Thursday, September 14, 2006

Life imitates life

Coming on the heels of my last musings about teen series season finales, a shooting at Dawson College. Spoilers ensue. The season two finale of Veronica Mars had a highschool boy confess to orchestrating the deaths of a busload of his peers and then throws himself off the roof of a building, after brandishing a gun at three of his friends. The previously referenced BTVS finale was initially postponed due to its scenes of violence in hallowed halls (not the first time for the series, which also had to push back “Earshot,” for similar reasons). Most obviously, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. What these texts have in common is a relatively uncompromising look at a cultural microcosm in which social divisions – economic, sexual, gender – are powerfully experienced. I make these references not to diminish the reality or impact of the shooting at Dawson, but because our fictional treatments (and treatments of such fictions) is revealing. Television scholar John Ellis argues in Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty that one of television’s most important social functions is how its thematic consistencies across formats and genres to work through our most pressing tensions and anxieties: “Working through is a constant process of making and remaking meanings, and of exploring possibilities. It is an important process in an age that threatens to make us witness to too muich information without providing us with enough explanation . . . It renders familiar, integrates and provides a place for the difficult material that it brings to our witness” (79). The media is an enormous machine for processing trauma, with a vast store of images and narratives for situating and resituating such events as we try to make them make sense. Because, trite but true, some motivations we’ll never really know and can only make educated guesses that hopefully, this time, please, will go beyond shallow scapegoating (videogames made them do it!) Elephant makes powerfully, heartstoppingly clear the deeply systemic factors – school culture and its attendant forms of appropriate identities – absent from news reports. Words like “rampage” and “terrorize” paint a resonant picture of monstrous deviance that is hard to argue against without running the risk of seeming insensitive to the real physical and emotional damage of these events. What happened at Dawson is awful, I'm not even trying to suggest otherwise, but these familiar scripts don’t give us the chance to learn from this. So many young men being so desperately unhappy should cue us in to the possibility that something bigger is wrong.


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