How much toxicity is too much?
With so much of negativity and mental distress around, a common outlet for us to de-stress is to turn to entertainment, of which TV is still amongst the most popular avenues.
While the new generation does not identify much with the content on satellite TV and find comfort in OTT platforms, the main mode of entertainment for most remains TV channels. From reality shows for kids and adults, to comedy shows with mindless jokes and sexist dialogues, to saas-bahu drama to thought provoking documentaries or finely edited travel shows, entertainment means different things to different people.
Producers of TV seem to have frozen in time, unable to adapt to ways to the changing world.
The content on many of the channels is mostly toxic and every show reeks of misogyny in some form. Outbursts, assaults, mental breakdowns, sexism, racism and such insensitive content are slow poisoning the minds of millions who watch it; this is mainstream entertainment where emotions of this toxic nature are peddled to attract viewership. How much toxicity is too much? Where does one draw a line with toxic content?
Reality as shown by some prime time shows is no longer pleasant to the Indian family. The foul language, the mental, emotional, physical and verbal abuse that is meted out by each character and the sexual innuendos and obnoxious language being dished out are all an attempt to plump TRP ratings. In one of the reality shows on national television a while ago, we saw a male contestant pinning a female contestant to the ground and twist her hands while she was howling and screaming. This did not amount to physical abuse by the producers. What was most alarming was the fans of the contestant defending his actions, amidst calls for his ouster from the show.
Turn to reality show for kids (now as young as 6 years of age); the emotional and mental stress behind the stage and the unhealthy competition practices that a child is exposed to so early in life can led to serious implications on the psychological and emotional development in a child. The thirst to win, make money and get famous early in life takes the innocence of the child away. The instant fame that they are exposed to sometimes can set unrealistic expectations about life in a child. What we see as worse is the inappropriate and sometimes sexist/body shaming comments of the judges that set a weak precedence in the overall understanding of genders and respect for genders in children.
The truth of the matter here is we didn’t get here overnight, where abuse or misogyny get passed off as infotainment or entertainment. Why reality shows bother us more is that when it comes to fiction, we know that this is not real and that it is scripted entertainment.
Crying, pushing, shoving, insulting, screaming or manipulating have all been part and parcel of the blueprint of many reality shows in our country. But why just reality we ask; aren’t we consuming more or less the same in our fiction shows as well?
The saas-bahu serials with their unending tales of scheming, shouting and occasional bursts of slaps where mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law are more often projected as vamps who spread malice among people around; while religious women wearing conventional dresses are considered and treated as goddesses. When are we going to break these stereotypical thinking and patterns? Have not these content writers and producers seen positive and encouraging women in their lives or are their intentions so skewed and lewd that they want age-old stereotypes and sexist attitudes towards women to be drilled deeper into the psyche of the audience? The offline discussions in households around these storylines and characters are nauseating, to say the least.
Both women and men are subjected to humiliation and verbal and physical assault in such shows and instead of raising questions on doling of toxicity and abuse in the name of entertainment, we see more and more women and men getting hooked to this negativity oozing out of the screens leading to edge-of-the-seat curiosity and tv watching. Every shouting match that fascinate us, every verbal assault or shove and push that keep us from changing that channel, is responsible for what we watch and experience on our small screens today. Why can’t we keep our eyes off the screens when people scream at each other, physically assault the other or verbally and emotional abuse a person consistently? Dialogues and delivery are so loaded, facial expressions and weird sounding background music so dramatic, that there is not one thread of reality in how they script and pan the screenplays. Humour and vulgarity interchangeably used, leading to below-the-belt and cringe-worthy dialogues. What fascinates us so much about this toxic entertainment?
Why do I find sadistic pleasure in watching such content? Who is responsible for drawing a line here? The show-runners and producers who only cater to the audiences’ demands? Or the viewers whose threshold for “shocking” content is going up every year?
This increasing rise in the toxicity should make us question this supply and demand cycle. When will I stop watching a reality show that serves abuse? Where is my personal threshold? What can this trend escalate into if we keep demanding more aggressive entertainment?
Would toning down the toxic content amount to censorship? While we do not have much censorship for entertainment content for TV channels, one asks isn’t it just prudent to promote healthy relationships than spread such ugliness and glorification of wrong ethos? We hear many people who defend this kind of depiction of violence, or the toxic energy that takes up most of the content space alleging that if viewers disapprove of a certain kind of content, they shouldn’t simply consume it and that policing what everyone gets to watch is unfair.
But such an argument would have been valid if we were living in a fair world, where the discretion of audience knew how to separate fact from fiction.
We see many households glued to the small-big screens each afternoon and evening, without any concern for visitors or those on phone calls during these prescribed hours. There is very little healthy debates on the toxicity, negativity, and trash released through these shows that cut a wrong picture about relationships and boundaries at homes.
How difficult is it to produce content that promotes healthy relationships? What takes these screenplay writers to produce one that makes people dream, question existing patterns, or explore the unknown? The ongoing trend of copying one format and replicating it on every channel is nothing but old wine in new bottles. Unless content creators become bold, sensitive, and encouraging with their scripts and storylines, TV viewing will continue to be brash, impaired, and reprehensible; and the psyche of the audience dented. If we notice our own actions and words each day, you will be surprised to realise how often you reflect these subtle shades of discrimination and sexism in your everyday life. No matter how oblivious, majority follow this intentionally or unintentionally, without being aware of the damage.
Media influence the masses and if such prejudiced and toxic content continue to occupy a major share of TV, awareness or education towards a respectable, insightful and equal space would seem a distant reality. It’s time we dwelt into these to keep our homes sane and healthy.
(The author is an educationist and founder of Zocio, an organisation working extensively in the social emotional learning space. You can reach her at email@example.com.)