Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Lonely American...Psych!

I really wanted to blog about this book The Lonely American. It would have been totally perfect and brought up a lot of interesting points, but since I actually haven't read it, just flipped through it...that's not going to happen, exactly. I was also thinking about a TV show I enjoy a lot, HBO's Entourage, and suddenly, in some random alchemy of a liberal arts education, these two things, Entourage and lonely Americans, connected in my mind.

Psychologists, sociologists, and other -ologists have been telling us we're lonely for quite some time, at least since The Lonely Crowd was published in 1965. Since '65, the number of confidants we have and the frequency of visits we make to friends has been steadily dropping. While I haven't read The Lonely American, I have read Bowling Alone which I'm sure makes a lot of the same points-- on the whole, Americans are pretty lonely, getting lonlier, and as you might imagine, it's not a great thing for us. However, in our culture of "rugged individualism", it can often be seen as shameful or a weakness to talk about loneliness. Obviously, if we're facing any social problem, not talking about it just worsens it. But, between not wanting to appear vulnerable and thinking we might be the only ones with the problem, not a lot of discussion gets made about how lonely Americans really are.


And here's where Entourage (main characters shown above) comes in. The show is about a movie star and his 3 best friends. The guys are never, ever alone. And in the other shows I watch, the same thing appears to be true to varying extents. Even shows that occur in workplaces show the characters either collaborating closely together on the job or spending time talking over drinks after work, things that don't happen in many of our real workplaces. Watching Entourage, I found myself thinking, "I wish I had an entourage". There are a lot of things in the show to wish for: A huge house, Porsches and Maseratis, expensive clothes, fame, adoring fans, seeing your face on a movie screen. But I think that for most of us, the most valuable thing shown is actually the entourage itself. Yes, it's realistic for famous people to be surrounded by others all the time. But for the rest of us, it's wish fulfillment: extreme edition. Wish fulfillment has its place, but I think the fact that loneliness is hardly ever portrayed in pop culture only encourages the (incorrect) idea that everyone is surrounded by friends except us.

Maybe we'll find a portrayal of loneliness in a literary novel or rare independent film. However, it is something that is largely absent. True, there are films where overcoming loneliness is a theme. However, the problem is usually solved in magical ways that we couldn't duplicate in our own lives. That, or the extent of loneliness is a short montage to "One is the Lonliest Number" or "All By Myself". Anything beyond that would be so far removed from an audience's expectations that I believe they would be very uncomfortable. Common tropes around loneliness, such as Bridget Jones sitting by herself with a bottle of vodka, obscure the fact that loneliness can happen anytime, anywhere, and with any beverage.

So at the risk of sounding like the brooding Russian playwright that I am, I say More! More loneliness in movies and on TV! Maybe it sounds a little twisted, but nothing gets people talking like TV and movies do. If we saw loneliness portrayed in pop culture, then we could more easily discuss the concept. No, I don't have any solutions, but the first step is, after all, admitting that there is a problem.

20 comments:

tomatl said...

I love that you wrote about this. I really mourn the loss of community. Especially when one isn't really into "pair bonding" it can feel even lonelier.

Ily said...

Thanks tomatl...and I love comments! "Entourage" is interesting because some of the characters are aromantic (even though they're very sexual), so they're not into pair bonding either. But, they have their little cohesive group of friends so they're still never alone. They'd all been friends since childhood, but I think it's rare to keep your childhood friends these days. (Aromantic sexuals...a post for another day.)

Siggy said...

One example that immediately comes to mind: Cast Away. Not exactly obscure--it had Tom Hanks!

Ily said...

You're right, although I think it's telling that the situation of that movie, while it heavily involves loneliness, is also a scenario that no one would ever actually be in.

DELLA REESE said...

We should see more of it but in a way where it is educating people that you can be okay by yourself. You dont necessarily need to be humping someone every 10 secs or have a big entourage just to feel secure or a sense of self worth because of all those that want to be around you. Why does lonely always have to equal gloom and doom?

People should really learn how to maintain and be their own best friends for sake of sanity and stability so they dont always feel incomplete when alone or inadequate because there is not another to be there beside them at all times.

Ily said...

I think loneliness isn't the same thing as spending time by yourself; the former is negative but the latter doesn't have to be. I agree that being your own best friend is really important-- something I try to do but it doesn't always work out.

nekobawt said...

hell, i felt lonelier last friday at a party where i'd known almost everyone for years than i had in the last several months of spending most of my free time by myself (unless my cat counts)....

ily, have you seen "all about steve"? it's a lot better than i thought it would be. it starts out with mary, a workaholic crossword writer (i forget the big word name for it) who basically gets guilted into letting her parents set her up with a blind date. screwy hijinks ensue from that point, of course, because it's a pseudo-rom-com starring sandra bullock, but in general it concentrates more on finding a community than the usual gethitchedandforthelurveofgawdMAKEBABIES stuff we're beaten over the head with by pop culture. i found the "moral" of the story to be pretty asexy in nature--be unapologetically yourself, pairing off actually ISN'T everything, community is great, the media is the devil....well ok, the last one isn't strictly asexual. *grins* but all in all, it's a movie i'd actually buy, and those are very rare.

Tomatl said...

I totally agree Ily. I think that's why shows like "friends" and "sex and the city" were so popular, amazing deep but asexual friendships . Those shows really weren't about the sex, but about redefining family (ie. thanksgiving dinners together). Sometimes I'm sad about the state of the "lonely american". But maybe this is just the difficult part of moving forward. In the past our entourages were people that maybe we didn't like (nuclear and extended family, church etc). But now perhaps we're starting to redefine family and community: people of our choosing. And I think that's a good thing.

edgeofeverywhere said...

"...loneliness can happen anytime, anywhere, and with any beverage." Love it! You make so many good points here. I had never thought about how TV characters are rarely alone, or how loneliness is generally only portrayed in specific, often cliched ways for specific purposes. This post also makes me wonder how much the media is responsible for my dream of having a posse--something that is very elusive in real life.

Ily said...

Tomatl-- I'm lol'ing at your idea of an unwanted church entourage. I can watch episodes of "Sex and the City" over and over again precisely for the reasons you mention.
Neko-- I haven't seen that movie. It got awful reviews, didn't it?! But now that I have a personal recommendation, I might check it out.
EoE-- Thank you so much! I feel like since advertisers have nothing to gain from showing us groups of friends in the media, then it might actually be a natural desire on our part. Unlike, say, the desire for GARNIER HAIR PRODUCTS that I suddenly get while watching Project Runway.

Noskcaj Llahsram said...

I don't know how we got here. on a planet of almost seven billion people, how can any person feel alone? Its terrible, somewhere along the line our priorities as a collective got messed up: get a high paying job, get a big dog, get rich, get famous, get laid, get drunk, get more, more than your enemies, more than your neighbours, more then your family, just more then everyone. Never once has anyone said to me, "you know what, get happy, get friends, get just a little bit selfish"
I just want to know why it's so hard for us to reach out and be kind, not on a superficial or polite level, but on a genuine level, to care for another if only for an instant, just because they're a human too.

Ily said...

Well said, and I wish I knew. It really is an absurd situation when you think about it.

nekobawt said...

i actually hadn't read any reviews for "all about steve," i watched it on my friend's recommendation and at the time was looking for a flick my mom and i could watch together and both of us actually enjoy it. i was personally pleasantly surprised.

i have to wonder how many of those reviewers were interested in the positive message about being yourself, though, as opposed to not finding it heteronormative enough for their tastes.

Ily said...

I read one letter to the editor about how Sandra Bullock's character in that movie might have been intended to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum, rather than just poorly acted or ill-conceived. As the only person in the known world to like the movie "The Village" it's good to take reviews with a grain of salt, you're right.

Byggvir said...

Just to recommend another movie that got middling-to-good reviews but that I really loved, have you seen 'Year of the Dog' starring Molly Shannon? The movie is about loneliness, pretty much, and about finding a community. I found it extremely cathartic. First movie to make me cry in a long time.

Ily said...

I haven't seen that one-- I'll check it out. But the crying doesn't bode well for me, as someone who tears up reading history books...

Carolyn said...

I don't mean to be a downer, but it doesn't seem to me that TV shows and movies would be the best place for increased awareness of the issue of lonliness. There is no responsibility that media has toward repairing social issues, so until being alone is the new fad, they're going to keep having shows and movies about the exciting, fake lives that we want to have. In fact, I would venture a guess that the television (and computer) are the largest contributers to lonely people in U.S. Since the TV's invention we spend more hours each day with them instead of interaction with our fellow humans. If helpful for anything, maybe at least media can mirror these desires that we have, you see that dude with an entourage, what is stopping you from having your own? If other people out there are lonely, we can take up the charge and create communities like the we each want to have.

Ily said...

Downers are always welcome! :-) I feel like the media is very muddled when it comes to talking about social issues. It can't be relied on alone to send a message. It's the same issue with asexuality in the media. If you spread information person to person, you're going to get more accurate information, but it's also a much slower and more painstaking process. Recently, there was a week when TV writers agreed to put mentions of volunteerism in shows. It went really badly. I think a multi-pronged approach is probably the best idea.

Anonymous said...

Oh! I love "The Village," too.

Ily said...

There you are! At last! :-D