I spend a lot of time harping on the idea that speech and pop culture influence behavior—that kids who grow up steeped in hero-"gets"-the-princess narratives might grow into adults who don't fully honor women's humanity; that comedy fans whose heroes traffic in victim-skewering rape jokes might be slow to acknowledge rape culture's more sinister trappings; that the ubiquity of sexist, racist, homophobic, fatphobic, and transphobic media (in concert with factors like entitlement, anger issues, access to weapons, and poor impulse control) might contribute to a climate of actual physical peril for marginalized people.
I'm not saying "cause," I'm saying "contribute." If we agree that media can have a positive effect on society—like, say, Sesame Street or the Daily Show or Pedro on the Real World—then we have to keep a hard eye on its negative potential as well.
But what about the other side of the equation? What about the people who gobble up media with no critical thought whatsoever? What about those who avoid legitimate news sources and just lift their opinions wholesale from entertainment? How much responsibility can we place on those people for their own misapprehensions?
Well, it's complicated.
You won't actually accomplish much by telling people to "be less stupid." Not to mention the fact that cultural messaging is powerful and insidious, and not all people have access to the research tools and media literacy training that make it easy to filter such a massive info-dump. But it doesn't hurt to remind people, periodically, that TELEVISION IS NOT REAL. DO NOT BELIEVE WHAT THE TELEVISION TELLS YOU.
Case in point: A new study indicates that people who watch Grey's Anatomy have starkly more negative opinions of organ donation than people who don't. At a historical moment when 18 people die every day while waiting for organs, that's an instance of the media's influence being a matter of literal life and death.
The show, they argue, has an overwhelmingly negative and cynical view of organ donation. "The majority of organ donation coverage on this program depicts doctors as vultures, eager to transplant organs from their patients," they write. "In addition, plots often highlight doctors crossing ethical lines by privileging patients that are their friends as well as affluent patients with organ transplantation over less familiar and affluent individuals."
With that context in mind, the authors surveyed 600 Illinois residents — 200 Caucasians, 200 African-Americans, and 200 Latinos/Latinas — most of whom were female and 18-24, and saw how their attitudes about organ donation interacted with their Grey's Anatomy viewing patterns.
They found that increased viewing of Grey's Anatomy lead to an increased belief that its portrayal of medicine is generally realistic, which in turn reduced knowledge levels about donation and increased attitudinal barriers. Interestingly, decreased knowledge about donation didn't appear to affect respondents' ultimate attitude toward joining the donors' registry, but barriers like distrust in medical institutions had a real influence.
You guys. THAT? Is bananas.
I wouldn't even recommend taking relationship advice from a silly nighttime soap opera, LET ALONE MEDICAL ADVICE. As a human being full of organs, surrounded by loved ones who are also full of organs, in a compassionate society ALSO full of humans full of organs—organs that could, at any point, go completely fucking haywire—you owe it to everyone on earth to extend your organ donation research beyond the totes convincing gravitas of Ellen Pompeo. When it comes to something as vital and tenuous as organ donation rates, intellectual laziness kills.
Other things on television that are not real:
Shows where "real" rich people do outrageous things.
Shows where a sassy realtor argues with a sassy redecorator and build people a dream-house with a $30,000 budget.
Shows where a man makes a living wrestling turtles and getting paid in beef jerky.
Shows where a hot carpenter remodels the houses of families who are having a hard time and it only takes 12 hours and that shit doesn't immediately rot and fall apart because it's basically made of scotch tape and chewed up newspaper.
Shows about anus-obsessed racists who can talk to ducks.
LITERALLY ALL OF THE OTHER SHOWS. FEEL FREE TO LEAVE MORE IN THE COMMENTS.
In conclusion, donate your motherfucking organs.
Image by Jim Cooke, source images via Shutterstock.