The Power Of Popular Fiction
The major national book awards tend to be given to novels that can change the way we see the world – quite rightly so – but they’re often novels that the vast majority of readers don’t buy. Such is the demographic skew of the top reads that, if they’re making a powerful political point, it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re preaching to the converted. Last year I saw a play about political prisoners that was seemingly being watched by Guardian readers only at the National Theatre – it’s hardly going to change the world by telling them what they already suspect. Indeed, this principal of merely confirming worst fears is what drives tabloids like the Daily Mail.
So it’s interesting to see what’s happening with the American TV shows. First we reached a kind of ne plus ultra with True Blood, probably the most borderline pornographic, violent show I’ve ever seen on TV. Its images of women tied up and brutalised are especially uncomfortable as it clearly chases a female teen demographic. But torture porn, be it supernatural or otherwise, seems to have reached its current limit. At the other end of the scale we have Glee.
Glee is a show constructed entirely from demographic targets. It’s High School Musical + The X Factor. The twist is that it also adds something darker and smarter to the mix, the spirit of Heathers, perhaps. It’s already a huge hit, but could it actually be subversive?
The US Christian right seems to think so, and is petitioning to have it removed. Now, a person’s faith is entirely their choice until they try to recruit, but watching the Gleeks VS the Neo-Cons is fascinating when one considers that this witch-hunt in question is over an Ohio-set high school comedy show.
This is popular fiction at its most powerful. The neo-Con argument is that the show makes fun of families while favouring ‘different’ acceptance. Actually Glee’s agenda seems to be cynical-liberal, but its strength is that it’s extraordinarily seductive entertainment – and therein lies true subversion. In the 1950s, US psychiatrist Fredric Wertham wrote Seduction Of The Innocent, a book condemning horror comics. Eventually EC Comics gave in to pressure and folded. This time around, the battle is likely to be fought in subtler ways.
In her Time article, ‘The Gospel Of Glee: Is It Anti-Christian?’ Nancy Gibb concludes “It insults kids to suggest that simply watching Characters Behaving Badly onscreen means they’ll take that as permission to do the same themselves. The fact that Glee is about a club full of misfits already makes it ripe gospel ground; Jesus was not likely to be sitting at the cool kids’ table in the cafeteria…The point lies in the surprises that jostle us out of our smug little certainties and invite us to weigh what we value, whatever our faith tradition.” And just to add balance to this, the above quote was favourably extracted on a site called Christianity Today, which concluded that Glee was doing the right thing.
Noel Coward famously admired the potency of cheap music. In shows like this we now see the power of popular fiction. I have to say, it takes some sizeable gonads to put this out as a teaser on primetime US TV in the current climate…