Why Great Television Is More Like A Novel Than A Play
Why do we still watch plays by Euripides, born some 2,500 years ago, or Shakespeare, who is nearly 450 years old? Writer orthodoxy says it's because the fundamental rules for drama have never changed, as they are rooted in human nature. Those rules make the characters in a play or film or television show intelligible and interesting. And they are, to my eye anyway, rationalist rules: Characters are supposed to have desires and traits that are consistent from scene to scene, and these desires and traits cause them to act consistently. However wild a scene's emotions, the tick-tick-tick of its actions (she said that causing him to say that causing her to do that) is strictly logical. And maybe this is the only way that engaging drama can be made. But lately I am not so sure. I wonder if there aren't other ways to write characters. In the near future when we have post-rational politics, economics and medicine, maybe we'll have post-rational dramaturgy too.
Already, today's long-arc television dramas are violating the classic rules in order to present a less intelligible world that happens to feel closer to real life than anything we've seen before. For an Exhibit A, I'd point to Mad Men, whose fifth season ends tonight. Consider a scene in one of its best episodes: As Don Draper strides toward his office, his secretary gives him a message: "Stephanie called from California, no last name, she says it's urgent." Don (and we) know this is news about his dying ex-wife, who may well be the only person he ever loved.
Here's what would happen in most exemplars of what I'm calling a logical play or movie or TV show: We'd see Don pick up the phone, so that the tick-tick-tick of cause and effect could continue. If, instead, he didn't make the call, we'd see him tussle with himself, or with someone else, about the decision.
Here's what happens in the episode: Don doesn't make the call. He looks at the phone, but his mind wanders. Then distractions come flying in. Then he goes looking for them. He wants to call—this is the most important person in his life—but … he doesn't. Because he also doesn't want to. In the place of cause-and-effect and onward action, we get inconsistency, anxiety and evasion.
This is just one of many moments when Mad Men creates a shock of recognition entwined with surprise—that feeling of, yes, that's what it's like, yet I've never seen this represented before.What Don does, his cloudy, inexplicable procrastination, is something that happens in the lived lives of real people. But I, for one, had never seen this sort of true-to-life muddle represented on a screen.
That level of ambivalence and ambiguity and uncertainty once lived only in novels, whose form allowed the reader to inhabit the mind of a character, and so be privy to the push and pull of contradictory and even random thoughts—all that we hide and simplify to show ourselves to other people. But drama is supposed to be about conflict, and conflict requires consistent and understandable characters: People as they're seen by others, not as they experience themselves.
Mad Men in particular and contemporary TV in general often break this law. Hence, these days, we keep seeing moments in these shows that have never happened on screen before, though they happen in real life all the time: Moments of solitude, when the self is unmoored from its public face, and people do the things they would edit out of any story they'd tell about ourselves. Betty leaning into her washing machine to steady it and suddenly finding herself using it to masturbate; Henry Francis putting his car into the wrong gear so he can pettily, childishly, un-Francisly smash boxes that belong to his ex-wife's husband; Peggy looking into the mirror and singing "Bye Bye, Birdie," trying on an Ann Margret face no one else will ever see.
Why has it recently become possible to run a drama like a novel, and render people as they really feel themselves to be—not hard-edged and defined, but murky even to themselves? Form is the most obvious reason. Shows that tell a single multithreaded story over a whole season can behave like novels, where stage plays and movies and self-contained TV hours don't have the scope. I wonder though if digital culture also plays a role: The 21st century audience is used to seeing ourselves and our friends in bit-by-bit updates, with all the inconsistency, waffling and random behavior that they record.
I sometimes think too that the past 20 years of social-science news may have helped give writers permission to represent people as less consistent or coherent. Perhaps those ideas have been in the air long enough that they've attained the ultimate measure of success for any theory—to have become something "everybody knows." In any event, enough viewers seem to have absorbed that personality is a rambling cloud of contradictions, not a chiseled statue. And that they want an art that shows life as its lived, even on television.
Shakespearean post-script: In wondering whether the rules of drama could be rewritten, I'm not suggesting that what's new is an improvement on what's old. This is literature, not software, and v. 2.0 isn't necessarily and advance—it's just different and of its time. The greats of the past, though, will always be great. As I discuss here, in connection with Epic Theatre Ensemble's recent production of Macbeth.
What would happen if you tripled the US population? Join Matthew Yglesias and Charles Duhigg at 1pm ET on Monday, September 28.
Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"
- A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
- Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
- Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
Beards and perceptions of masculinity<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg0MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkxMjM3N30.cH-GqNwP5GVqvstgJWAhBPn1B_lYpVEAI0I7iax7EQw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C1900%2C0%2C849&height=700" id="caae6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cb0a355a4e8e1899789bc45f3f7aef56" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Photo Credit: Wikimedia<p>The study used 919 American (mostly white) women ages 18-70 who rated 30 pictures of men they were shown with various stages of facial hair growth. The photographs depicted men with faces that had been digitally altered to look more feminine or more masculine, with a beard and without a beard. The women rated the men according to perceived attractiveness for long-term and short-term relationships. The study found that the more facial hair the men had, the higher the men were rated on their attractiveness, particularly for their suitability for a long-term relationship.</p><p>Part of this might be attributed to facial masculinity — i.e. protruding brow ridge, wide cheekbones, thick jawline, and deeply set narrow eyes — which conveys information to a woman about a man's underlying health and formidability. Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength and social assertiveness. It can also indicate a man with a superior immune response. The researchers suggested that their findings favoring bearded men could be due to the fact that facial hair enhances the masculine facial features on a man's face, like creating the illusion of a thicker jaw line. This could communicate direct benefits to women like resources and protection that would enhance survival among mothers and their infants. In other words, while a beard doesn't mean superior genetics in and of itself, it might be a primitive, ornamental way of saying, "Hey girl, I'm a testosterone-fueled lean, mean, pathogen fighting machine." <br></p><p>It could also be that a beard becomes its own destiny. The researchers in this study cite prior research that found that by growing a beard, men felt more masculine and had higher levels of serum testosterone, which was linked to a higher level of social dominance. They also tended to subscribe to more old-school beliefs about gender roles in their relationships with women as compared to men with clean-shaven faces.<span></span><br></p>
What does disgust have to do with beard preference?<p>Obviously, not all women dig beards. The researchers were particularly interested in what traits make a women prefer bearded men over clean-shaven faces. They looked into several factors including a woman's disgust levels on various concepts, her desire to become pregnant, and her exposure to facial hair in her personal life. </p><p>According to the study, women who were not into facial hair were turned-off by potential parasites or other critters they imagined could be in the hair or skin. Women ranking high on this "ectoparasite disgust" scale might have viewed beards as a sign of poor grooming habits. However, women who ranked higher in levels of "pathogen" did find the bearded men to be desirable, possibly because they perceived beards as a signal of good health and immune function. An intriguing discovery in the study was links to morality. Women who displayed higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, were more likely to prefer hairy faces. The authors opined that this could reflect a link between beardedness, politically conservative outlooks, and traditional views regarding performances of masculinity in heterosexual relationships.</p>
Additional findings<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg1My9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDI1NjUyOX0.P9B8WbmJR0q4nfzYZKbuNSA-2SAigVWJgrQE-_Gxlds/img.gif?width=980" id="49143" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2ed3b1d6f20fc170bf2974646e565e8d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Giphy<p>The correlations that existed between married and single women's rating on the attractiveness of beards were not particularly clear, although the researchers noted that single and married women who wanted children tended to find beards more attractive than the women who didn't want children. They also found that women with bearded husbands found beards to be more attractive, which might indicate that social exposure to beards influences how desirable they are perceived of as being. Or it could be that men with wives who like beards grow beards.</p><p>It's important to note that culture plays a huge role in how attractive women perceive certain male characteristics as being. This study looked at a small, culturally specific group of American women, so no big, universal claims should be made about masculinity, facial hair, and male desirability to women. However, research like this is important in highlighting how human grooming decisions are driven by much more than fashion trends. Sociobiological, economic, and ecological factors all play a part in the way we choose to present ourselves.</p>
Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live.
Having been exposed to mavericks in the French culinary world at a young age, three-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn made it her mission to cook in a way that is not only delicious and elegant, but also expressive, memorable, and true to her experience.
New experiments find weird quantum activity in supercold gas.
Quantum Mechanics, Onions, and a Theory of Everything<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="036ae7b8dd661df2d125a3421a0299ba"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/bcVruA0AJ-o?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Researchers say that moral self-licensing occurs "because good deeds make people feel secure in their moral self-regard."
Books about race and anti-racism have dominated bestseller lists in the past few months, bringing to prominence authors including Ibram Kendi, Ijeoma Oluo, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Robin DiAngelo.