I honestly think I have hit the wall when it comes to entertainment based on humiliation of the poor, the hungry, the lost, the hurt. There may be no media terrain where, despite our touting of the potential of new media and the progressive values they can promote, we so nakedly reveal our collective streak of cruelty, voyeurism, and condescension.
The programming premise is simple: One person’s custody fight, physical or sexual abuse, struggle with drugs or alcohol, or any other personal tragedy is now a commodity to be marketed, broadcast, rebroadcast, syndicated, transferred to DVD, and optioned for a film. It sometimes seems as if every time someone is suffering, the cameras and producers and distributors aren’t far behind, packaging the hurt into neat and entertaining episodes.
And talk about profit margins and production costs. Why pay Tori Spelling a dime for substandard acting when the world is literally filled with “talent” who will work for less than scale, i.e. nothing.: The teen street-walker crying on the sidewalk after being arrested on the Vegas strip. The single mother trying to find the man who deserted her. The seriously injured veteran trying to find a way to express his sexuality. The child at the center of a custody fight. The disabled. The obese. The sick. The poor. The addicted. Find them, film them, and – poof! – you’ve satiated the programming beast. And made a pretty penny to boot.
Now I know the cynical and cruel read on this kind of programming is that the people who take part do so willingly. They are, after all, adults who can competently consent to their own participation. “No one is being forced to do anything,” say the smug producers of the cultural atrocities and cruelty we have rebranded as reality-based programming.
Reality, huh? Spare me your self-serving rationalizations. As if these brief snippets and decontextualized images of suffering explain anything at all about the complex reality of these people’s lives, about the web of social institutions in which they are ensnared.
But the smug producers of Maury and Montel and Jerry have yet another retort: “Everybody signs releases. They know what they are getting into. They know that the results of their paternity test will announced on the Maury Povich show. They know that their reunion with a long-lost parent or child will be seen by millions. We don’t force them to do anything.”
Horse dung. These broadcast atrocities are notorious for offering all manner of perks and hotel rooms and limousines and trips to New York if only that couple from the Memphis trailer park or Chicago housing project (two very popular reality-programming sterotypes) will agree to bring their abusive relationship out of the shadows and onto the freak-show of syndicated television.
And what about this so-called consent? Will someone please tell me how a young unemployed man or woman trapped in a web of brutal life circumstances, someone who lives in a society in which being on television is validation of one’s humanity, is supposed to give informed consent? What do you expect them to do when some sleazy thirty-something producer show ups on their doorstep and offers them a trip to New York.
Consider the position in which they find themselves. Every life chance has been stripped away, every self-destructive and illicit source of income has been exhausted, children have been lost to a broken foster care system, women have been battered, men have been imprisoned. And right at the last minute, at the edge of the social cliff, we offer them a lifeline, a system of cultural production where they can sell us their sadness and their stories of deprivation.
The only thing more pathetic is the embarrassing fact that we the audience are co-conspirators. Producers can package and commodify to their heart’s content, but the whole machine only moves when we buy, when we watch. We might watch from a condescending perch, making fun of the whole sideshow. We might even lie and say we never watch. We may even come up with some lofty and phony excuses about how “Cops” is an important way we learn about the criminal justice system.
But not even for a moment do we consider the possibility that in sitting back and transforming one person’s tragedy into our recreation, we just might be the legitimate heirs to those who went to the Bronx Zoo to gawk at Ota Benga or who visited Cuvier’s lab to stare at formaldehyde-filled jars containing the remains of the Venus Hottentot.
And we watch.