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Kelefa Sanneh has a thoughtful essay in the New Yorker about “reality television,” how it developed, why it fascinates us, and how “real” it really is.  From the Loud family to “Jersey Shore,” they are based on the idea of peeking into the lives of real people in their homes and with their friends and families or putting them in highly artificial situations to see how they react.  Whether a “glamorous competition” or a “homely documentary,” “reality shows still provide a fat target for anyone seeking symptoms or causes of American idiocy; the popularity of unscripted programming has had the unexpected effect of ennobling its scripted counterpart.”

Sanneh discusses serious, even scholarly books about reality television.  Jennifer L. Pozner in Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV says that while they may appear to portray extremes and transgressive behavior, reality shows reinforce particular social norms.  The greedy are punished.  The deserving are rewarded.  The lost are found and the lesser are made more.  Sanneh finds some of this analysis reductive, noting that “one of the form’s greatest strengths” is that its stars “unlike their scripted counterparts, outlive their shows, and sometimes find ways to defy them.”

Perhaps because it is more focused, Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity by Brenda R. Weber, a professor of gender studies at Indiana University, is better able to support its conclusions.

Weber sees in these makeover programs a strange new world—or, more accurately, a strange new nation, one where citizenship is available only to those who have made the transition “from Before to After.” Weber notices that, on scripted television, makeovers are usually revealed to be temporary or unnecessary: “characters often learn that though a makeover is nice, they were really just fine in their Before states.” On reality television, by contrast, makeovers are urgent and permanent; “the After-body, narratively speaking, stands as the moment of greatest authenticity.” We have moved from the regressive logic of the sitcom, in which nothing really happens, to the recursive logic of the police procedural, in which the same thing keeps happening—the same detectives, solving and re-solving the same crimes.

Of course there is no such thing as “reality” television.  The camera angles, the selection of shots, the music, the pacing all influence our reaction as audience members.  And the Heisenberg principle states that molecules behave differently when they are observed.  So do people.  The people who are supposed to be so ordinary, so “real” become celebrities.  “Jersey Shore’s” Snooki, whose primary occupations seem to be drinking and tanning, was in the headlines for getting a higher speaker’s fee for a recent college appearance than the distinguished poet Maya Angelou.  This was shortly after Snooki was in the headlines for being in a brawl.  Kate Gosselin went from being just another mom with a few more kids than most to getting Jennifer Aniston-style coverage when her marriage broke up (for reasons not unrelated to the intense media pressure and shock of “stardom”).  The smart and lucky ones get book deals and product lines.  Others do not do as well.  That is one part of reality television that is really real.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood reports that esteemed publisher Scholastic is sending out “teaching materials” to schools that amounts to a commercial for coal power.  The coal industry, through the American Coal Foundation, has hired Scholastic to produce The United States of Energy, sent to tens of thousands of 4th grade classrooms around the country.  CCFC says:

Teachers are told that the curriculum aligns with national standards because it teaches children the advantages and disadvantages of different types of energy.  But while the lessons do extol the advantages of coal, they fail to mention a single disadvantage.  Nothing about the Appalachian mountains chopped down to get at coal seams.  Nothing about the poisons released when coal is burned.  Nothing about the fact that burning coal is the single biggest contributor to human-created greenhouse gases.

Schools should teach fully and honestly about coal and other forms of energy.  However, the materials produced by Scholastic are not genuinely educational; they are industry PR.

With budget cuts and inadequate resources, it is tempting to take advantage of these kinds of “free” materials created with industry support.  But schools should not present commercial material as a part of the curriculum — unless it is to teach children how to separate advocacy from objective, balanced information.  To protest this slanted information masquerading as a book and degradation of the Scholastic imprint, write to Scholastic CEO Richard Robinson.

I always have a lot of fun with Betty Jo Tucker of Movie Addict Headquarters — in this week’s episode, A. J. Hakari joined us for a talk about the summer movies of 2011.

Things for the young fans of Justin Beiber to think about as they watch this film: He is cuuuuute! Hair! Smile! Voice! Dancing!I  am so lucky to have a talented, unassuming, nonthreatening, hard-working, scandal-free performer to test my still-developing sense of what love is all about.

Things for parents to think about as they watch this film: It is wonderful to see my Beiber fan so happy and it brings back memories of my love for (fill in the blank). He’s actually pretty talented!  And very cute. His mother seems to have a head on her shoulders and has made sure he has surrounded himself with people who genuinely want what is best for him.  It was good to hear his tour manager say that he saw his goal not as making him the biggest star he can be but teaching him to be the best man he can be.   Nice to see that he still has good friends — and that he still has to clean up his room. I am so lucky that my child has a talented, unassuming, nonthreatening, hard-working, scandal-free performer to test her still-developing sense of what love is all about.

It really is an astonishing story. As awwwwww-inspiring home movie footage shows, Justin Beiber, the son of a single teenage mother in a small town in Canada, loved music and loved to perform even as a toddler. He came in second in a local talent competition and performed on a street corner. When his mother posted some videos of him singing on YouTube, a young promoter from Atlanta saw them — and saw the astronomical numbers of viewers who were watching them. He flew Justin (then age 14) and his mother to Atlanta, introduced them to Usher, and 17 months later Bieber sold out Madison Square Garden in 22 minutes. And all of that despite the predictions of those who said it could not happen without a machine like Disney or Nickelodeon behind him. This is a typical but still-entertaining concert tour film, with shots of Bieber backstage and in front of the audience, goofing around, getting sick, tweeting, and performing alone and with guest stars Usher, Miley Cyrus, Jaden Smith, and Boyz II Men. Bieber and his entourage come across as sincere, kind-hearted (watch him talk to a young violinist who now performs on his old street corner), and considerate. The 3D effects are excellent, especially when he reaches out, when the audience waves their glow sticks, and when he shakes that trademark hairdo.