Anti-Intellectualism on TV

I keep noticing a recurring trope in mainstream TV and movies which really bothers me. Maybe you noticed it too. Next time you watch a random sitcom, or some crappy a movie on some cable channel look for the way it portrays smart people. More often than not, the main protagonist will be an average Joe (or Jane) who is good looking but usually not terribly smart. Whenever the hero needs to tackle some scientific/technology related problem he/she will call on the token geek, almost invariably portrayed as a socially inept, reclusive eccentric with taped up glasses and a pocket protector.

Medical doctors are exception to this rule. They can be portrayed as highly intelligent, well adjusted characters with multi-faceted personalities and are allowed to be role models for the audience. But only if they are holding and MD. Anyone who has a PHD or any other doctoral degree automatically becomes an walking plot device or comic relief.

Even when the writers decide to skip the traditional nerd attire, the smart characters are almost always depicted as outsiders. They are never as a member of the inner circle of protagonists, and once they fulfill their role (hack into the main computer, identify someones DNA, explain a difficult subject to the audience and etc…) they are promptly discarded.

Sure, there are shows and movies where the protagonist is a highly educated scientist – but more often than not, these suffer from what I call the Gordon Freeman syndrome. Just like the hero of the Half Life series these characters spend most of their time shooting bad guys, and saving the world using bullets and brute force. Their education and experience only comes into play when they need to overload the flux combibulator to disable the shields on the alien mothership or something like that. And whenever they do apply science in this way, they need to explain themselves to their sidekicks almost apologizing for doing something clever.

This bothers me. How come being ignorant of science and technology is almost always portrayed in such a positive way? How come education and intelligence of a character must always be offset by his social ineptitude, or condescending attitude toward his “techno babble?” How come being above the average in some area is so often portrayed as some sort of socially undesirable eccentricity?

It would be nice to see some dynamic flipped around more often. Why not portray intelligent, educated and insightful characters in positive light, while relegating the ignorant brutes to the role of comic relief. There are shows and movies that try to do that, but many of them do it the wrong way. For example picking a bunch of socially backwards, stereotypical nerds as your protagonists, and then spending most of the time poking fun at their silly habits, hobbies and behavior is just the same kind of anti-intellectual comedy. People keep telling me about the IT Crowd but after watching few episodes, it seems almost as bad as the classic Revenge of the Nerds movies.

Let’s make a smart educated character play the straight man for a change. Instead of caricaturing geeky interests into some monstrous proportion lets elevate them into normalcy. Lets lift the stigma from science – and also science fiction while we are at it. How come characters on a show can never discuss a work of SF or Fantasy without the whole thing turning into a big joke.

How about characters have intelligent and insightful discussions on geeky topics, without making fun of them. For example, take the famous Star Wars conversation from Clerks. There you have two characters who are not stereotypical nerds, discussing a Science Fiction show, making interesting observations without turning the whole thing into a big joke about unhealthy SW obsession. I thought it was brilliant – smart, insightful, and hilarious at the same time.

We need more of that kind of stuff. Let’s make geek or scientist play the straight man for a change – make them be the “normal” character that the audience identifies with.

What do you think? Am I off the mark here? Perhaps I’m watching the wrong shows and movies. Do you think this sad state of affairs is a deeper social issue, or just a side effect of TV and movie makers pandering to the lowest common denominator?

[tags]tv, anti-intellectualism, intellectuals, protagonists, trope, tv, movies, entertainment[/tags]

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15 Responses to Anti-Intellectualism on TV

  1. Ricardo INDIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Well, it’s hard to counter-argue without statistics but I can give some counter-examples, at least:

    Prison Break: One of the main characters is a structural engineer and uses his intelligence and knowledge quite often in the show. His brother (the other main character) is the brutal force that completes the cliché: power AND brain in two different persons working together.

    Heros: Since you’ve been watching it, what about the Indian professor? He is not excentric so far and seems to be one of the good guys (I’m on episode 6).

    Lost: Ok, Jack is a doctor so I guess it doesn’t count.

    In movies, that I recall, you have the trilogy of Bourne. He is quite brutal but uses his intelligence and knowledge quite often as well; Super heroes are usually intelligent as well; a Brazilian movie that I watched recently have a smart cop (with a degree) as one of the heroes;

    Anyway, I guess it depends on the type of hero or movie/TV Show you want to give the targeted audience.

    I guess for an average Joe, you might want to give a hero that resembles the average Joe expectations… And there are more average Joes than smart people watching TV these days, I guess…

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    As I said, there are exceptions. Heroes is an exceptional character driven show with superb writing so they avoid some of these pitfalls. Granted, Hiro is portrayed as bit of a dork, but he is also an important pivotal character. His geekiness also has a very positive spin – its a sign of his innocence, and idealism. Compare this to the more traditional portrayal like the Comic Book Guy from Simpsons. Both him and Hero love comics, but while they are source of inspiration for Hero, they are a pathological obsession for the comic book guy type character.

    And yeah, Mohinder is a good exception from this rule. Of course the “science” monologues about DNA and evolution on the show made me wince once or twice.

    I guess a good example of where this was subverted is McGuyver – who could build a bomb out of a paperclip and some chewing gum using sometimes shaky, but usually plausible sounding science. :)

    Oh, and re: Bourne – see Gordon Freeman syndrome. If you spend more time kicking ass than actually doing science you fit into this category of highly intelligent characters who also happen to be martial arts masters, expert marksmen and overall killing machine.

    I think most of Super Heroes fall into this category too – eg. Peter Parker is mostly known for his exploits as Spider Man, despite being quite brilliant inventor.

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  3. jambarama UNITED STATES Epiphany Linux Terminalist says:

    As to why are educted people typically shown as geeky, I think paritally it is because a lot of the stereotypes seem generally accurate in many people’s experience. Have you ever been to something like Shmoocon? Most of the attendants fit the mold (as I do generally as well).

    You work at a university, are the professors more likely to wear a white shirt, suit and tie – or a plaid brown sports coat with elbow protectors, bow tie, and kakhi pants? The anti-social part is the one that least plays out in my experience with the educated, but the attire and such seems to accurate to me. Of course there are exceptions to generalization, never more than here, but a lot of this behavior is

    As to why the educated people typically are not the main characters, I can’t say (numb3rs is a notable exception). Maybe the stereotype of anti-social behavior just doesn’t lead to good character development. Or maybe the characters are as most people want to be – rather than brilliant and geeky people would like to be handsome or commanding or quirky or brave or whatever.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    @jambarama – well, all stereotypes are accurate to some degree – that’s why we have them. They are generalizations – you take a set of common recurring traits, and turn them into defining characteristics. And as all stereotypes they are also shallow and inaccurate.

    The problem here is not that movie and TV makers use the nerd/geek archetype at all. Subverting or building upon common archetypes is really not a bad way to create interesting characters. The problem is that when dealing with scientists, engineers, programmers or geeks the shallow, stereotypical archetype gets imported and used as is.

    So while the wise cracking cop may be haunted by the daemons of his past, the innocent girl next door have a terrible secret, and the corrupt politician may turn out to be a hero with a heart of gold, the science nerd, is just a science nerd and naturally no one likes him.

    How come the scientist can’t be handsome? Or commanding? Or brave? How come a geek can’t be resolute, determined and heroic? I’m guessing no one wants to be the smart guy because they never have any of the good lines, they never get the girl, and show up on the screen mostly to deliver some unintelligible techno babble or build some plot device delivery machine.

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  5. jaymz UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    I totally agree. Here in the UK I’ve noticed it a lot and its even began to permeate into ‘mainstream’ publications. A lot of the British media have focused on the dumbing down of TV this side of the pond. BBC4 along with a few other token channels (Channel 4 comes to mind) has/had some really great shows that have dealt with science and scientists as forward thinkers that aren’t showcased as extreme ends of the gene pool. The problem is these shows are few and far between and now with the channel pool exploding in the UK, the BBC is commissioning less of these sort of programmes in order to keep up with what it see’s as mainstream.

    It’s really sad, when I grew up it was shows & (mainly) books about the greats that really inspired me to think that within my mind I could really make a difference, or at least begin to understand a heavily specialized field.

    Unfortunately, now-a-days TV seems to be pumping out whatever gets the most people to switch off and sit down in front of, not what makes people think. I’m not sure just how much airplay PBS/nova gets but the few documentaries I’ve grabbed via bittorrent are excellent and I only wish we had more programming globally that makes people think being a scientist/engineer is a good thing.

    So yeah, I totally agree with your point :)

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  6. jaymz UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Also, not that makes any difference, but I run Kubuntu, rather than Ubuntu :) I’ve been reading your blog for quite a while, it provides a welcome distraction from my day to day grind :D

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  7. Miloš UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    It’s the good old 80-20 rule. Unfortunately, 80% of scientists do fit this mold. When you really look around at these people at school, work, conferences…wherever, on average they are not the most stunning looking crowd. At the same time, physical appearances are important in our society whether will like (agree with) it or not. Another very simplistic example: As a guy, when you walk down the street or while you are at a bar and a girl catches your eye, it’s always her physical appearance that attracts you, not how intelligent she might be. That is something you get to learn later. When it comes to movies and shows they have on average from 90 minutes to 13 weeks to tell their story and by design intelligence and deep substance loses.

    Also, 80 % of people are not scientists, developers, programmers, engineers…it’s just the way it is. Most of these network studios cater to the larger market which financially makes sense. It’s sucks and I share your view, it’s just how things will most likely stay for a while. This have been getting better with cool innovations reaching global market such as those coming out of Google, but it will take time to be cool to be smart on TV. :(

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  8. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    My only thoughts as to why is because the average viewer is not intelligent and it’s easier to point to something that’s different and say something bad than to see that someone might be superior in some way. It’s definitely reflective of deeper societal values. Look at any of the poverty groups and their attitudes toward education. It’s uncool to be educated; it’s cool to be in a gang and act out. Certainly the mainstream public isn’t that extreme, but the themes are similar. Over the past 20+ years psychologists have continuously found that the “brains” or “nerdy” clique is the least desirable group to be a part of.

    I’d say your observation is accurate. There are some exceptions (like Heroes, one of a handful of good shows these days), but most shows are as you describe. If you find the secret to making people realize that they can be (and should be) intelligent, let me know!

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  9. General X BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    You hit the nail right on the head. I have noticed it as well. Except for sf shows such as SG-1 (but not Atlantis) and BSG.

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  10. Teague UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    One show situation this made me think of was a recent episode of a certain crime drama show, wherein the villain was using a ficticious online game to set up victims, and the good guys had to interact with the game to track the villain down. All the good guys in this show are super-scientists with college degrees and tons of scientific knowledge, but all wear super-chic clothes and are all quite attractive in their own ways. But NONE of them knows anything about this online game, which, in their world, is portrayed as being as popular as WOW, and so have to rely on the stereo-typical geeky lab tech who, of course, knows all about it.

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  11. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Well..given that society-at-large often rewards those with lesser intelligence, it’s not surprising that Hollywood hacks follow suit. For instance, if A-Rod is worth a purported $30 million a FREAKING year because he can hit a ball, how much do you think one incredible, self-sacrificing, inspirational police officer, firefighter, or teacher should make? The reality is, intelligence has very infrequently been celebrated in general society. Given the dumbed-down state of the American education system, the ratio of smart-to-stupid people is certainly on the decline.

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  12. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    @Teague – oh, are we playing Jeopardy? Let me try to guess:

    What is CSI?

    Do I win? Btw, from what I understand, people who actually work in forensics feel the same way when they watch CSI that I feel when I watch any movie or TV show about “hackers”.

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  13. Teague UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    @Luke
    Oh, close! Judges? No, I’m sorry, we were looking for CSI: New York. I guess you just weren’t cut out for intellectual shows like Jeopardy. ;)

    I have to ignore a lot of stuff to watch shows with military aspects. Sci-fi or not, some can be pretty annoying. Especially the SGs and BSG. I roll my eyes every time I see a supposedly career soldier with bushy model hair and all kinds of stuff wrong on his uniform. My favorite, though, is on BSG SPOILER ALERT when Admiral Cain gets shot in her own quarters by a known Cylon during a time of war. Then, like they’re pointing and saying “this one’s just for you, Teague”, her replacement gets killed IN THE SAME QUARTERS by some mafia guys. In both cases, the killers were already in there when the Admirals came in!!!!! (ok, deep breaths….)

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  14. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Oh, man! I should have went with CSI:* to cover all my bases. :)

    This is why I always say – when you are making a show about X, and you have a very vague idea about what X is all about, it’s probably a good time to hire a consultant who is X specialist to go over your script. Replace X with any profession, field of expertise or whatnot.

    I mean how much does it cost to get someone to spend 2-3 hours to read your script and jot down some suggestions.

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  15. karen UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Hey, y’all!!! Been out of the loop for awhile training a unit for deployment, and this is the first time I’ve been able to check in for awhile.

    Has anyone checked out Dexter on Showtime? He’s your loveable-serial-killer-guy who just happens to be the blood splatter analyst. I am so in love with this show.

    I also kinda like Chuck. Completely unreal, but funny nonetheless.

    Both shows portray the geek in non-stereotypical roles.

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