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Entertainment and utopia

Entertainment has been separated from Art. Although they both involve in their process a creative activity, the former has suffered in the past century from its association with mass consumption and mass culture while the latter remained most of the time a product of the elites, for the elites. However they still provide the same sort of ritual as one goes to a gallery opening with the same punctuality as one turns on the television set on time to watch its favourite soap opera. Nonetheless, while Art has a sort of ultimate appeal to its audience from its aesthetic qualities, mass entertainment is quickly produced and quickly consumed. It still provides the public with a form of escape from reality. This escape is generated by the creation of a fake world, sometimes worse, sometimes better, always different. At a given time, the idea of a better world and its potential realisation is a utopia. The questions are then, how far does entertainment provide examples of a better world? Which hopes and needs does the public have while consuming entertainment? And, to what extent does entertainment, with its share of dream, fulfil these needs?

To answer these questions, one has to combine contemporary definitions of entertainment and utopia, and, once this is done, take a look at some of the different forms that entertainment can take, in order to assess if the amount of dream provided is defined according to the intensity of the needs.

On entertainment and utopia.

In our case the first thing that has to be defined is entertainment itself as its character may vary, from one culture to an other. It is certainly accurate to consider Dyer's own limitation of entertainment to that of western societies. This simply emphasises that, unlike socialist countries, the western world mostly produces entertainment in an attempt to generate a capitalistic profit and therefore can theoretically be reduced to a simple economical process. Also, and like any economic enterprise, which relies on consumption to generate a profit, entertainment's aim is "to provide pleasure". To consider entertainment from an economical perspective also stresses that the entertainers or performers are professional, that is trained and paid, and that although entertainment implies an audience, the entertainers are the ones who define the final product (Dyer, 1992).

This being said, the debate on either or not entertainment is a good thing for the public has been long lasting. Where Plato saw poetry as something that teaches wrong things about the world and therefore arouses feelings in the viewer that are not "reasonable", Aristotle found in tragedy a function of "catharsis". The idea can be seen as an early grasp on Freud's idea of the unconscious, feelings that are built up within a person and that the person is unable to deal with other than indirectly. Catharsis is a sort of purification that the audience go through when watching a tragedy; by arousing feelings such as terror, fear or pity the crowd comes out of the theatre feeling like emptied of such emotions (Aristotle, 1987).

A contemporary example of the Greek tragedy is Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. It is not only based on real facts but also relies, in its sentimental narrative, on the difficulty for people to make sense of the Holocaust. There we can find similarities to what Dyer isolates as the utopian function of entertainment: that in a world that generates "social tension, inadequacy or absence" entertainment provides the public with "utopian solution". This, according to him, explains that entertainment works because it responds to a need generated by the society (Dyer, 1992).

However, if entertainment's answer to a need created by society is utopia, it also defines the limits of this need. To feel lonely is mostly legitimate in an individualist society. The problem is that all claims are not seen as legitimate and minorities are the one who can suffer from that. Bloch emphasises that although entertainment, by depicting a better world, might challenge the status quo, nothing will ever occur without social and political change as well (Bloch, 1996). It has been a long struggle for black people to obtain equal rights, and the struggle will continue for as long as inequalities remain. The situation today is that although black communities across Europe and America are still frustrated, they have now better, broader and more accepted means of expression. Public Enemy made a statement out of their album's title, Fear of a Black Planet, that previously, Bob Marley could only mildly make with Exodus or Babylon by Bus.

Using simpler examples, if one considers the representation of the gay male community in general entertainment in both England and France one would find patterns that illustrate the difference of mentality on the topic of homosexuality between the two countries. Channel four's two series of Big Brother presented the viewers with several representatives of the male and female gay communities. In the French version, untitled Loft Story, had only one character vaguely approaching the topic. The reaction to the frustration is clearly more tolerated in one country than the other. Similarly, if the Girl Power trend commercialised by the Spice Girls has been so successful it is mainly due to the fact that it is now seen as broadly acceptable "compared to, say, thirty years ago "for women to legitimately dream, work or fight for equal opportunities. Thirty years ago the Spice Girls would have never been, or would have, at the best, been an underground activist and feminist band marginalized by a society not ready nor prepared to face such claims. It is this restriction, combined with the fact that entertainers define entertainment, which provides the bases to the critical analysis of the media and to the notion of manipulation in the entertainment industry. The choice may be broad, it is limited to what is available, and this availability is essentially defined by the producers themselves.

It is possibly on this ground that Pascal considered that entertainment, which provides a ration of dream, would prevent people from challenging the state of things in an imperfect society. On the contrary, Montaigne believed that with references to a different and, somehow, better world, entertainment would lead people to not only question but also criticize the imperfections around them (O'Shaughnessy, 1990).

Fiction and utopia:

The definition of the utopian genre, if such a genre exists, is fluctuating. Manuel includes in his definition basically any text that makes reference to a better world (Manuel, 1979). Applied to television, cinema or theatre, this definition would mean that fiction is the basic ground for the utopian expression. Dyer do not believe that utopian fiction strictly is the "expression of an utopian world", but creates, by developing the audience's real life experience, utopian alternative to the real world. It is the case in the American sitcom Friends which provides us with a world in which a group of successful, young and attractive people might encounter real life problems, but hardly ever comes across situations that cannot be solved with the help and assistance of the so-called friends. It is not so much utopian in the presentation of friends as a positive thing in life, but in the way it reduces the characters' life to a succession of friendly social encounters. From this, it is not unrealistic to believe that entertainment as fiction, which is mainly produced to "generate a profit and to please the audience", works according to its utopian ratio. The Hollywood studios of the 1930' s have been dubbed the "Dream Factory". Its success as entertainment is only explained by the distance between the real life and the screen life. It did generate dream, as utopia.

In the next generation of actors, had Marilyn Monroe or James Dean survived, things might have been different. They embodied the American dream on the big screen and in the real life: they were Stars. Their tragic deaths brought them the iconic status but also reminded the public of the gap between dream and reality.

One thing about fiction that is worth mentioning has to do with the popular culture of comics in America, and manga in Japan. Richard Dyer stresses the importance of the social tension, inadequacy and absence in a society as generating the need for a utopian solution. This utopian solution is therefore specific to each culture and it is not surprising to find radically opposed utopia in radically opposed cultures. In a recent article, Andrew Smith translated the word manga by "irresponsible writing". Irresponsible they may be but, Atom "Astro Boy, one of the most popular manga of all time "unlike the American X-men who fight for freedom, fights for peace (Schodt, 1983). From its own trauma, each society defines and decides of its own utopian answers.

Non-fiction and utopia:

If fiction, and any fiction, carries its share of utopia, entertainment on television is also found in non fiction programmes, and talk shows, quiz shows and other reality shows also provide a solid ground for the development of utopia. Indeed, they all present to an audience a selection of real people drawn from real life, which is both, the key and secret of there success and, the opening needed to develop utopia. It is by its capacity to generate an identification and/or assimilation from the audience to the guests that a show will manage to communicate its message, whatever it is.

Quiz shows work on the fundamental basis that "Tonight, you could be the one winning millions!" or that "I know that you, at home, have the right answer". To pursue chimerical fortunes, and to compete without bothering to pass the selections. However, quiz shows develop more than a mere dream for financial rest, they also promote values. Indeed, and it might be seen as their manipulative aspect, the ideas of materialism "as in more is better "and competition are underlying the whole process. And with the help of our favourite presenter: "what are we here for tonight?" "to win millions "" how are we going to do it?" "by being the best "which can be either the strongest, the fastest or, more generally, the most knowledgeable.

Talk shows work differently. They have in a studio both guests and audience. If the former is the key to get the general viewers interested, the latter is, with its involvement in the show, what the people at home will identify with. It might be the case, and the Jerry Springer's show is a perfect example, that the public do not, cannot or is simply not wished to identify with the guests. In any case, what constitute the vision of a better world (their utopian aspect and appeal), in most of them is, and this is arguably Oprah Winphrey's secret dream, that every and any problem can be settled with or via speech and conversation. Jerry Springer shows the limit of such a belief by promoting and arguably encouraging verbal and physical violence on his stage.

The case of sport: news and entertainment.

Sport is a complicated matter as it can be considered as both news and entertainment. It is news because the actors bear their real name and involve their whole life in one performance, and it is entertainment because there is profit to be made if promoted that way. Football teams have hugely lucrative television deals and endorsement contracts. Cricket which suffered from a boring, slow pace sport image has been transformed to appeal to the youngest generation the same way as a television program is transformed if the audience share drops. The last world cup was played with one-day matches "as opposed to three or five days "while the teams were wearing different colours "when white used to be the one and only suitable colour for a gentleman's sport –. The example of football as entertainment promoting utopia can be striking if considered properly. It is present in the actions on the field and in the life of the actors off the field. On the field, like any other form of entertainment its impact is originated from its similarity to real life that will enable the public to assimilate or identify to the action. People live in a society with rules and football like any sport is based on rules. These rules are to be applied to any individual without exception by the warrant of law and order, equally policeman and judge: the referee. However, and that is the beginning of the utopia, these rules can be broken. The player or the team of the player who brakes the rules has a penalty to pay according to the gravity of the fault, but in most cases the penalty is considered acceptable and do not endanger future success. Football is supposed to be a fight between two groups of equal power; it is eleven men aside with one ball and the same opportunities. Nonetheless, only one team finishes on the winner side and that is another close link to a reality in which competition is common leitmotiv.

Off the field, football generates passions; "it is not a matter of life and death, it is more important than that". Football fans follow one team and only care for that one. The cult is originated very young and defined on immutable cultural bases. It is defined by the language in the case of national teams, and on the soil or the family tradition for the regional teams. It finds its cathedral in the likes of Wembley or Old Trafford (The Theatre of Dreams), sixty thousand people in a stadium, temple of the sport religion. As Fredric Jameson comments: "we suspend our real life when we watch The Godfather as when we read The Wings of Dove" (Jameson, 1979). The same process occurs when we enter the arena in which the battle will take place. Hopes start from there; hope for success, hope for victory and accessorily, hope for spectacle. It draws from real life on the theme of rivalry between different teams and develops its utopia around the unity among fellow supporters. The drama that surrounds sport can be seen as a cure for boring lives. It is complete with the notions of "ritual, dream and myth". It provides for the fans an alternative to unsuccessful lives, the "escape and wish-fulfilment" of victory. It is in these very terms "alternative, hopes and wishes" that Richard Dyer sees the roots of utopianism (Dyer, 1992, p18). Also, and despite their enormous wages, football players come from and belong to the working class. They are skilled manual workers and prove that although only a few succeed, one can start from the bottom and reach with industrious work the very top where fame and glory are awaiting. Football promotes values such as work and mutual assistance but also generates utopia of a hypothetical regional, national or international domination. Football fans wear their club's colours not only to assess their belonging to the team but mainly in an attempt to capture a share of the glory it earned. However, victory is not essential as defeat does not prevent one to dream of future successes. Leyton Orient's fans have a private joke, it goes: "last week, some burglars broke into the trophy room; they left with the carpet". It is the perpetual hope that keeps people going and each defeat only increases the intensity of this hope and, therefore, the utopian power of a fore coming victory.

One could extend the analysis further and consider the appeal of European football in Asia (where Manchester United has its biggest merchandising market) or Africa. David Beckham is there one of the most famous European personality. The utopia generated is that of the western world. Either as a potential alternative to poverty or as the only way to escape the reality of the third world.

The debate is still open on whether or not, the utopian content of entertainment is a mean to manipulate the audience. Fredric Jameson who states that utopia can be found in any form of entertainment belongs to the ones who believe so since utopia takes the form of a certain ideology. On the other hand, Richard Dyer recommends cautiousness while searching for manipulation. In any case, what remains sure is that entertainment not only provides us with means to escape reality, it also provides and encourages us to develop a sense of hope.

London, December 2001.

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