In a world where we find ourselves evermore overwhelmed by-and drawn to-bright images and flashing screens, it is worth asking a few questions about that most important of consumer goods: entertainment. What makes entertainment entertaining? Why do we need it, or do we? What is entertainment, anyway?
These are a few of the questions I set out to answer in a class I taught a year or so ago: Entertainment in America. And while we couldn’t quite come up with satisfactory answers, even after a semester of reading and discussion, I’d like to try to set down a few of the thoughts that came out of that course here. But I don’t want to shove the partial answers I’ve come to down your throat-that’s no fun for anybody. Rather, what I’ll do in the following is offer a list of questions that you might ask yourself, along with a few resources that might be worth looking at as you search for your own answers to these increasingly crucial questions. I’ll also note, from time to time, the conclusions I have tentatively reached regarding these questions.
Are you ready? Here goes…
What is entertainment? (Too obvious, but we’ll come back to it. If you keep this question in mind as you go down the list, you may find a definition beginning to come together. Try it out.) Even if you know it when you see it, does it bother you if you can’t come up with a good definition of what it actually is?
Is there such a thing as “only entertainment”?
Only Entertainment-Bad Religion
That’s Entertainment-The Jam
That’s Entertainment-Judy Garland
When you read the lyrics of The Jam’s and Bad Religion’s songs, and read about the history of the Judy Garland highlights film, what is your sense of the kind of material that makes for entertainment?
Who needs entertainment? What for? When you are entertained, what are you feeling? Read a Dilbert or Doonesbury comic strip, and try to record what happened inside of you while you were looking at the comic. Did you feel happier? A sense of release? The resolving of tension? Was that entertainment? Would you say that reading the comic strip was the same kind of experience as watching a television show? How? How not?
Are some kinds of entertainment better for you than others? Which kinds? Is it better to play internet poker or to watch a video? Try doing each for a little while and record your feelings. Was one more entertaining than the other? How? Why? Did one make you more aggressive? Less likely to do something productive in the world around you? Did either change the way you felt about yourself? How?
One of the things I was struck by while teaching this course was the way entertainment can work as a substitute for action. If I can identify with a character on TV-on a soap opera, for instance-then I get to feel all the feelings that character feels, without having to do the actions that result in those feelings. I get to feel jealous without having a cheating spouse, excited by the intrigue of adultery without being an adulterer, and intimate without ever actually talking to a living human being. In short, I get to feel. Some researchers believe that feelings are the way we human beings experience our world most fully, but is there a price to pay when we feel our emotions in a way that’s disconnected from the physical world around us?
That is, if we get to feel feelings without taking risks, do we start to lose our ability to risk emotion in the “real world”? I don’t have a definite answer to that for you, but I do have one for me. I’ve come to the conclusion that entertainment is-while maybe necessary for emotional and psychological health-definitely a dangerous substance. Like fire. So, for my part, I’ll still watch a film now and then. But I’ll also think afterwards about how watching that film, getting that emotional satisfaction, affects my ability to act in the real world. You might consider doing the same; it actually turns out to be pretty entertaining.