Generalizations = Trouble
“Friday Night Lights” is a drama television show centered around a high school football team that is the heart and soul of a small town in Texas. In season one episode 15, after a crucial playoff win, everything goes wrong when the offensive coordinator Mac McGill is interviewed and makes some racial comments involving the football players. The story is blown up into epic proportions and race issues emerge amongst the entire town, depicting the community’s ideologies towards racism. The football team becomes divided and arguments ensue between white and black students. The director Peter Berg effectively uses the rhetorical devices of pathos and ethos to connect with the audience and make the argument that making generalizations about specific races can be detrimental to en entire community.
Pathos, or the appeal to emotion, is utilized throughout the entire episode in order to trigger an emotional response with the audience. When Coach Mac uses the words “junkyard dogs” to refer to the black players on the football team, a feeling of uneasiness ensues with the viewers. The coach goes on to say that “guys like Smash (a black running back) are fearless, but aren’t quite equipped to play a position like quarterback”(FNL). By saying this, he insinuates that black people are not intelligent enough to play quarterback and should rather use their abilities to play positions that only require speed, strength, and relentlessness. In this specific interview scene, the purpose is to develop a negative tone that repulses the viewer. Coach Mac does just that through his racist comments as he potentially angers the African American audience. H.I. Marrou puts it best in his book Rhetoric and Modern Students when stating that “audiences inevitably bring their ideologies, their linguistic abilities, and their understandings of local rhetorical contexts to any reading they do” (Marrou 14). In other words, audiences automatically form their own opinions, based on what they see or read, and this is usually skewed by the author/director to get his or her message across. An appeal to pathos causes an audience not just to respond emotionally but to identify with the writer’s point of view as well.
When analyzing the audience of a work, the genre plays a big role. “Genres are used to fulfill the purposes of specific groups in specific contexts. We are surrounded by genres all the time,”(Minnix 119) as author Christopher Minnix writes in his book Writing Public Lives. In this case, the genre is a drama. Or, more specifically, “Friday Night Lights” can be considered a family, teen, and sports drama. The target audience is families who have time to watch the episodes at the 9 p.m. time slot on Fox. The audience could also be young people (ages 16- 30) who either play football or played at some point in their lives that can relate to high school football and use the show to reminisce about the past. In this specific episode, one could say that the writers of the show are also targeting African Americans and those who have strong views on racism.
The audience is targeted by stimulating an emotional response, and one’s emotion is evoked by an image. If the image created by the audience, or in the case of a television show viewed by the audience, is positive and comforting, then the audience is drawn towards the show to an extent, but there is no “drama” or action that truly grabs one’s attention. However, in “Friday Night Lights,” the image that is created repulses the audience, which engages the audience and ultimately allows the viewers to become interested in the topic introduced. During the show, there are many altercations between whites and blacks in the high school. One example of this is when Tammy, the High School counselor, opens up a forum in which people can come out and say what is on their minds about the issues surrounding the football team. After a few people speak, arguing and fighting ensues between the two different races. This draws the audience’s attention to the topic at hand. In order to enhance their argument, the writers of the show use the emotional response of Smash Williams to appeal to the audience. Smash is shown in his room jumping up and down and overcome with rage, jamming out to hardcore rap after having a conversation that did not turn out well with Coach Mac.
Subsequently, Smash talks to the black players on the team persuading them to not play until Coach Mac is fired. Sure enough, the next time they take the field, the black players refuse to practice. This is just another representation of how stereotypes and racism accomplish nothing and do not contribute to the greater good of a community. This leads to another appeal that overlaps with Pathos in the show, called Ethos.
Ethos, an ethical appeal, is utilized in order to describe the guiding ideals that distinguish a certain community or ideology. (Aristotle) Our society’s ideology, or system of beliefs, tends to generalize different types of people through stereotypes that have been created over time. For example, one might say that all white people enjoy reading The Onion, or that all black people love eating watermelon. Christian Lander, creator of the website “Stuff White People Like,” states that “because white tastes in shoes can change so quickly, it’s not recommended that you ever talk to a white person about shoes” (SWPL). These statements, although may be true for many people, is not necessarily the “norm” for the entire population of a specific race. In “Friday Night Lights,” Coach Mac makes the declaration that black people are better athletes, while whites are better thinkers and should play positions suited to more intelligence. In today’s society, racism towards African Americans is an extremely sensitive issue due to its past with slavery and people have acquired strong ideologies about it. As H.I. Marrou puts it, ideologies are the way people use and interpret facts. People need ideologies to makes sense of their experiences” (Marrou 6). After Mac’s comments, the entire town is up in arms about it and even the radio stations are talking about it. Racism is obviously a touchy subject and one cannot disagree with the fact that it does exist. As one student in “Friday Night Lights” puts it, “people can’t act like racism doesn’t exist” in reference to coach Mac’s racist comments.
In the show, an example of someone who has a lot of “ethos” is Tammy, the counselor who held the meeting for the kids to speak and listen to eachothers thoughts in order to resolve any arguments among the kids. She feels the moral obligation to solve the issues of racism and prejudice within the community. On the other hand, Coach Mac is an example of someone with very little ethos, or at least is portrayed this way in the show. Coach Mac does not demonstrate a whole lot of ethics by blabbing his mouth to the reporters and not thinking before he speaks. In addition, when the football player Smash Williams went to speak to Mac about the issue, he brushed him off and told him that he didn’t want to him, and that if he says one more word he would bench him. H.I. Marrou states that “ethics refers to standards of conduct or the use of moral judgment. When I used terms like responsibility and obligation, I was using terms drawn from ethics, which describes how people ought to behave” (Marrou 10). Coach Mac clearly does not meet the standards of conduct for how a coach should act and does not use moral judgment when speaking of things that may upset others. Even if his words were taken out of context and he was not trying to be racist, the way he presented his thoughts and the specific words he used, such as “junkyard dogs” and “guys like Smash….” had a negative connotation on his personality and views towards race.
The context in this situation plays an important part role in understanding the entire meaning of the piece of work. This is because if one were to just overhear Coach Mac’s words, it would sound much worse. But if one knew about all the events leading up to the statement and who the players were, then certainly his words would seem to make more sense. However, even if it is technically correct that some players are not suited to play certain positions based on their abilities, it still does not make it ethically correct for him to say something like that, especially when dealing with race. Coach Mac clearly does not take the right ethical approach (ethos) to this, thus stimulating the emotions of the other characters in the show and the audience. The writers of the show use Mac’s actions to get the audience emotionally involved in the scene, combining both the appeals of pathos and ethos.
The overlap of these appeals in the show is to display how these two devices can work together to achieve the writer’s message. By examining the ethics in certain characters, the show utilizes the other supporting characters that are affected and how they respond emotionally to the issues in the different scenes. The audience becomes attached to the storyline and they begin to develop their own emotional views, which is the writer’s way of promoting his or her view to the audience. Aristotle confirms this by stating that all appeals in a piece of work are “used to persuade and enhance and argument” (Aristotle 8). In the case of “Friday Night Lights,” the audience is led to believe that when making general statements about specific races, only harm is done. When the topic of racism is brought up, tensions are raised and drama unfolds. Fights break out between the two different races and the football team ultimately becomes divided. “Friday Night Lights” is a representation of the racism in society as is represented in the aftermath of the Coach Mac interview, in which all hell breaks loose in the community of small town Dillon, Texas.
The narrative ends with this note in its order of sequencing in order to transmit its message of the effects of generalizations about race. On the other hand, the narrative begins on a good note when the football wins the football game in order to ease into the drama. In addition, in between the fights and arguments, a lighthearted powderpuff football game takes place, which is utilized as a “break in the action” in the drama’s chronological order of sequencing.
This episode of “Friday Night Lights” is an exceptional representation of rhetoric in a television drama. The entire premise of the episode is to persuade the audience that it is not right to make generalizations about specific types of people. It only results in people taking offense, which leads to arguments and at times violence, as depicted in the drama. The writers/director of the television gets this point across using the two rhetorical devises of pathos and ethos simultaneously in a way that engages the audience.
Aristotle, W. Rhys. Roberts, and Ingram Bywater. Aristotle: Rhetoric. New York: Modern
Library, 1954. Print.
Berg, Peter, dir. Friday Night Lights. NBC. 7 Feb. 2007. Television.
Lander, Christian. “Stuff White People Like.” Stuff White People Like RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 12
Marrou, Henri-Irénée. Ancient Rhetorics And Modern Students. Don Mills, Ontario: Macmillian
College Publishing Company, 1994.
Minnix, Christopher, and Carol Nowotny-Young. Writing Public Lives: From Personal
Interests to Public Rhetoric. Plymouth, MI: Hayden McNeil, 2010. Print.
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