Sunday, January 23, 2011

Comparing a 1929 writing to today

The “From Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture” reading of the 1924-25 study of Muncie, Ind., stuck with me most in our readings this week because of its timelessness. Many of the concerns and criticisms of the new media of the time (magazines, books, and movies) are still general concerns of society about media and specifically entertainment today.

Many of the general statistics and trends could be reflected in surveys taken today. For example, romantic comedies tend to be more popular with women than men today; women at the time of the Muncie study seemed more interested in the tales of “heart interest,” the study states. Several times throughout the piece, the authors note concerns among townspeople of the effects on society that these leisure activities might cause. Some feared movies could cause “early sophistication” in teens and a relaxing of social taboos -- a concern about modern movies, music and writing throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. One mother’s reaction to some of the “sex adventure” films and magazines of the era rings true to comments you could hear today: “‘Children weren’t bold like they are today when we were young!’”

There’s also a lament in this piece that enjoyment of leisure time had become more passive. People didn’t learn to play music anymore; they instead sat and listened to it on radio or phonographs. They sat and read; they didn’t go to speeches. As obesity becomes a health problem today, our passive use of media has been cited as a possible cause.

Similarly, Jane Addams’ concerns in “The House of Dreams” also reflect so many criticisms today about youth and mass media. I was just about expecting to read that Addams would urge youth to put down the Wii controller to get outside and play. She also raises the concern that we still hear often about the violent influences of the “heroes” of the media and how they affect the moral development of youth.

The last section of the Lynd and Lynd piece about what people do with their leisure time broken down by class -- and what they would do if they had more leisure time -- was most striking. The study notes that business (upper class) men play golf with business associates, and they use it as a business asset, while women of all classes say they would read more if they had more time. Working-class women, more so than business class women, say they would use the time for more rest. I would theorize that studies today, 80 years after this was published, would find similar results.

The final conclusion also seems to foreshadow some of the isolation criticism some have about our current networked society: “In view of the tightening of social and economic lines in the growing city, it is not surprising that the type of leisure-time organization which dominates today tends in the main to erect barriers to keep others out.”

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