The media plays a large role in the way we view the world around us. There is no escaping the grasp of popular culture’s influence on our collective mindset, especially when it comes to the topic of addiction. From the hyperbolic after school specials we all viewed and groaned at, to the surrealism of most reality television, the portrayals of addiction in pop culture are wide and varied. Countless shows attempt to use addiction as a character trait or plot device; however, only few really get it right. Between film, music, television and beyond, when it comes to the attitudes towards those who suffer from the disease of addiction, pop culture runs across the spectrum between glorification and condemnation, likely leaving the viewer/listener/reader more confused than when they began. It’s tough to sort through the mix of attitudes about and portrayals of addiction. How does one draw the line between fact and fiction, to separate what is being used purely for entertainment value versus a genuine and meaningful look into a world that is still not entirely understood?
Any child who grew up between the late 80’s and early 2000’s will remember the “This is your brain” PSAs. Though effective in impressing memorable imagery and a catchy tagline into the minds of young viewers, the heavy-handed message reads similarly to that of propaganda films such as “Reefer Madness” (1936). Albeit well intentioned, over the years, those PSAs have degraded to the point of being little more than comic fodder. Truly, it’s difficult to take such media seriously when the delivery is so over the top. Just as the condemnation of addiction has become nearly ubiquitous since the advent of the “War on Drugs”, so too has the glorification of drug use.
Addiction In Entertainment
It would be impossible to discuss the glamorization of drug and alcohol use without mentioning reality television. From the heyday of the “Girls Gone Wild” and “Jersey Shore” generations, to today’s “Bachelor” and “Real Housewives” franchises, the abuse of drugs and alcohol – both on and off camera – has heavily assisted in creating an environment of excess wherein the “protagonists” of these shows are viewed as entertaining simply because of their bizarre and unpredictable behavior. Though the old adage would remind us that “everybody loves a clown”, addiction is far from a laughing matter.
Film and television has long played off the trope of the addict in various forms, whether mocking a “brain fried burnout” like Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” or marveling at the incredible mind of a high-functioning addict such as Dr. Gregory House, the portrayals of those who struggle with addiction run the gamut between praise and punishment. Another handful of strong examples can be found in the Netflix original series “Orange is the New Black”, which details the lives of women in prison, some of whom are doing time for minor drug-related crimes and others who are still addicted to and actively using drugs. Among shows in the drama genre, OITNB stands out from the crowd as it fairly accurately depicts society and the Criminal Justice system’s treatment of those who are addicted as well as the unfair attitudes and double standards of treatment shown to characters of varying racial profiles.
Mayhem In The Music
In the world of music, songs that celebrate hedonistic pleasures, a lifestyle of wealth, excess, and overflowing alcohol and drugs are as prevalent as ever. The classic “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll” motif is virtually inescapable thanks to the enticing imagery found in many music videos and song lyrics that contain everything from slight implications of drug use to overt calls to action for listeners to join in the party lifestyle. For example, the song “Light My Fire” by rock band The Doors contains the lyrics “girl we couldn’t get much higher”, a line so controversial for the late 1960’s that, due to singer Jim Morrison ignoring producers’ request for him to sing an alternate lyric, caused the band to be permanently uninvited for any future appearances on The Ed Sullivan show. Comparatively speaking, 2001’s “The Next Episode” by Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg includes the closing lyric, “Smoke weed everyday” and maintains its status as an iconic hip-hop classic. It seems as if attitudes have indeed changed over the years to allow for more bold depictions of drug and alcohol use.
With that said, as many songs as there are about the “benefits” of getting high, so too are there songs that deal more closely with the pain and mental anguish surrounding the disease and causes of addiction. For example, Tove Lo’s “Habits (Stay High)” was written about the singer’s inability to get over a failed relationship. Semi-autobiographical, the song details Lo’s attempts to numb herself from the pain of loss and heartbreak. Additionally, Macklemore’s song “Kevin” is a pointed criticism of pharmaceutical companies and the rising epidemic of addiction to prescription pills.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line about the portrayals of addiction in popular culture is that there is little to no truth to be found in much of the materials, be they songs, films, television shows, and the like. Impressionable consumers can easily be swayed by propaganda from all sides, especially given the difficulty of understanding a disease is still too often dismissed by many figures of authority as a choice brought on by the lack of a sense of responsibility or propriety. It’s hard to set aside confirmation bias when there are so many different resources to support misguided theories about addiction. The line between glorification and demonetization becomes blurred and the concept of truth is set aside for the sake of entertainment. Knowledge is power and the key to making sense of the muddled messages being promoted by all forms of pop culture is to gain a better understanding of the disease of addiction. In doing so, entertainment is possible to be achieved side-by-side with enlightenment about this baffling disease.
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