Television and Identity in Literature

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Television and Suspicious Fascination

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In literature as in other areas of modern discourse, the relationship between television and identity is ambiguous. This ambiguity reflects America’s suspicious fascination with technology and the mass media. Since the initiation of regular network broadcasting in the mid-1940’s, television has been presented in literature as determining and undermining individual identity. Sometimes literature simply reflects the integral role that television plays in mainstream American culture. John Updike’s quartet of Rabbit novels, for example, illustrates the passage of time by depicting the initiation of three American generations into the television culture. In Rabbit, Run (1960), Updike’s hero Harry Angstrom studies The Mickey Mouse Club with a religious awe. Years later, in Rabbit at Rest (1990), he watches in fascination as his granddaughter demonstrates her mastery of the remote control. Even ethnic identity is drawn into mainstream television culture. A recurrent image in Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989) is the appearance of the novel’s two Cuban protagonists on an episode of I Love Lucy.

Television creates a communal myth, a reassuring way of understanding the world. Through television, each person participates in a larger cultural identity. Partaking of America means partaking of television, which is why the presentation of the American Dream of happy home and family is so amenable to the medium of television; sitcoms such as I Love Lucy are a perfect example.

Sometimes, however, television creates communal myths at the cost of individual and group identity. In T.V. (1965), playwright and Belgian immigrant Jean-Claude van Itallie offers a scathing critique of the way Americans depend upon television for the construction of their personalities. In the play’s final moments, the world of television and the identities of the play’s three main characters become almost indistinguishable. Norman Mailer has traced the increasing use of television to define political identity during the 1960’s. In St. George and the Godfather (1972),...

(The entire section is 632 words.)