November 14, 2012

Trafficking in human misery

Back in the day, there was a show called Strike It Rich. If you’ve never seen it, the basic premise was to see how miserable someone’s life might be and how much that person might be able to get for it.

That’s a simplification perhaps, but not by much. Strike It Rich, which started on radio in 1947 and made the move to TV in 1951, featured contestants (or their proxies) who would come on the show and tell of the heartbreak they were currently experiencing. Their sob stories might run the gamut from a crippled child to chronic illness to broken-down appliances to financial misfortune.

The "contestants" would be asked questions - it was, after all, a quiz show - but the questions were easy, and most people on the show were "winners."  But if they didn't get the question right, there was still the "Heart Line."  "After they told their tale of woe, emcee [Warren] Hull would open up the telephone lines and ask viewers to pitch in what they could."  And the audience would deliver, often thousands of dollars, not to mention clothes, medical equipment, and other kinds of gifts.

Of course, the supply of  desperate people far outweighed the demand of the show's producers for contestants, probably a ratio of about 5,000 to 1.  Many critics accused the show of choosing contestants based on those thought to have the "most interesting tales of woe.  Some people spent what little money they had on transportation to New York, where the show was broadcast, only to be turned away, and have to turn to the Salvation Army for money to get back home.  The show was, in the words of television historians Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, "one of the most sickening spectacles ever seen on a TV screen, exploiting those same unfortunates for the vicarious thrill of viewers and the selfish gain of advertisers."  TV Guide called it "a despicable travesty on the very nature of charity."  The head of the Travelers' Aid Society remarked, "Putting human misery on display can hardly be called right."  Despite the controversy, however, the show was popular and the ratings were good, and it continued on until dying a natural death in 1958.

I thought about this show the other day, when at lunch some colleagues of mine brought up Honey Boo Boo. Now, I’m probably dating myself by saying that when I hear the name Boo Boo, the first thing I think of is Yogi Bear. But I had some vague knowledge that his had something to do with reality TV, so I sat back to listen to the conversation in hopes of educating myself.

Considering where I fall on the hipness scale, you probably already know about Honey Boo Boo and Toddlers and Tiaras and the whole trailer trash scene. But if you don’t, here’s a thumbnail description of “the Boo Boo clan” from Betsy Woodruff at NRO:

She and her three sisters have four different fathers. Her mother, who weighs more than 300 pounds, says that farting 12 to 15 times a day helps you lose weight. And Alana’s niece, whose birth was celebrated in one episode, has a teenage mother and three thumbs (Alana’s reaction: “I wish I had an extra finger, then I could grab more cheese balls!”).

A lot of people enjoy this program; a lot of people are disgusted by it, and some people look at it as one of the signs of the upcoming apocalypse. But what does this all mean? How should we feel about it? How should I feel about it?

Now it’s a fact that many people of modest means are mocked by the prevailing culture for the lifestyle they enjoy, the idea being not only that they live a “trailer trash” kind of life, but that they’re so stupid they don’t even know that they aren’t supposed to be having fun living like that. Maybe it’s not that they’re mocked: it’s more like they’re pitied. It’s rather like the Pharisee whose prayer of thanksgiving was “I thank thee, God, that I am not like the rest of men.”*

*Luke 18:11.

At the same time, I’m not at all sure that this kind of lifestyle is something that someone should be proud of. Now, having said this, I should hasten to add that I don’t know for a fact that this family is proud of their lifestyle; they may well figure that what’s past is past, and there’s no sense in agonizing over something you can’t change. But there is the truth that reality TV generally exists for three purposes: to condone behavior, to condemn behavior, and to entertain the audience while doing so. I’m not sure whether Honey Boo Boo condones or condemns, but I am uncomfortable that, either way, we’re expected to be entertained by it.

I mean, what are the expectations for me as the viewer?* Am I supposed to think that there’s nothing wrong with the lifestyle of this family? Or is it all some kind of post-modernist ironic humor that depends on the realization that the audience is in on the joke but those poor dumb lummoxes on the show aren’t? Are we laughing with them or at them?

*The well-known “Method Watching” style – what is my motivation?

Generally, I don’t think stupidity in real life is particular funny. So if that’s what the makers of this show expect from me, I don’t buy it. On the other hand, I don’t think I’m up to laughing with these folks either. I don’t need to sit in judgment of them to say that their situation simply isn’t funny.

My sense, though, is that there is something pathetic about them – about the whole Toddlers and Tiaras crew, for that matter. I don’t condemn them, I don’t pity them, I don’t laugh at or with them. I do have compassion for them, that perhaps there’s more to life than what they know. You watch these people and you think to yourself, “they just don’t have a chance.” You get the sense that there is something miserable about the way these people live, and that deep down they know it, but since it brings them fame and fortune, they’re prisoners of it.*

*So I don’t condemn them. I do, however, have nothing but scorn and contempt for TLC, which used to be a reputable network – The Learning Channel – before descending into this crap. Lord knows what audiences are supposed to be learning.

Programs like this – like Strike It Rich, in fact – have been around since the dawn of television, or at least shortly afterward. So this show, and its success, shouldn’t surprise us. “You don’t have to like the show,” Woodruff concludes, adding that she herself doesn’t. “But you don’t have to panic either.”

So it’s not the end of the world after all. But it’s also not entertainment. Trafficking in human misery never is.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!