Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Information Age TV, Industrial Revolution Concerns

For those of you with a healthy appreciation of trash TV, you may have noticed that this fall's line-up is loaded with characters who are pretending to be someone they are not. Hidden identities are nothing new to night-time soaps, but the introduction of Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke from Revenge, Siobhan/Bridget from Ringer, and the unfortunate reintroduction of Gossip Girl's Charlie/Ivy, we are reminded that in the information age, it is easy to recreate yourself in ways unthinkable even a few years ago.

However, like all soaps, these story lines have been recycled multiple times. Reaching back as far as Samuel Richardson and his unfortunate heroines, anxiety over the destabalization of identity has fueled compelling tales. While Richardson, Dickens, and Hardy faced a world that was becoming urbanized and anonymous, we are faced with a global community where we expect everyone to have a published (and accessible!) identity. This, paradoxically, allows us to create an identity without there being a physical body to match (see also: North by Northwest). The best and easiest way to hide is to hide behind another Facebook profile.

That said, these recent TV plots do fail the credibility test. Charlie is only able to "pass" because she is surrounded by idiots in a sex-drugs-money fog who reduce the greatest city in the world to a few similarly limited sexual partners. Bridget passes as her twin without knowing anything of her life or fashion sense. I actually believe that Amanda can get away with being Emily, but she also has a Mark Zuckerberg-like sidekick who is a master of manipulating information (and has the money to act as a smokescreen).

Of course, everyone passes as a fancy, rich New York lady. Because that's the fear and the dream. We all know that rich people are moral degenerates. We can only wish that People Who Have Suffered will be rewarded with material wealth--and if it doesn't come naturally, maybe they stop "playing by rules [they] had nothing to say about setting up." But we still do have that sense that the rich are somehow better than the rest of us. Whether that's the Protestant work ethic instinct still embedded in multicultural America or the vestiges of feudalism, I don't know.

Let's not overlook the fact that all of these characters are women. Women's identities have always been malleable--we shift from daughters to wives to mothers to crones. Women can upgrade (or downgrade) their lives based on their male partners. Since women's wealth (or lack of) hasn't historically made as much difference to their male partners, men don't experience this potential flush of fortune. In these shows, the class-passeer's relationship to men is paramount. Emily's identity is questioned because she starts dating Daniel, the foxy son of mean witch Victoria Grayson (and Amanda's childhood relationship with the foxier Jack Porter threatens to undo her plans of revenge). Bridget gets to pretend to be Siobhan because her husband Andrew is too much of a doofus to realize that he is in bed with a different woman. Charlie passed last season because she distracted Dan Humphrey for awhile, and everyone was just so relieved that they let a lot of stuff slide.

We want to think that identity is stable, that we have souls that determine Who We Are, but this stability has been becoming less necessary or desirable since we started moving away from the family farm. These TV shows explore the anxiety we feel about the split between our public and private lives, about the decreasing importance of our physical bodies, and about the class struggles of our every day lives.

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