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Are fictional bad choices more glamorous than real ones?

Published: Thursday, Jan. 30 2014 3:25 p.m. MST

When I was studying theatre at the University of Southern California, the movie “Less Than Zero” starring Robert Downey Jr. was going into production. The film, based on the novel of the same name, follows the lives of bored, wealthy teenagers in Los Angeles who turn to drugs in order to compensate for the emptiness of their lives.

Given that I was in Los Angeles at the time and surrounded by bored, wealthy teenagers who would have jumped at the chance to appear in that movie, I was surprised when my professor told the story of one of his former students who had been offered a part in the film and turned it down.

My professor recounted the conversation by saying that this student didn’t want to take the role because it would romanticize the decadent lifestyle of the teens in the story. The teacher pointed out that the “Less Than Zero” novel takes a very dim view of these characters, so one would expect the movie to take a similar perspective. To that, the student replied that just putting these characters on the big screen glamorizes them, whether the producers like it or not.

I think there’s wisdom in that.

The lead character in the film is played by Downey, and even though he plays the part of a lowlife well, he can’t help but ooze charisma in the process. Audiences who give two hours of their time to this movie choose to expose themselves to a heightened reality that infuses a grim scenario with just enough Hollywood glitz to make it all cooler than it really is.

I thought about that exchange as a I read the New York Times piece that claims the MTV reality TV show “16 and Pregnant” serves as a “cautionary tale” to young girls, and that it has been responsible for a third of the declining teenage pregnancy rate between 2009 and 2010.

At first glance, that seems absurd. Applying the “Less Than Zero” principle, it would seem that giving a platform to teen mothers would validate, if not encourage, other girls susceptible to making similar choices. Prior to the Times article, my perception of the “16 and Pregnant” show was identical to that of the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group that reviewed the show by citing some of the more devastating statistics associated with teen pregnancy.

“Only 40 percent of teenage mothers ever graduate high school; two-thirds of families begun by an unmarried teen mother are poor,” the review points out. “So what does MTV do? It shows how cool teen pregnancy is with a new reality series.”

Except there’s a difference here: “Less Than Zero” shows movie stars playing people dealing with bad choices, while “16 and Pregnant” shows real people, not actors, and that may be enough of a distinction to reduce the “cool” factor. The Times piece quotes a high school senior who claims that watching the show allows him to see “what different aspects of life are like with a child: I don’t know how else you could get to know something like that.”

Even the Media Research Center, which spares nothing in its pointed criticism of the show, acknowledges that, to “MTV’s credit, it didn’t turn the camera away when things became less ‘cool’ and the couple struggled after (their baby) was born.”

Perhaps seeing real people in this situation, rather than prettier actors playing the parts, is enough to convince people that that’s a situation they want to avoid.

In any case, the study confirms that media has a tremendous impact on young people, a truth that many in Hollywood try to ignore. It’s heartening to discover that, occasionally, the impact is more positive than one might expect.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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