Entertainment has an enormous impact on our understanding of the world. It's important that we not only watch with a critical mindset ourselves, but that we talk with our kids about what they see.
Film and television can manufacture characters through whom we see ourselves. Sometimes the characters live an idealized life, such as super-hero stories or spy adventures. Mostly, though, the main characters are put into situations where while they have a heart of gold, they must struggle and work through those flaws they will eventually overcome with enough persistence.
Sitcoms like Friends and How I Met your Mother work off this premise. Both shows start with a young, educated but struggling to make it group of 20-somethings carving lives out for themselves in greater Manhattan. Both series follow an arc showing how each person in the group eventually achieves success, usually an unbelievably high level; of success, in their professional lives and how their friends have carried them along the way.
Friendship is a key element in many of these shows, so it should be no surprise that they are highly attractive to teenagers, whose emotional development begins to rearrange the priority of their relationships. As children reach puberty, they start to try and define themselves as individuals and place greater emphasis on their own friendships while lowering their reliance on their relationships with their parents. Thus, when adolescents watch these shows, they naturally fantasize about living a similar life: hip, urban, independent with their friends surrounding them.
Of course, sitcoms have another purpose, too. They are designed to make the audience laugh, so they need to build in outrageous situations and characters, too. Generating jokes each week is no easy task, and many series have leveraged a sure-fire way for generating a multitude of jokes—what I call the lovable lothario. Characters like Joey Tribbiani or Barney Stinson are persons who sleep around and generally treat women more as trophies to be counted than human beings worthy of respect. They're attractive and skilled in the mechanics of seducing women and there's an endless supply of cheap floozies ready to agree to their advances.
Of course, the shows don't want to give too much credence to demeaning women, so we see them get slapped in the face or rebuked by their friends with a wag of the head and a disapproving "tsk, tsk" as well. But the friends know that underneath it all they really have a heart of gold and they just need to grow up a bit and they'll be fine. The message is subtle, but it reduces the terrible act of manipulating another person to get pleasure with no regard for their feelings or their future to a character flaw akin to being too geeky or being a perfectionist.
Who Would Really Stay Friends with Such a Person?None of this is a revelation to anyone. Yet, I must wonder how many of us have asked our children if such a person is worthy of being called a friend in the real world? What would happen if we discovered that one of the people in our clan behaved in a way similar to the lovable lothario? Is the well-being of those women valuable enough to distance a person of that Ilk from their group? Would their reputations suffer simply as a result of befriending such an individual? Would it matter if it was their sister that was being manipulated so? If not, why does television make it seem the lothario is basically a good person? How many times does one person have to use someone else before he should be considered not loving but dangerous? These are all great questions we should be asking our kids.
I don't think the lovable lothario exists in real life. If one is that crass and selfish to take the most intimate of acts and leverage it for nothing more than personal pleasure, I see no way anyone like that can maintain a heart of gold. Real people cry real tears from being used. And to be fair, I don't think sitcom producers want anyone to model themselves after the lovable lothario, either. He's an extreme persona, but he helps demonstrate that the regular carnality of the other characters can be excused as being not so bad in comparison. We need to counter that message by really talking with our kids and asking them to think through real world perspectives. Such will go a long way in helping them to spot and reject the problematic values entertainment seeks to inject into their lives.