Losing Yourself in a TV Character (Op-Ed)

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Losing Yourself in a TV Character (Op-Ed)

by Kimberly Ruth | Featured | Feb 4, 2017

“The only good thing about being sick is you get to watch a lot of TV”— Lorelai Gilmore, “Gilmore Girls”

It’s so true.

And boy did I binge.

It may be worth asking a doctor (or a therapist to be more specific) why the fast-paced witty banter of the Gilmore girls was the only sound that seemed to soothe my fluid-filled ears.

I would like to say that it was the monotone nature of their speak, but I am way too much of a girl to even pretend that was true. The truth is (SPOILER), I totally fell for the good girl who sleeps with her married exes (well, one was only engaged, but that’s close enough for me) and the repeated relationships that could not be defined by anything other than a fear of commitment, which is pretty much the story of my life.

I find the fact that I empathize more with characters who remind me of myself to be true of most of my childhood show-obsessions: In “Dawson’s Creek,” I compared myself to the brunette that was Joey Potter and her fascination with art and her tendency to go for men who are a challenge to her life in some way or another.

In “The Wonder Years,” I was Winnie. Well, I wished I was Winnie, with her perfectly straight hair and big brown eyes, eyes that made every guy in McKinley High swoon as though she were Marilyn Monroe.

I must admit, these shows are still in my top 10. However, just like the TV characters that we sit down to watch each week—or binge FOR a week—my taste got a bit more eclectic and a lot more complex.

For starters, I began identifying myself with characters who were blonde. I’m thinking of Hannah McKay in Showtime’s “Dexter,” who spent six years in juvenile detention after pleading guilty to helping her adult boyfriend execute a three-state killing spree.

It wasn’t the string of murders that I call relatable, but her subtlety. While pulling off the independent woman who is seemingly content with being alone in her greenhouse, she also reveals a glimpse of need. A need to be loved, and, in some ways, needed.

I find it, ironic, actually, that I call this type of character relatable, because in real-life, I find people who come off as needy to be quite undesirable. Maybe it is the strength that Hannah exhibits in her ability to pull off her independence and hide that yearning that comes so naturally to so many women.

In short, her complexity made her real.

Which brings me to the second show that I binged while bed-ridden: “Black Mirror,” the Netflix series that examines a future world—which, unfortunately, doesn’t seem that far from our present.

Like the structure of the internet, the structure of each “Black Mirror” season is non-sequential, meaning different actors, different plots, essentially a different show each episode. It may seem like a web of chaos, but there is a single thread that ties them all together: a struggle to find the real in a world that is become progressively more clean, sterile, and controlled.

I don’t use the word progressive here to suggest anything hopeful or optimistic. I mean it literally as a forward-moving trajectory that can’t be stopped. The characters’ frustration over the loss of their lives to automation touched me in a way that was even more debilitating than losing my voice, which, in a “Black Mirror” world, wouldn’t be that big of a deal, given the fact that there are programs that can collect all of the videos and podcasts featuring my voice into an archive that could recreate my speak in full sentences.

The lives as seen in “Black Mirror,” whose successes and gains are based on a social rating system, for example–is that scenario really that far off from my obsession with getting a certain amount of recognition on social media?

I did not like the mirror that was being held up; it was too dark.

It made me sick all over again.

Many studies have proven that voyeurs who have spent a significant amount of time with a character (whether TV watchers or readers of literature), can actually lose themselves in their character, which I guess I was starting to do.

And that scares me. How similar do I really want to be to Winnie Cooper or Joey Potter or the woman who is dependent on interaction with an AI?

But a study done by Ohio State University suggested that people often changing their own behaviors and thoughts to match that of a character is a good thing; they call it “experience-taking,” which is different from perspective-taking, where people try to understand what another person is going though in a particular situation, but without losing sight of their own identity.

According to the study, “Experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about, which can lead to good outcomes,” said Geoff Kaufman, who led the study as a graduate student at Ohio State. He is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Tiltfactor Laboratory at Dartmouth College.

One specific example that was cited as a positive example of experience-taking was one that involved a study of 70 male, heterosexual college students.

In one experiment, the subjects were asked to read a day-in-the-life story about a homosexual male, who was not identified as homosexual until later in the narrative.

“If people identified with the character before they knew he was gay, if they went through experience-taking, they had more positive views—the readers accepted that this character was like them,” said Kaufman.

Similar results were found in a story where white students read about a black student, who was purposefully identified as black late in the story, in order to allow participants to more closely relate to said character.

As I’m sitting here under layers of thick blankets, wishing I could replace myself with someone else—even if it is just my sick body—I am still uncomfortable about the suggestions made in this study.

I agree that being able to identify with someone—by making them seem as close to yourself as possible—will allow us to empathize with others, but in something of a selfish way.

I also think that due to our binging nature of viewing TV shows, the possibility of losing ourselves in characters has become a reality that could have been anticipated even five years ago, when the study was published.

Due to marketing techniques used to sell both books and TV shows, the likelihood of being able to lose yourself in a narrative without knowing who it is you are exactly identifying yourself with seems a bit unlikely, not to mention the whole idea of losing yourself, which seems to me a desire that can only be had by those who want us to obsessively consume from bed, wishing we were more like the lives we see on TV.