supposed to support social morés then. Now it has abandoned its mooring and joined the priesthood of "advertiser-supported good feelings." When people are shamed now, the author says, it is usually clique hazing or something about eating meat, wearing fur, or recycling. Instead of shame, therapy pumps us up. "Every medium of culture, be it religion, politics, advertising, the law or psychology, is having to live by the rule: Make me feel good or be gone. Entertain or die." While Mr. Twitchell doesn't see religion as the heart of the problem, he says modern Christianity has been therapeutically twisted into romantic paganism: redemption without a fall. "Who feels good about original sin?" he remarks. The author thinks shame should make a comeback. People who refuse to exercise restraint, self-control, and modesty should feel bad about themselves. If street gangs can shame members over trivialities, why can't middle-class communities ostracize their gamblers, deadbeat dads, and crack smokers? Mr. Twitchell is far from having the answer. He goes back and forth between liking and disliking Christianity. But at least he calls his audience to do something besides lie dead before the freight train of destruction. The judicious use of shaming, shunning, and dissing of deviance could throw some bugs into the therapeutic system. Feeling bad is a social good. Adultery before the wedding
If you're in love and about to get married, be sure to have a fling with the trashy married woman next to you on the plane. That's where the hit movie Forces of Nature (DreamWorks; rated PG-13 for profanity and adult themes) takes off. Our hero (Ben Affleck) saves Mrs. Bad News (Sandra Bullock with way too much eyeliner). This launches the pair on one of those supposedly madcap road trips that fill every clinker comedy from Dead Presidents to Odd Couple II. This time, the two are supposed to do the opposites-attract thing, but nothing about either character shows any chemistry toward the other. Their adulterous moves are pushed forward by a cavalcade of walk-on characters who complain about how marriage stinks and how living with one person is like being sentenced to prison. So this tacky couple spends the movie running through cars, trains, buses, cheap hotels, a Kmart, and a jail. Meanwhile, the poor suffering bride is waiting at the altar, holding off advances from an old boyfriend. Naturally, her parents are separated and they bicker on and on about everything from politics to ceremony plans. There's also a bunch of bad weather in here that's supposed to mean something more than that DreamWorks wanted to blow special-effects money creating rain, hail, and hurricanes. Finally, our spineless lead slogs his way to Savannah where he must choose between his fiancée and his ex-go-go dancer. This is Mr. Affleck's second part as a post-sexual revolution problem child; before Armageddon, he played an artist in love with a lesbian in the cult movie Chasing Amy. In the end it doesn't matter if the guy picks the right woman or not, because the whole thing is arbitrary. The moral is a bunch of be-who-you-are nonsense about how marriage is a great risk. The contrived happy ending has the Affleck character babbling about how marriage may not be fulfilling, but it's safe. Sadly, enough people fell for this shallow mush to make this a hit. High-school hierarchies
Generation X isn't as young as it used to be. A case in point is Never Been Kissed (Fox; rated PG-13 for adult themes), in which Drew Barrymore plays a reporter who goes back to high school posing as a student. She's ordered to infiltrate the in-crowd, which throws her into all sorts of heebie-jeebies. See, she was an ugly ducking in high school and everybody made fun of her. One of the beautiful people asked her to go to the prom, then drove up to her driveway with another date and threw eggs at her from the street. But she struggled on, climbing her way up the social ladder. Never Been Kissed is the right movie with the right star, but it goes horribly wrong. A dozen different plot points are brought up, then go nowhere. Miss Barrymore is good in the part, but her scenes are so much cheese. The high-school kids are all central casting leftovers. Back in the newsroom are a bunch of Truman Show rejects watching everything with a hidden camera. There are also some bubbled-headed popular girls and a gang of insular, angry nerds called "The Denominators." The whole thing builds to a big finish at the prom, with lots of references to Carrie. It all climaxes with a preachy ending about accepting other people and how there's life after high school. This movie quickly loses track of its selling point: Everybody felt unpopular in high school. The end of the soaps?
The bubble may be about to burst for the soap opera industry. While soaps have been broadcasting staples since the 1930s, the costs of making 260 episodes every year of a show that will never be rerun add up. And with network ratings down across the board, this institution could go the way of TV westerns and variety shows. Speculation has floated around that NBC, which has been in daytime's ratings basement for two decades, may dump both Another World and Sunset Beach. A new soap, bluntly titled Passions, is coming this summer; if it fails, the decks could be swept clean. One thing is certain: Ratings are down. Loyal fans churn in and out. New audiences aren't being herded toward the shows. With more choices on the dial, the available audience drops. Those extra channels fill in the titillation factor filled by daytime drama. Soap producers are thus left to do more with lower budgets. Since the days of radio, the networks acted as gatekeepers to the world of broadcasting. Now they aren't as necessary, so expensive shows are harder to produce. That's why network schedules are nearly devoid of game shows now, and why the Saturday morning cartoon is an endangered species. TV institutions once taken for granted are slipping away. The Internet only adds pressure and it hasn't helped soaps much. While fan pages for General Hospital or Guiding Light are abundant, numerous attempts to make original soaps for the Net have been tremendous financial disasters. With so many things to see, who can watch the same thing over and over? Besides, soap operas today are old hat. To today's jaded audiences, the plots are old, the characters rehashed, and the edgy content seems blunt. The formulas won't go away, but the number of addicts will decrease.

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