Thinking pop culture

Thinking pop culture

Happily, Willingly Manipulated

I’d first attempted to watch The Newsroom when it premiered back in 2012.

I watched two, maybe three episodes. I felt manipulated. I felt embarrassed that I’d been manipulated. So I stopped. Cold turkey. I turned it off, I moved on, I forgot all about it.

Coming in December 2015.

I’ve spent most of the past twelve months working on a book about the Internet. In that time I’ve watched some of the worst films and TV shows ever to have played on my laptop. Who knew the Internet made for such a dreadful character!

Before I closed the project, I scheduled some time to watch three seasons of The Newsroom back to back. The show tackles revenge porn, hacking, and of course, new media: a second look was inescapable.

And today I watched and sobbed my way through the finale on the very same day that I did a radio interview about the Belle Gibson scandal.

As is my habit I like to see threads. In this case, the thread centres on manipulation.

The Newsroom in fact, is amazing. The writing and performances and score and sentiment are beautifully executed. And yes, it’s every bit as manipulative as it seemed on my first viewing. It is loquacious and heavy-handed and heart-string-yanking and it so seductively caters to my many biases. Second time around however, and I’m less hard on myself about getting swept up.

Manipulation is an awful word. It’s thrown around to describe women’s behaviour in relationships. To narrate backroom political deals. To frame underhanded business practice. In terms of art however, if a film or TV show can successfully manipulate you, can make you feel things – can make you hope and cry and desperately miss the characters by the time the credits roll - surely something has been achieved. More than that, surely that feeling of transformation – however transient – of being moved, of being changed, is well worth the price, the embarrassment.

And this is where my concerns lie in the whole Gibson brouhaha. That in our confected outrage, we’ve lost sight of how we often elect to be manipulated. That frequently, in fact, we quite enjoy it.

Repeated over and over again in commentary about Gibson, in all the many Tweets, is people feeling wronged, deceived, feeling manipulated.

Sure, if people turned away from actual medical treatment in pursuit of Gibson’s organic broccoli, then this is sad. It’s sad, but it’s also indicative of the human compulsion - however misguided - to hope. To yearn for things to be better. For wishful thinking to sometimes trump reason.

The very reason that some of us pay attention to people like Gibson, like Paleo Pete, like any medical-degreeless hack is because they offer something shiny, new and most of all, hopeful. Unlike doctors, they actively sell the idea that life will be different, will be better, that there’s love and light and razzle dazzle at the end of it all. In following these folks, in consuming their wares, we’re buying into the dream.

During my round one viewing of The Newsroom, I was annoyed at myself for so easily tearing up at the rhetoric, at the hope. I wanted to believe that I was far too savvy to let that Scallywag Sorkin fill my head with nonsense yet again.

The West Wing.

For the Belle Gibson followers, it appears they’re suffering similarly: not only did they allow themselves to dream, but in the exposure of her cancer lie, they were dealt that swift reminder that reality often doles out: that things are rarely as good as they’re packaged.

For reasons unknown, I was more relaxed watching The Newsroom this time around. I let myself become attached, become moved and ultimately become grief-stricken. I didn’t get outraged that I can’t control every emotion. I didn’t feel stupid that I got sucked in. This was, afterall, the product I bought.

For all those who followed Gibson, who stocked their fridge with organic vegetables and now feel manipulated, feel deceived, I have to ask, did you really lose anything? You perhaps ate better, did a bit of exercise, hell, maybe for a while there you even had some hopes for a better future. Is that really such a bad thing? Is that really such a nightmare to have endured?

Nobody made me watch The Newsroom and nobody makes a person listen to a non-doctor. We each need to enter all of these larks with a sense of perspective and learnt to appreciate the fantasy on offer.

Both Manipulative and Beautiful. From the “Contempt” episode of The Newsroom.