Friday, May 6, 2011

Art and the Consumer, Part 3

Demographics -- the division of a population into specific "target audiences" based on gender, age, race, and social class, in order of importance. A device designed to smooth the paths of marketers and advertisers, and with which Hollywood's "money men," the ones who determine which films and television programs see the light of day, are slavishly concerned. If you want to find the villain in our story of Art and the Consumer, here it is.

Looking at the definition, it's not hard to see why concern for demographics stacks the proverbial deck against the creation of powerful, inspiring, and/or edifying films and TV shows. If producers are going to appeal to a "target audience," they must first determine what that audience wants to see -- what they care about, what they hope to become, how they think about themselves and others. An attempt to understand an individual on these bases would make perfect sense, but demographics are not individuals. They are the entertainment industry's version of Groupthink, and accordingly, producers, directors, and writers who make demographics into minor gods will, perhaps without even realizing it, make stereotypical judgments about the desires and values of men or women, young or old, blacks or whites or Asians or Latinos, and then make movies and TV shows based on these judgments. Stereotypes about target audiences all too often lead to stereotyped characters and situations.

Men -- more specifically, young men -- are the favored demographic of marketers and advertisers, and so a significant majority of films are made with them in mind. (To be fair, this bias in favor of the young male demographic is less evident on television.) At no time is this more noticeable than during the summer, when 90-95% of the big-budget releases are about men, for men, and in the genres men are reputed to prefer: raunchy comedies which feature boy-men in a long flight from anything resembling responsibility, bonding over beer and cars and complaints about women (who generally fall into two types in these films: available bodies or ball-busting shrews); and rousing actioners starring either superheroes or normal guys who are really good with guns and/or explosives. Occasionally a good movie, one with substance and intelligence, may emerge from these genres, but the stereotypes on which they pivot make it unlikely. For every Dark Knight there's a Spider-Man 3, and for every J.J. Abrams' Star Trek a Transformers 2.

When women are the demographic in question, the emergence of a high-quality film becomes even less likely. The best recent movies about girls and women -- Hanna, Jane Eyre, True Grit, Winter's Bone -- show little concern with demographics at all; they set out to tell a story rather than to please a target audience. (NOTE: this is true of the best films, period, whether the protagonist is male or female, young or old.) Women as Target Audience supposedly worship Oprah, are addicted to The View, loved Mamma Mia! and devour all things Twilight, and in our heart of hearts want nothing more than pretty things and a non-threatening, emasculated girly-man to worship and rescue them. As a demographic we are shallow indeed, and deep films are never made for supposedly shallow audiences.

Except that we're not a demographic. We (male, female, young, old) are individuals with complex and often contradictory desires. For my part, I'm indifferent to Oprah, loathe The View, despised Mamma Mia! and find Twilight et. seq. nauseating. In addition, I'd much rather watch Justice League Unlimited than Sex and the City, because in my book, superheroines are far cooler than fashionistas.

Alas, movies don't get made for women like me -- not if the producers involve have demographics in mind. All too often, if you don't fit the stereotype behind the demographic, you'll have to wait long and search far to find a movie to enjoy.

(Coming Next: a demographic problem worse than gender -- Age.)

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