It has happened to me again! I missed the red hot episode of Criminal Minds that has caused a Social Media frenzy. My Facebook newsfeed was inundated with statuses setting forth opinions on Wednesday night's episode of Criminal Minds that was supposedly set in Wheeling, WV. Several friends who had obviously not watched the episode, but had only heard about it, commented on how awesome it was that little Wheeling, WV was on this hit CBS show and how amazing it was that the Wheeling Police Department was mentioned. Other friends, who stuck out the duration of the grueling episode, were irritated and embarrassed by the inaccurate depiction of our city. So... again, I had to watch it. I logged on to CBS.com and watched the episode several hours after it aired to see what all this Facebook fuss was about.
For those of you, like myself, that missed the airing of the show, here is a summary of what you missed. The Criminal Minds episode titled "Blood Relations" began with the words OUTSIDE WHEELING, WV plastered across the TV screen, letting the viewers know that this episode was supposedly taking place in our city. The episode was wrought with horrific and gruesome murders that turned household, farm, and hunting accessories into murder weapons(barbed wire, bear traps, chains). The actors and actresses portraying the Wheeling natives spoke with heavy accents, wore flannel clothing and boots, lived on farms, and had a family history of incest. CBS wanted its viewers to think that the Wheeling natives made their money selling moonshine or making meth. The episode seemed to allude to the historical West Virginia feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys as it depicted the family dissention between the "Howards" and the "Lees." You may have even caught the subtle poke at the Wheeling natives' intelligence in the reference to the complaints and motions filed with nonsensical expletives. The killer in the episode was portrayed as a shirtless, overall wearing, psychopath who we learn is deformed as a result of his being conceived from incest relations when his mother was impregnated by her brother at the age of 16. He also keeps his "adoptive" dead mother on ice and possibly has sexual relations with her as well (necrophilia). Throughout the entire episode there seems to be a demeaning depiction of our city and its citizens.
What I wonder is whether the writers of the show did any research at all before depicting Wheeling and its citizens this way? Given the fact that I was born and raised in Wheeling, and saw absolutely no similarities between the depictions and the city itself, I have to assume that the huge TV network, CBS, and its show's writers, in fact, conducted no research and instead decided to depict this city based on the many stereotypes that West Virginia cities hold - uneducated, incestual, strong-accented farm hicks with no "real jobs." Sadly, not only is this depiction wrong, but it gives national viewers a very wrong and unrealistic view of our city. What is the harm in that? Consider this scenario...
Have you ever been curious when you watch TV shows and wondered whether the depictions of people or a profession are accurate? For those of you who were fans of the legal drama "Boston Legal" did you ever wonder whether we attorneys really sit on a balcony and drink expensive scotch and smoke cigars after a big case victory? How about those of you that watch the medical drama "Grey's Anatomy", do you find yourself curious to ask your doctor how realistic the cases and scenarios are that are depicted in the weekly episodes? If you are anything like me, you do. These depictions pique our curiosity regarding issues with which we are not familiar, or make us contemplate the culture of places where we have never been. Now, Criminal Minds has potentially piqued the curiosity of its viewers regarding the small town of Wheeling, WV. And even if it didn't make someone curious about the city, or confirm the state's stereotype, it certainly implanted in the minds of its viewers this depiction of the city and its citizens. What does this mean?
It means that when I travel and I meet new people and I say I am from Wheeling, WV these are the thoughts of me that cross people's minds. When you move away and apply for jobs in other states, this is the "picture" of you that your potential employers see. Or when my child applies to an out-of-state college and fills in his address as Wheeling, WV, this is the stereotype the Admissions Officer envisions and now my child has to overcome. Is it fair?
Could it be that this purely fictitious show was just running a compelling storyline designed to draw in viewers and impress them to watch the show more? Are we overly sensitive and overanalyzing this one show because of those bold letters -OUTSIDE WHEELING, WV that we saw within the first two minutes of the episode? Does CBS actually make such inaccurate depictions often and we never notice because it doesn't concern us, our profession, our city, or our lives? Stereotypes are oversimplified ways of characterizing groups of people based on the differences between them and other people. Some stereotypes are rooted in fact and others are rooted in prejudice. Stereotypes exist and will continue to exist as long as there are differences between individuals and a tendency of the human brain to compartmentalize knowledge as a way to reduce the effort used when thinking. Stereotypes play a huge part in writing fiction. Storytellers rely on stereotypes and play on them to make their writing a success. When writers use characters that fulfill a stereotype, it requires much less explanation and planning on their part, therefore leaving more time for the "story line." However, even among peers, writers are divided as to the use of stereotypes in their writing. Writer Junot Díaz has said about stereotypes that "they're sensual, cultural weapons. That's the way we attack people. At an artistic level, stereotypes are terrible writing."
Unfortunately, it is human nature to make stereotypes. The first time we meet a person, there are inevitably stereotypes about him or her from his appearance and mannerisms. In short, we stereotype him. But when we get to know him better, his individuality reveals itself and we realize he is a unique person who breaks the expectations of his stereotype in many ways. Those of us that live in Wheeling and agree that it is a laid-back, family-oriented community, with wonderful people, friendly children, intelligent businessmen and women, involved parents and a low crime rate, struggle with the inaccurate depiction of ourselves and our peers that CBS set forth in Wednesday night's Criminal Minds episode. Others may simply see the episode as a fictitious and entertaining story line of a hit CBS show. Either way, it is true that the writers played on a typical WV stereotype for the purpose of their show. We, as Wheeling, WV residents have two choices --- to live up to the stereotype or break it down. Myself, I am choosing the latter.
I am not a regular viewer of the show. Quite frankly, I only watched this episode because of all of the backlash it was receiving. As a lifelong resident, I can't help but think of the many wonderful things Wheeling has to offer: its gorgeous scenery and two local parks, its great schools and universities, the many lucrative, thriving businesses, and the historical significance of National Road. Wheeling is not a city plagued with murder and crime, but rather a fantastic place to raise children and start a family. CBS did not give us such a view of "The Friendly City", but rather, played on inaccurate and grossly negative stereotypes. Was this irresponsible of CBS? Was it distasteful and unnecessary to the storyline or show? Or are we overly sensitive to this episode because we are, in fact, Wheeling residents? I would love to hear the thoughts and comments of others on this.