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Postmodern America not looking so good

He had been asked to walk to the blackboard and solve one of the math problems she had just finished writing out. They came from the homework assignment of the previous night. He looked at her with furrowed brows and unblinking eyes and his hands began to shake…

“No,” he said firmly, crossing his arms tightly against his tiny chest.

She shot him a look of sheer surprise and said, “Did you not complete last night’s homework?”

“Yes, I did, but I don’t want to go to the board,” the boy all but hissed back at her.

She pursed her lips and I could tell his angry demeanor confused her.

“You can do it T.J. Go to the board,” she said coaxingly, though her voice trembled.

Terence Johnson, an 11-year-old and sixth-grade student didn’t hesitate. He reached into his pocket and took out a red, permanent marker, looked at the teacher and threw it directly at her face.

The sound of the plastic pen hitting the black frame of her thick glasses seemed to ricochet from every wall in the room. The entire class sat absolutely still. Wide eyes and wide mouths were all that was to be seen, and I was one of them.

The teacher’s lip quivered as she adjusted the glasses to sit properly on the bridge of her nose again.

“Get your things, Terrance,” she said calmly, though her eyes were staring straight at the floor. “You’re heading to the office.”

It’s true that my life up until that point could easily have been termed “sheltered.” I had never seen an episode of Jerry Springer or watched a single scene of any of the raunchy soap operas on TV at the time, shows that were available on broadcast stations and aired during daytime hours. My parents took my brothers and me to church every Sunday morning where the concepts of respect, integrity, and consequences for every action were vehemently reinforced in our minds. Growing up we received spankings if we disobeyed our parents. My family was also blessed in the fact that my mother was able to stay home every day while my father worked so we had someone to come home to after school every day, to pick us up for karate or ballet and we had dinner on the table every evening. This was my life, my norm, and I didn’t think much of it at the time.

I didn’t realize until that sixth-grade year that my life was very far from the real norm. That was also the first year my mother decided to enroll me into public school from my private Christian academy. My entire perception of the world and of my life was changed within that 52-week school year; a real 180 degree turn. During that time I discovered the sick wonders of the Jerry Springer show, found out that most of my friends came home after school each day to an empty house while their often single parent worked and were fed macaroni and cheese or TV dinners most nights, and that I had the ability, the right even, to call the police on my parents if they “hit” me.

It wasn’t until the eighth-grade and during a lecture in my literature class that I was first exposed to the concept that would help me understand the changes I was experiencing firsthand, a concept that completely changed my perception on the society I called home. This was the idea of post-modern America.

It’s certainly true that the United States and the entire world have undergone various societal and cultural changes over the course of history. Such include the Egyptian (3100 B.C. – 200 B.C.), Greek (1200 B.C. – 320 B.C.), Roman (753 B.C. – A.D. 410), Middle Ages (A.D. 400 – A.D. 1300), Renaissance (A.D. 1300 – 1650), Enlightenment (1650 – 1850), and Modern Age (1850 – 1945). All it takes is one look at these various names of these periods for one to connect the idea of a solid cultural transition period in history. Of course these massive changes didn’t happen overnight. So how, exactly, does such sweeping change occur? And what, specifically, has led to this transition period for the United States?

The postmodern age is usually noted as beginning just after WWII in 1945. It is a period highlighted by rapid social and political change. Dr. Larry Leslie, a professor at the University of South Florida, goes further by saying that this current era of history is also marked by a new complexity to life, ambiguity and discontinuity in culture, a rise in media influence, extreme change in institutions such as family and schools, a rise in technology and its influence on society, and a more focused view on global economy. Of course these are more general traits of the period, and for one to truly get an idea of its origin, or perhaps its first roots, to be more realistic, one must first delve further and analyze the specific traits that constitute this period.

As mentioned above, some specific characteristics that constitute the post-modern age are borderline obscene talk shows and television programs, a finely drawn line between parents and disciplining their children, and the slow dissolution of the traditional family unit. These are but three of thousands of changes this period has seen. Of these thousands, from what I’ve witnessed and experienced growing up as a citizen of this post-modern society, it is my opinion that the driving force behind this movement of change comes from but one source: the media.

It is the media’s ability to spread information on a mass scale – much more massive than any other period in history due to the invention of television and the Internet – that post-modern America was able to be born.

Though television was available in 1945, it didn’t really start to take off until 1952 at the end of the Federal Communications Commissions freeze on granting new television licenses. After this time, TV took off and with it, the spread of information and most importantly ideas.

Some of the most blaring differences between the modern and post-modern ages in America didn’t surface until the 1960s, as Dr. Leslie points out, and this had much to do with television. The Vietnam War was the first war ever to be reported via television, also called the first “living-room war” by Michael Arlen. This allowed the typical, non-military American citizen visual access to the horrors of war, night after night. This greatly changed America’s overall perspective, and spurred immediate cultural and societal change. It has been argued that any war reported in an unrestricted way by television would eventually lose public support. This was, as American history is more than familiar with, quite the case with Vietnam. America quickly grew tired of the war and a mass of protests erupted.

Besides providing a fresh eye to the world, revealing often the harsh truth that many had never seen before, television ushered in a new era of rapid change, of rebellion and a lust for more freedom. Openness was the focus of the lifestyle of the time and one of the major defining characteristics of post-modernism. Just about everything was open: sex, drugs, politics…it was a time like no other in American history, the beginnings of post-modern America, the beginnings of another change in societal perspective for the people of the United States.

Something else changed in the 1960s, something that has managed to pervade American society through today: the idea of the perfect-looking woman. The term “supermodel” was used as early as the 1940s, but models at that time weren’t scrutinized they way they are today for their weight and their appearance. It was in the 1960s that all of this changed, with such names as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, also known as “The Shrimp.” This was the first time that weight really became an issue for models and as a result, for women in general. With television and other media outlets such as famous women’s magazines Glamour and Vogue, women now had a new “standard” of appearance. Tune into any popular TV show today and you’ll see this showcased perfectly. Famous women TV characters are hardly, if ever, fat or overweight, and if you’d like to go even further, these characters are often attractive and rarely plain or homely-looking. Of course the bodies and faces of today’s celebrities are unrealistic expectations that are being presented by the media, a tool of society that’s supposed to bring its people unbiased, fair and accurate information, as the standard.

With this skewed image, a constant picture for American women to see, eating disorder cases have exponentially increased. Even celebrities, those with seemingly perfect bodies and faces turn out to have eating disorders in order to maintain those unrealistic expectations. Healthy doesn’t have to mean thin and toned, and this new perspective makes it even more difficult for growing youths in today’s society.

With appearance being so important in today’s American society, it’s not hard to understand why so many millions each year turn to plastic surgery to “improve” their looks. Popular television shows such as The Real Housewives of Orange County and Dr. 90210 demonstrate this to a tee. The so-called “real” housewives could have fooled me, with their plastic chests and plastic faces. What kind of picture does this paint to the growing adolescents of our society? Being accepted is now based primarily on looks, not personality or intelligence. Why should the size of a woman’s chest be such a determining factor in acceptance? Answer: it shouldn’t, but it’s where our society is heading.

Something else that’s scary on this front is how more and more girls, not women, are coming into doctor’s offices for plastic surgery because their chests aren’t big enough, or their eyes are wide enough or their nose isn’t straight enough. Where are these young women getting these ideas? And this, in turn, goes back into the problem with eating disorders. Many young girls, some as young as 8 or 9 years of age turn to altering their diets in an attempt at altering their appearance to fit society’s physical standards.

Of course this leads into the 1970s and the United States’ downhill turn in the belief in politics and leadership. The Watergate scandal shook the people of the United States pretty hard. If a country couldn’t stand behind its elected leader, who could it stand behind? It made many people question the power of the government and the power of elected officials. This was the era that nurtured the idea of the “no trust” syndrome. It wasn’t uncommon for people of the time to say they didn’t trust anyone. This led to even further diminishing of the line between what was considered right and accepted and what was considered wrong and unacceptable. This truly is the focal point of postmodernism: a blurred line between right and wrong.

And then there were the 1980s. Life became even more open and “free,” with gay and lesbian sexual orientations coming out and being more accepted. Just 10 years before, these practices were shunned. This was a big deal, which led, in turn, to many more turning points in the postmodern age, such as the idea of gay adoption, gay marriage and gay rights.

Of course, probably the biggest motivation and driving force of postmodernism came in the 1990s with the Internet. Sure, the Internet made it easy for families to communicate over long distances, for information to be collected and for new relationships to be established; however, the Internet also ushered in the era of information overload and an additional plethora of associated problems with it. Students no longer have to take a trip down to the library to research a term paper. All he or she now needs to do is log on to the Internet, type in a few words and boom, a paper to copy and paste in a word program for a grade.

Plagiarism software has been developed since then for this very reason, but students all over the country still partake in this means of getting a grade. In fact, it’s also made for a profitable business as papers can be purchased now online.

What does this mean for today’s society? Scientists are still deep in research over the effects of this and many other symptoms of the postmodern age on its people, but one thing is certain. The age of the Internet has made it easier for students to slack on their schoolwork and learn to develop their procrastination skills.

I think it’s funny when my grandfather or grandmother sits me down and says, “You know, you have it so easy today.” I used to believe that, really, especially after hearing about the miles they walked in the snow, uphill, to school each day, the cows they had to milk by hand just to eat a bowl of cereal and the clothes their parents made themselves to keep them warm.

A lot has changed between this age and that. It’s true that I have the Internet, a super-fast and convenient way of communicating and finding ideas; that I have television, another means of collecting information; that I have a cell phone (more communication); that I have a laptop computer, a device that I can perform many tasks on, work on, etc.; that I have the capability to download entire books onto an electronic reader called a Kindel; that I can pay for my groceries with one swipe of a piece of plastic; that I can purchase music online and download it to a portable listening device called and MP3 player; that I can watch movies in high definition on a plastic disc no thicker than half dollar…okay, so there’s a lot I can do in this post-modern age, but, as Stan Lee wrote in the Spiderman comic, “with great power comes great responsibility.” This has the same application when we compare the post-modern age with the ages that preceded it. It’s a time full of change, change accompanied with great stress of the effort involved in taking it all in, not to mention trying to take it all in, understand, digest it and then try to make a life out of it.

Just as I realized on that day back in the sixth grade, something is definitely wrong with this picture, with this age in history. Therefore, I believe today is a much more difficult time than days past, even with the help of the ever-expanding realm of technology at our fingertips.