Real Tears for an Unreal Person
I grew up watching soap operas. Don’t judge me. It’s what we did. It’s my generation’s version of Netflix binging, but we had to wait for each new episode. So it was an event, often shared, not on-demand.
It all started in elementary school. I would come home each day to find Grandma dutifully ironing our clothes in front of the TV. So I would settle in and tell her about my day and watch the lives of far more exciting people unfold before my eyes. It was as bonding experience. I didn’t always understand the nuances of what was going on, but then again, I did learn a lot that they didn’t teach us in my parochial school.
At university our schedules were more flexible, so the whole dorm could gather around the TV in the dayroom and watch it together. There was something so communal about piling on the worn furniture and gossiping about who we loved, and more importantly, who we hated. It was a special treat when we recruited a newbie — someone who had never before indulged in this guilty pleasure once reserved for desperate housewives. On those occasions we got to recount the sordid history of who did what to whom over the years. Granted, strung out on a timeline like that the plotline was ludicrous, but we loved it anyway and we convinced our new recruit to love it too.
To our young psyches it was vicarious practice for the emotional dramas of adulthood — emotional practice for break-ups and make-ups, death and betrayal. Movies were great, but they were like one-night stands. Our soaps were long-term commitments. We were there for the long haul.
At one point after college, I moved to an area that did not run American TV shows. Thankfully by that time the VCR had been invented and I convinced my mother to tape my shows daily. Oh how I waited for those boxes to arrive! So really, I was binge-watching before binge-watching was cool.
And now? Well, I don’t watch “the soaps” anymore, though every now and then, while visiting a friend I see a familiar face flash across the screen and squeal with delight, “OMG!! Are Nikki and Victor still together?” as The Young and the Restless plays in the background. In reality, my love of soap operas hasn’t ended. It’s just evolved. And grown more sophisticated and refined (or so I tell myself). Now I watch “series” instead of “soaps.” My new drugs of choice have not been on air since my Grandmother’s time, like many of the die hard “daytime dramas” as they are now called. But they still offer the same guilty pleasures, and once in a while I still learn something.
But if we peel back the layers of this onion, there’s really something more substantial here (at least for some of us). Why do we connect so deeply with the Tony Sopranos, the Meredith Greys, the Olivia Popes, or the Carrie Bradshaws? Why do we feel real feelings for these unreal characters?
Let’s take the shocking and untimely death of a main character from Grey’s Anatomy as an example . . .
He’s not a real person. And yet we grieve. We cry. We flail on the floor. We fantasize it may all just be a dream. We swear that life won’t be the same without McDreamy.
McDreamy is, of course, the brilliant, albeit fictional, neurosurgeon in the long-running ABC medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. We met him ten years ago in the pilot episode, and he wooed us early on with his trademark “It’s a beautiful day to save a life” (swoon, swoon). Undoubtedly, in the magical world of Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital, there are many characters to emulate and love-tough, smart and gritty Dr. Miranda Bailey, the pint-sized powerhouse who can stop interns in their tracks with just a look; sage, stoic but slightly vulnerable Dr. Richard Weber, who always seems to dispatch just the right grain of wisdom along with his medical acumen; and even the complicated, sometimes morose, but ever-competent Meredith. Surely we’d mourn the loss of each one. But McDreamy? Really? How could they take him away from us?
In the words of US Weekly, “There aren’t enough tissues in Seattle to handle all the tears that came during the two-hour Grey’s Anatomy episode that followed Derek Shepherd’s death.”
How does that happen after spending, at best, one hour a week-with summers and major holidays off-with him? How does that happen when he’s never really been there for us when we actually needed him? He hasn’t wiped any of our tears or held our hand when we needed it. In short, he has been fundamentally absent and self-absorbed, a character trait we wouldn’t tolerate in other friends and lovers.
TV series, like books, weave their way into popular culture and often take on cult-like followings. Whether you will admit it or not, I suspect that at one time or another (only once, in the distant past, of course, before you were enlightened and your tastes matured-say perhaps last Thursday night) you forfeited some kind of real human interaction because it was “that night of the week.” Or, if in all your technological sophistication you have recorded it for later consumption, you have ignored the phone, doorbell and pots over-boiling on the stove because you were bingeing. No, not you? Never? Well then, I guess this is about your neighbor or your girlfriend’s cousin. You can relate to this intellectually, then.
It’s not the first time writers have broken our hearts by killing off a main character we have come to know and love. There’s William Wallace in Braveheart, Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, Thelma & Louise, and of course, Romeo and Juliet, to name just a few. And just like that, life is not the same. It’s really all about character development-the holy grail of sorts.The little bit black box. A little je ne sais quoi. A lot of magic. If you have it mastered, the story can unfold like real life, which, of course, is what we are ultimately aiming for. Art imitating life imitating art imitating life. We forget that the characters are fictional and we create emotional bonds. We love them. We hate them. We love to hate them. But most importantly we feel some way about them-some way that is just like how we feel about the more real characters in our more real lives. We want to be Weber’s student or Bailey’s sidekick. And for the time period of suspended reality we can be. We are.
What Psychology Tells Us About Our Attachment to Characters
While strictly speaking, emotional attachment to fiction borders on delusion, we exercise a whole range of human emotions in a relatively safe context. The characters don’t have to be real for the emotions to be. It can be cathartic and even healing to work out your own emotions about an issue as small as petty jealousy or as big as death in an arena where you can hit the “off’ button. A space where you don’t always know and don’t control what’s coming, but you have the opportunity to step away if it is too intense-to, as Ellis Grey would say, stop that “carousel that never stops turning.”
As children we all loved stories, and many of us had imaginary friends-characters in narratives who worked out the issues that were important to us without placing us squarely in the hot seat. It gives us the ability to wrestle with complex and abstract constructs (mortality, ethics, the human condition) in concrete terms while still having the safety net of controlled disengagement.
The human brain is wired to want specific not abstract, so processing McDreamy’s death is in fact more real than just contemplating death in the philosophical sense. To fans, the loss of McDreamy is real, not hypothetical. Intellectual discussions about death make us think. McDreamy’s death made us feel. Both can be considered understanding, but in very different ways.
The human brain is wired to want sequential, not random. The whole process of brain development is about making connections. Learning is about forming associations. We want, in effect, a narrative, a story, a plot, albeit with twists and turns.
It’s just that when those twists and turns turn, as Meredith was once accused of being, “dark and twisty,” that we can find ourselves in a puddle of real tears all for the love of an un-real person.
R.I.P. McDreamy. I miss you.