TV to Shame Viewers into Social Change

MP910217037Television is a really interesting medium. While I watch lots of TV shows, I hardly ever actually sit in front of a TV set to do it. I find what I watch from recommendations or reviews (usually from Netflix or Amazon). However, it seems like lots of people actually learn things from watching TV, and this is done intentionally in fiction shows.

For example, Grey’s Anatomy had an episode about HIV. Watching it, I though the characters were idiots for not knowing what my health class covered. The lecture was a hit over the head with medical information that seemed common knowledge to me. It appears though that many people didn’t know these facts and that surveying proved this to be an effective information sharing technique. The show shared information in a nonthreatening way to help people get a new view on HIV and how to deal with people who have it and what causes it to spread. Don’t get me wrong, I love dramas and the fact that I can feel smarter after watching them is great. I even admit that I diagnosed my need for glasses from watching an episode of Lost. I regularly watch reruns of Eureka because it reminds me of high school physics. These are informative and fun, but don’t take the step that Grey’s did in making the leap toward changing the perspective of the viewing audience. This week I came across this trend in two international television shows. While both of these are news-related and not specific to fiction tv, I felt they were related in purpose.

The first was a piece where an Egyptian actor (male) dressed as a female and walked around the streets of Cairo. Apparently sexual harassment has become so pervasive that women fear going on the streets by themselves, even in the middle of the day and wearing highly conservative clothing. It got to the point that the actor was followed for 45 minutes by a highly aggressive male more or less demanding that (s)he share personal information with him for a future relationship.

The second piece was about a Chinese boy who visited Luxor and defaced the temple wall with carved graffiti. This 15-year-old’s information has been shared on public television- including his name, address, and where he goes to school.

Both of these are aimed at instituting social change–for the viewers to recognize abhorrent behavior and work to remedy it. For the Egyptians, the goal would be to reflect the behavior back on men who may not realize the effect they are having on woman and trying to get them to stop. In the second, Chinese are berating/harassing/shaming individuals who act poorly by making an example of them to stop others from acting in another manner.

The parents of the Chinese boy have already contacted the media and begged them to stop harassing their son as he has been made aware of his misconduct and severely (and publicly) punished. I haven’t seen any articles as to whether the Egyptian show had an effect. Given the nature of the message, I wonder if it would be more effective for this situation to be re-enacted in a popular men’s drama in Egypt, where it directly targeted men most likely to display this behavior?

In the US, we have a TV show called What Would You Do? where MM900356747actors play a scene with “real-life ethical standards” to see how different “regular people” react. As a former New Yorker now living in California, my own ethical standards are highly liberal, but I’m also incredibly shy and non-confrontational, so when I watch this show, I know what I think I’d do, but if faced with the real scenario, I don’t know if I’d actually do it. You don’t generally hear about people writing into this show getting harassed for acting the wrong way. Granted, it’s fictional and no one is actually hurt, but the person walking into the scene doesn’t know that.

Does watching this show make me act differently? No. I already have set values in how I believe certain scenarios should play out. Does it effect others? It might. Honestly, I think the informational shows do better than the ‘in your face you’re wrong’ ones. The show The New Normal seemed it like was trying to open up the minds of it’s viewers by covering lots of social topics. Toward the end of the season it become too pedantic even for me and hasn’t been renewed.

TV seems like a great medium to spread the message, but the way in which it’s presented has to be very carefully planned for the audience to ensure it doesn’t backfire. I don’t think social shaming would work in the US, but I’m comfortable saying that I don’t think that Chinese boy will be doing graffiti again anytime soon. I’m going to hope for the best in Egypt. As a woman, I found the video enlightening, and wonder how it makes men feel.

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