I’m entertained and I’m uncomfortable about it. We’re near the end of Steven Sondheim’s Gypsy, performed by an all-star cast from my charter school, Orange County High School of the Arts. I’m in eighth grade, sitting next to my mom, watching a high school girl perform a striptease.
After a difficult, unsuccessful childhood on the vaudeville circuit, our timid heroine finally gets a chance to nab the spotlight and make her draconian stage mother proud––at a grimy burlesque joint in Wichita, Kansas, sometime during the Great Depression.
Even after she’s renamed Gypsy Rose Lee, our heroine has a rough go of it onstage. She’s awkward, glacial, and more than a little weary of those leering, whistling gentlemen in the dark. When she paces back and forth, Gypsy looks more like a child waiting to use the bathroom than an object of desire. Some presumably mustachioed sleazeball catcalls: “Show us some skin!” (The scene is staged so that we, the audience, are treated like stand-ins for those fine gentlemen. Keep in mind that I’m a budding pubescent sitting next to my mother. There’s a reason I remember this so vividly.)
Gypsy doesn’t stay aloof for long, though. This scene transforms into a montage. Sondheim uses every fade-out-fade-in to fly through time and crank up the dial. She begins to strut around, swinging her hips like an ever-widening pendulum. Sequins grow flashier and flashier as outfits shrink smaller and smaller. Gypsy addresses the audience: poking, prodding, tantalizing the poor gentlemen before belting a slowed-down, sleazed-up version of the same refrain we’ve heard her perform her whole life long. The lyrics, obnoxious but harmless when screeched by a wannabe child star in Act One, pick up a couple extra coats of smut:
Let me entertain you
Let me make you smile
Let me do a few tricks
Some old and then some new tricks
I’m very versatile
And if you’re real good
I’ll make you feel good
I want your spirits to climb
So let me entertain you
And we’ll have a real good time, yes sir.
We’ll have a real good time.
It’s no wonder the word “entertain” made me cringe for such a long time after this.
Due to some combination of period authenticity and child pornography laws, there was no actual nudity in that production, fortunately. And Gypsy, despite its cynical bite, generally reconfirms any conservative’s worst fears about secular entertainment. Under that show’s cruel gaze, the entertainment industry is one big seduction factory, calibrated to lure you onto its assembly line, push you down a slippery slope and shove you into an underworld of ambition, tyranny, vanity, compromise, and self-loathing. Gypsy is a spectacularly entertaining piece of anti-entertainment. It chimes in with the author Michael Chabon when he claims that entertainment “wears spandex, pasties, a leisure suit studded with blinking lights… It engages regions of the brain far from the centers of discernment, critical thinking, ontological speculation. It skirts the black heart of life and drowns life’s lambency in a halogen glare…. Entertainment, in short, means junk, and too much junk is bad for you––bad for your heart, your arteries, your mind, your soul.”
I didn’t know this Chabon quote back then, but as I montaged through middle school and high school, I began thinking Chabon-like thoughts. I loved movies, but whenever a peer said something like: “Transformers 2 wasn’t, you know, Oscar-worthy, but come on, it was entertaining,” I felt the Gypsy’s ghost rattle around inside.
And if you’re real good, I’ll make you feel good, I want your spirits to climb….
It was, in fact, very gut reaction that led me to find Chabon’s essay on entertainment, “The Pleasure Principle,” so surprising and significant in 2012. (I discovered the essay as a little hyperlinked blip on a blog post by the culture writer Alissa Wilkinson, who has since written a lovely essay about it.) By 2012, I had already abandoned all serious hope I ever placed in entertainment––the term and everything it stood for. So I nodded along as Chabon said: “serious people learn to mistrust and even revile” entertainment. I was with him as he laid out his fabulous lists, likening entertainment to “the fake-butter miasma of a movie-house lobby… karaoke and Jagermeister, Jerry Bruckheimer movies, a ‘Street Fighter’ machine grunting solipsistically in a corner of an ice-rink arcade.”
But then he took me by surprise. He started to switch gears: “Maybe the reason for the junkiness of so much of what pretends to entertain us is that we have accepted–– indeed, we have helped to articulate––such a narrow, debased concept of entertainment.”
Wait… Really? What was I missing?
The original sense of the word ‘entertainment’ is a lovely one of mutual support through intertwining, like a pair of trees grown together, interwoven, each sustaining and bearing up the other. It suggests a kind of midair transfer of strength, contact across a void…. Derived senses of fruitful exchange, of reciprocal sustenance, of welcome offered, of grasp and interrelationship, of a slender span of bilateral attention along which things are given and received, still animate the word in its verb form: we entertain visitors, guests, ideas, prospects, theories, doubts and grudges… [But] at some point in its history, the idea of entertainment lost its sense of mutuality, of exchange. One either entertains or is entertained, is the actor or the fan.
I had never entertained this “original sense,” nor the interpersonal use we continually put it to. I felt as if this definition had been sitting under my nose for a long time and I never cared to sniff. As Chabon describes it, “entertainment” isn’t merely a term worth keeping around. It’s a term that describes the goal of any interpersonal activity. Isn’t this the point of life together, “midair transfer[s] of strength, contact across a void,” giving “reciprocal sustenance,” cultivating “bilateral attention along which things are given and received”? In his popular book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “Bearing means forbearing and sustaining… The Christian… must bear the burden of a brother. He must suffer and endure the brother… To bear the burden of the other person means involvement with the created reality of the other, to accept and affirm it, and, in bearing with it, to break through to the point where we take joy in it.” Every time the word “bear” shows up in that quote, replace it with “entertain.” Backed by Chabon’s definition, you’ll end up with two semantically similar statements.
I think about Chabon’s essay a lot. Not only because he unexpectedly resurrects a word I had prematurely crucified, but because he so aptly describes the two-pronged nature of human rapport while he’s at it. We often underrepresent this covalent network in everyday speech. We stare, with tunnel vision, at either side of the equation: focusing exclusively on lover or beloved, attacker or victim, powerful or oppressed, actor or reactor. It’s harder to entertain the notion of, say, beloved-lovers, even though we all want to be them ourselves. It’s hard to think about this network in the same way that its hard to think about both sides of any multivariable equation. Bilateral relationships require bilateral attention.
But I think it’s hard for another reason, too: there are always these things between us, far more complicated than an equation’s equal sign. And in order to talk about them, I think we need to dust off another word tarnished by overuse.
That word is “media.”
If we all collectively groan at the mention of “media”––and of course we do––that gives us all the more reason to save the term from further denigration. The word never did us any harm. “Media” was derived from the Latin word “medium,” meaning: “middle, centre, midst, intermediate course, intermediary.”
“Medium” carried these associations into English. For centuries, it has referred to “something which is intermediate between two degrees, amounts, qualities, or classes; a middle state,” “a person or thing which acts as a mediary,” “an intervening substance through which a force acts on objects at a distance.” I think we’ve mostly preserved these definitions, even if the only mediums around loiter in their little Lower East Side shops, luring gullible customers in with tarot cards, crystal balls, and mood lighting.
“Media,” on the other hand, only maintains its original dignity as a smart-sounding Latin throwback: “en media res,” or, “in the middle of things.” In the early twentieth century (1923, according my trusty OED), media began to designate the “main means of mass communication, esp. newspapers, radio, and television.” It’s this new face of media, often called “the media,” that gets us so riled up.
I Google search “quotes about media” and land on brainyquote.com. Everyone seems to be throwing hyperboles around. Malcolm X: “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth… Because they control the minds of the masses.” JR, the Banksy-like street artist: “The more social media we have, the more we think we’re connecting, yet we are really disconnecting from each other.” Allen Ginsberg: “Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.” Amy Jo Martin: “Social Media is the ultimate equalizer.” Jim Morrison: “Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.” Mark McKinnon: “Technology and social media have brought power back to the people.” I could go on, but you know what I’m talking about. Depending on the person speaking, media either points to the decline of Western civilization or the dawn of a bright, cultural future; totalitarian hegemony or democratic plurality; communicative efficiency or relational disaster.
I don’t want to give the impression that this 20th-century adaptation of “media” is inherently terrible. It’s not. It’s a clever way to pluralize the word “medium” and it was probably marshaled when somebody thought: How in the world do we classify all of these new mediums? But modern usage does make it tempting to treat “The Media” as some looming, singular deity (a good God or an evil God, take your pick), rather than various mediums, several “intervening substances” caught in the same terminological net.
It’s easy to think about “The Media” as a concrete entity that will either oppress or liberate you; it’s much harder to think about many mediums. Mediums are, by their very nature, indeterminate. They’re contingent spaces. The author Zadie Smith voices our communal angst when she cries: “How persistent this horror of the middling spot is, this dread of the interim place! It extends through the specter of the tragic mulatto, to the plight of the transsexual, to our present anxiety––disguised as genteel concern––for the contemporary immigrant, tragically split, we are sure, between worlds, ideas, cultures, voices––whatever will become of them?”
In the Protestant circles, we tend to ease our anxieties by resorting to polarities. We speak of sin: total disconnect between God and Man and Woman, manifest in the eternal reality of Hell. And then we do a full 180-degree turn. We look toward and yearn for the fruit of salvation: unmediated, communal intimacy with God and Man and Woman. While these polarities can bring spiritual reality into sharp focus (Flannery O’Conner: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures”), they can also make it harder to a cast cold eye onto the contingent spaces where we experience both communion and divorce, relation and isolation, unity and discord––and often a little bit of all that simultaneously. It’s much easier to gesture toward the solved and unsolved equations, and decry the dangers of moral relativism, than it is to engage complex ethical problems en media res.
And yet, I hear Chabon’s (and, for that matter, Bonhoeffer’s, and maybe even the Holy Spirit’s) soft, encouraging voice remind me:
entertainment––as I define it, pleasure and all––remains the only sure means we have of bridging, or at least of feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates each of us from everybody else. The best response to those who would cheapen and exploit it is not to disparage or repudiate but to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and for audiences, a two-way exchange of attention, experience and the universal hunger for connection.
Let me entertain you. We’ll have a real good time.