Shouldland in Popular Media

My last post on The Matrix got me thinking. I am seeing more and more Shouldland-style, live-your-own-life themes in the popular media all of the time. I don’t know if it has become more prevalent in television, print and cinema, or if I am just more attuned to it these days.

You see people in Shouldland in a lot of the reality television shows such as ‘Wife Swap’ and ‘Survivor’. Shows that view people having experiences of people out of their comfort zone. The contestants have their beliefs about life, and are confronted with others with completely different values. The confrontations over these difference are why people watch the show – either for pure voyeuristic entertainment or as a study of human behaviour (as I do).

I find the television show ‘Love Triangle’ fascinating. Aside from its all around tackiness, it is an interesting study of human behaviour. Contestants are forced to choose, after a few rounds of questioning, which of their two current love interests they will stay with: “who to choose and who to lose”. People seem to regularly choose the person who will marry them rather than the person they love. This is a huge area where people live their lives by unwritten rules of society. More on this in upcoming posts.

In the hit animated series ‘American Dad’ the main character Stan talks about the fictitious town of Shouldland, a place where things are always as they ought to be, in the belief of the person confronting him (Francine in this case):                                                                  Francine: Honestly, Stan, what does Hayley have to do with you getting a promotion? It should be enough that you’re really good at your job.                                                            Stan: Yeah, it should. But we don’t live in Shouldland. Ah, Shouldland! Where clean-cut kids cruise Shouldland Boulevard and the Shouldland High football team get their optimistic asses kicked by their crosstown rival, Reality Check Tech.                                       – Season 1, Episode 8, ‘Bullocks to Stan’ (2005).   Watch it here

In her best-selling book ‘Eat Pray Love’, Elizabeth Gilbert reveals the existence of Shouldland in our day-to-day lives: 

• Freudians say that unhappiness is the inevitable result of the clash between our natural drives and civilization’s needs (p.128).

• Destiny is half divine grace and half wilful self-effort. It is the battle between fate v free will. You need to learn which things you cannot control because they just are, and which things you need to steer with concentrated effort. Most people live by fate, you need to turn it around with genuine effort (p.186).  

• People think that happiness is a stroke of luck, given only if you are fortunate enough. That is not how it is. Happiness is the consequence of personal effort (p.272).

In the 2010 feature film ‘Eclipse’, part of the Twilight saga, the female protagonist Bella (Kirsten Stewart) explains to her boyfriend Edward (Robert Pattinson) how she has chosen to live her life her way, free of the imposed rules of society: “It wasn’t just a choice between you and Jacob. It was between who I should be, and who I actually am. I’ve always felt out of step. Literally stumbling through life. I’ve never felt normal. But now I know. I’m not normal. And I don’t want to be. I’ve faced death and loss and pain in your world. But I’ve also never felt stronger, more real, more myself. Because it’s my world too, Edward. It’s where I belong.”

The 2011 feature film ‘Limitless’, starring Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, and Robert De Niro, is a thriller set in New York City. Eddie (Bradley Cooper) is a bit of a loser in life until he takes a fictitious wonder drug (NZT-40) that allows him to access 100% of the brain’s power, becoming vastly more productive than a regular human. Of course there are consequences to this (or else it wouldn’t have been a very interesting movie), and things quickly go pear-shaped for Eddie. He loses his girlfriend and has people out to get him. Awareness of Shouldland is like taking the ‘limitless’ drug. You will see things much more clearly, and be able to work at a higher level. A warning though – as in the movie there is always a downside. You may experience:                                                                                        

• Resentment from work colleagues.

 • Alienation from friends who cannot comprehend your new found awareness.

 • Distancing from family who are threatened by your new found insight and enlightenment.

Can you think of any other popular media where we see people living their lives by all of the unwritten rules of society? A society that tells us how we should behave.

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