Catharsis (or, why I’m addicted to trashy American TV series)

It was an evening like any other. I settled down to watch a good few hours of mindless, trashy television. Flicking through the channels on a decidedly average Wednesday night, I caught the second half of two films. First up: How To Lose Friends and Alienate People (Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst). Premise: Guy works with girl. Finds girl annoying. Upon realising girl is unavailable, decides that he wants to be with her. Series of events blah blah blah… Final scene: he travels to New York to declare his love at an outdoor evening screening of her favourite film, kiss, slips his mother’s ring in to her pocket signifying that she is the “one”, camera pans to the Brooklyn Bridge and fade.

Heart fluttered. I changed the channel.

Second up: The Proposal (Ryan Reynolds, Sandra Bullock). Premise: Guy works for girl. Girl happens to be his crazy, manipulative boss. He finds girl annoying. Girl finds out her visa is about to expire and is due to be deported to Canada. Girl blackmails guy in to agreeing to marry her by threatening to sabotage his career. Guy agrees. They fly to Alaska for three days so girl can meet guy’s family and to get married on the third day. Fake wedding gets called off signifying that the girl actual has feelings for the guy and can’t bring herself to go through with it. Series of events blah blah blah… Final scene: after seeing a whole other side to girl and realising that he actually loves her and that he will lose her if she gets deported to Canada, guy flies to New York to declare said love for the girl and asks her to marry him for real this time so that he can date her. Romantic kiss, and fade.

Heart fluttering and completely caught up in the moment, I honest to God considered picking up my iPhone and tweeting “marry me” at a guy that I am in no way in a relationship with and I’ve been sporadically tweeting at over the past few weeks.

What. The. Heck?!

Fortunately, I had enough sense and fear of commitment to throw the iPhone across the room and assess the situation before I acquired a restraining order.

Although probably the most extreme of examples, this was not the first time that I have lost grounding in reality and been swept away by romantic plot lines. I have been addicted to American series, often shown at 10pm on E4, since the first episode of Desperate Housewives eight years ago. I almost failed my degree due to the purchase of Ugly Betty series one. Back to back episodes of One Tree Hill consumed my 21st year on earth (I refuse to watch series 7, 8, and 9 – it all went downhill after Luke and Peyton left) and most recently I have lost sleep over Gilmore Girls plot lines – will Luke and Lorelai ever get married?! A few nights ago, I actually scheduled Hart of Dixie as a recurring meeting in my Google Calender which synchronises with my iPhone so that I can be reminded an hour before my weekly fix is on Really TV.

You get the picture.

I am aware of a direct correlation between my cravings for fictional screen drama and my position on the ‘how content are you?’ scale of life. You see, when Desperate Housewives started airing, I was at school, miserable, and dreaming of living in America. When I purchased Ugly Betty series one, I was miserable at university trying to write up a dissertation last minute whilst freaking out about the future and hoping that it might involve living in America. One Tree Hill came along during the first year of living life as a graduate: directionless, stressed, and working out how I might be able to move to America instead of working in the job I had started. Gilmore Girls distracted me during a series of personal crisis that happened in a very short space of time when I didn’t have the brain space to even think of America. And Hart of Dixie’s the only regular thing I have scheduled during an unknown period of time before I actually move to America.

Why? Just…why? I can think of five reasons:

1) Catharsis.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first to use the term catharsis with reference to the emotions – in his work Poetics. In that context, it refers to a sensation or literary effect that, ideally, would either be experienced by the characters in a play, or be wrought upon the audience at the conclusion of a tragedy; namely, the release of pent-up emotion or energy. When life is tough, when we are stressed, when emotions run high, we look for a release. Some people paint as a release and see their emotions or energy transformed in to a work of art before them. Some people exercise as a release and get fit. I sit in front of a television screen sharing the emotions of a bunch of fictional characters whilst getting fat.

2) Schadenfreude. Pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.

Let’s face it: both a boring, eventless life and a dramatic, eventful life pale in comparison to the lives written by professional storytellers and acted out by hotter-than-you-will-ever-be stars. A New York Times article in 2002 cited a number of scientific studies of schadenfreude, which it defined as “delighting in others’ misfortune”. Many such studies are based on social comparison theory, the idea that when people around us have bad luck, we look better to ourselves. Other researchers have found that people with low self-esteem are more likely to feel schadenfreude than are people who have high self-esteem.

At least you’re not a pregnant, high-school student trying to make your marriage work after you left your NBA headed husband to go on tour with a famous rock star who was in love with you but who also slept with one of your friends and ruined her relationship with your other friend. Who is actually in love with someone else. Right?

3) Vicariousness.

They are living on a dramatic suburban street in America with hot husbands. They are attending Yale and dating rich high flyers. They are running the inn of their dreams. They are working for magazines in New York. They are having beautiful, clever children. They are running live music events in North Carolina. They are making risky business decisions. They are being proposed to. They are succeeding. They are failing. They are doing things that we might want to do but are afraid of going for. They are doing things that we can only dream of doing. Wouldn’t you just love it if that guy turned up at your door and declared his love for you? Wouldn’t you love to get Jimmy Eat World to play at your home-grown music venue? Maybe that’s just me…

 4) Escape.

Who doesn’t love not having to think about your essay, chores, job application, or family for a couple of hours?

5) Comfort.

The comfort of a weekly occurrence that to you can predict, can control the time and duration of, and enjoy.

We all indulge in those things a bit every now and again – that’s TV, that’s drama, that’s life. But when one is moved to the point of proposing to someone they have yet to ask out on a date via Twitter, perhaps it’s time to turn off the TV, get out and create an adventure out of life – something that you can look back on in years over the years to come and replay in your mind with as much colour as those 60 minutes. Engage with real people and find comfort in the reassurance that we’re in the same boat. To wake up in the morning in anticipation of the next episode of your life series. To do as you see and start that something, make that move, ask out that person, take that risk. Or to use those feelings to express and create.

Personally, I can’t wait to get out to America and do all these things. But in the mean time there are a few blank pages before that chapter that I need to fill, starting with tomorrow. Tomorrow I will not be watching TV.

Facebook

I had this super young, pretty and incredibly intelligent teacher at secondary school, and when I left a few years back, I added her on Facebook. Over the years, I saw her life unfold through my mini-feed. She moved to America, went to film school in San Francisco, eloped and married a gorgeous American guy on a beach, worked for an awesome charity, moved back to the UK, bought a house, renovated it, had a baby boy… and I just sat and watched her live out my dreams, wishing that I could have a life half as amazing as hers.

One day it struck me that: I had been comparing my day-to-day life to the best moments of hers. Status updates sharing the extraordinary. Photo albums compiled of carefully selected visual records of memories. And instead of being out there in the world, making and capturing my own memories, I was living vicariously through other peoples’ mini-feeds. This upset me enormously. I decided that I wanted to get out and actually live my life.

It is incredible how much of a reference point Facebook has become in my life. I spend so much time on there, yet in reality the people I spend the most time with and are closest to, I hardly interact with on Facebook – ‘I spend so much time on there’, as if Facebook is a place where I go; a reality.

My account has become a mish mash of people from primary and secondary school, and a whole load of people I want to be friends with but do not have the courage to speak to in person. A friend of mine recently did a ‘Facebook cull’ and removed all the people on his ‘friends’ list that he probably would not speak to ever again. He said that is was so cathartic. I tried to do it, but each time my cursor hovered over the ‘remove friend’ link I thought ‘but what if I need to get in touch with this person again?’ Perhaps some people are not in your life for a reason and that Facebook just drags out connections with people that should naturally be dead? Like a kind of relationship limbo?

This thought provoking article on the pathology of Facebook and Twitter: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/jan/22/social-networking-cyber-scepticism-twitter

touches on the irony of the illusion that social networking increases our communication when it can be seen to decrease our social skills and isolate us to an empty room and a computer screen.

“Turkle’s thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.”

What kind of reality are we signing in to? And what are we denying ourselves when we do?

A couple of months back, I met a guy. However, before actually going on the first date, I had totally Facebook stalked him. On the actual date, I realised how much excitement and interest I missed out on by denying myself the process of getting to know someone in person by finding out all the ‘facts’ instantly though mutual friends, his education information, networks and observing his ‘liked’ interests. As a friend put it, I had cheated. Getting to know someone is one of the most basic social interactions and there I was employing Facebook to do it for me; robbing me of the joy of discovering a shared interest, a mutual friend, a hobby, a person’s history.

We fear that by leaving Facebook, we will miss out on relationships, upcoming events, the latest gossip and the general point. But what are we missing out on each hour that we spend navigating our way mindlessly through the familiar blue and white window to a non-existent world?