I work in sales for a company that sells very mundane things. We are in a declining industry. At work, everybody has their own desks and all of the desks sit pushed together in the middle of an office. Surrounding the desks are the offices of the managers. There is a place for sales, a place for operations, a place for accounting, and a place for credit. The people I work with vary widely in age, but all of them have a certain youthful charm about them and most of them are complete characters. There is a warehouse downstairs from our office. The guys who work in the warehouse are (almost without exception) intelligent, underemployed, and eager to use the sales staff's lame attempts to show the warehouse staff that we are good guys sympathetic to the blue collar life as opportunities to subtly, but not maliciously, and entirely justifiably, make fun of us. There is a basketball goal in the warehouse. One time, we played a sales versus warehouse basketball game.
All of these things are true.
Yesterday, while flirting with our receptionist, it dawned on me that Jim from The Office and I are the exact same person. Sure, he's a little more whiny than me and I'm not quite as good looking as him, but besides that, there is pretty much no difference between Jim's daily life and my own. He sells paper, I sell toilets. He pulls cheeky pranks at the office, I pull cheeky pranks at the office (although with much less effort involved). This realization prompted me to ask myself a somewhat perilous question: Was I flirting with the receptionist because she is an attractive female who seems to appreciate my sense of humor, or was I flirting with the receptionist because a television show has given me a script for how I'm supposed to act in certain life situations and flirting with the receptionist is exactly what Jim would've done had he been in this situation?
That question led me to a larger question: To what extent does television inform our daily lives and create the events that take place in them? Which led to one more question: If television does in fact influence our daily thoughts and actions to a high degree, is this a bad thing? It is not the purpose of this post to answer these questions, because they are, to a large degree, unanswerable. But, if you would like to know the answers I would give to these questions, they are (respectively) “greatly” and “no, not really.”
When I was a child, it was common for my friends and I to play games based on our favorite television shows. When we would play these games, each kid would pretend to be a particular character on the show. Each kid's character was chosen based on the perceived similarity of that particular kid to that particular character. All of the characters on kids' shows are basically boiled down archetypes such as “the smart one” or “the leader” or “the party animal”, so choosing a character meant that you had to whittle down your own personality and choose the most prevalent thing about you to single out and amplify and thus justify your choice of character.
This was always a problem for me, because I could never quite figure out who I was supposed to be. For example, when we played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I was always smart, but never defined enough by my intelligence to be Donatello. I was always funny, but not quite cool enough to be Michelangelo. I always displayed certain leadership qualities, but was not assertive enough to be Leonardo. And, well, nobody really wanted to be Raphael. So, generally speaking, when we would play these games, I usually just took whatever character was left over. When playing Ninja Turtles, I would be Raphael. When playing Captain Planet, I would be Earth*. When playing David the Gnome, I would be Swift.
I suspect that this sort of personality reduction does good and bad things for the kids who engage in it. On the one hand, it encourages self-examination and personality development. On the other hand, it could potentially pigeonhole kids and convince them that one has to choose to be a certain “type” in order to be a valid person. If a child is always Donatello, then perhaps that child begins to see himself as a smart person. Perhaps that child starts to study a little more at school because that's what smart people are supposed to do. Perhaps that extra bit of studying leads him to get better grades. Perhaps those grades lead him to get into a better college and so on. But what happens to the kid that doesn't know who he is supposed to be when he plays Ninja Turtles with his friends? What happens to the Raphaels of the world?
The truth is, when my friends and I used to play those games, we were all smart enough to be Donatello, we were all cool enough to be Michelangelo, and were all responsible enough to at least make a passable Leonardo, but only one of us got to be each one of those things and that meant that in the context of our pre-adolescent world, each one one of was only one of those things.
Fast forward to high school and this personality specialization has become crucially important. The Leonardos are running for student council president. The Michelangelos are popular and always have a girlfriend. The Donatellos are math and science nerds. But again, what of the Raphaels? Every member of their peer group is telling them to specialize. Every adult they know is telling them that they can be anything they want to be. So what is he left with? A sea of possibilities and the complete inability to choose any of them.
Last night, my friend Blake was on TV being interviewed about agriculture. He's a plant scientist and is extremely smart. He was always Donatello. As for me, I've finally found a TV archetype that works for me. The only problem is I don't think there are many kids playing The Office right now in their backyards. But if they are, I'd like to think they'd all want to be Jim.
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*It was always easy to pick the black characters on shows because they were never defined by any actual character traits, just the fact that they were the only black character. Everything is so racist.