The Big Bang Theory: How Penny and Leonard Distract Us From the Real Issues

Another batch of horrifying environmental news came around this week. The fight over oil company Enbridge’s plan to build a pipeline from Alberta’s Tar Sands to the coast of Northern British Columbia continues, and a crew successfully sailed through the ice-free northernmost section of the Northwest Passage. What does this mean? It means that sea ice in the arctic has retreated to such an extent that icebreakers are not required to navigate the route. It’s an alarming demonstration of a rapidly warming planet. Oh, and Enbridge still thinks it’s a fantastic idea to put an oil pipeline through the Great Bear Rainforest into a rough and difficult to navigate part of the British Columbian coastline.

In a world where most people will agree that we are facing some really serious trouble ecologically, economically, and politically I see almost no reflections of that trouble in our popular media. Much as we might be invested in the future of Penny and Leonard's relationship on The Big Bang Theory (and I will freely admit to being invested in that), we need to be aware that this entertainment is largely without substance.

People on the non-current events side of television programming are pretty much living it up. If it isn’t a sit-com about a bunch of people with nothing better to do than apply pop-psychology to each other’s’ love lives, it’s housewives or bachelorettes or someone else with too much money misbehaving. These TV shows are every bit as fantastic for most people as any show about werewolves, vampires, mutants, or fairy tales. What worries me is that I think we are trying to close the gap between televised fantasy and reality not by bringing TV shows a little closer to earth but by making our lives as surreal as the attention seekers on TV.

I am not, and my book collection and viewing habits will bear me out on this, in any way anti-fantasy. Fantasy is good for us, as a species; it’s a healthy extension of our imaginations. But fantasy, like any other mind-altering substance, needs to be taken responsibly. We need to keep an eye on what our fantasies say about us, personally, and us, collectively. And don’t try to tell me it doesn’t mean anything that millions (millions!) of people tune in to watch the fantasy filled, trashy, semi-scripted exploits of a bunch of people whose claim to fame is getting married.

Now that I’ve introduced myself as the 24-year-old girl version of an old man grouching about kids today, let me tell you what it is about fantasy that we need to be concerned about.

To my mind, there are at least two major types of participation in fantasy: escapism and aspiration.

On the surface it seems like escapism would be the bad one. It calls to mind people burying their heads in the sand, or in Star Trek trivia, to avoid the hard questions of life. It makes us think of nerds in their parents’ basements playing Dungeons and Dragons. But let’s be honest, life often sucks. Taking the occasional break from it is something we are all prone to do. And if it is just a little break before we jump back into the fray, what’s the harm?

More insidious and powerful is aspiration. Aspiration is where you want to go. It’s your goals, and it’s informed by what you are familiar with. Aspiration is how we get Olympic athletes, super nerds like Steve Jobs, and high school kids starting schools in Nepal. The trick about aspirations is that you need to get them from somewhere: you read about the exploits of the X-Men and resolve to be compassionate; you connect with a character on Degrassi and you want to make a real effort towards your goals; you see CSI (Las Vegas, natch) and you want to be a scientist, or a cop, or a writer of crime thrillers. Sure, it’s still pop culture, but it’s got a soul. But with a steady media diet of the spoiled and the rotten it is easy to get your wires crossed. What I am saying is this: fantasy and imagination make some people want to be doctors, and others want to be Gossip Girls.

It’s important for us to evaluate what we want to be, as individuals and a society (if we can come to any kind of consensus there), and channel a little more of our entertainment time and money into things that reflect our actual reality. Our viewing habits reflect something of whom we are as a society, something of where our brains like to vacation, and something of who we want to be. What is entertainment doing for you?