Saturday, July 03, 2010


There is a thirst for the fantastical to entertain and divert. We have a long history of wanting to know more about, but mostly just clap our eyes on, the weird and wondrous. We have P.T.Barnum's freak show acts and other famous people with unusual attributes that made their 'fortune' by displaying their 'talents'. They are called Human Marvels by one website, which is peculiarly generous and detailed in its cataloguing of these persons. Is is censure or celebration to remark on their stories like this?

Today we have Big Brother and other reality TV shows that focus on people, who may not be deformed or disturbed, but are definitely unusual in their desire to be made infamous by having their personal, private selves gawked at by all and sundry. Their fame is rarely one of support and positive appreciation; they are generally reviled and pilloried for putting themselves out there, up on a pedestal, expecting to be adored, or at the very least liked, and instead they are heckled and torn down for making a show of themselves and thinking themselves more interesting than the rest of us. In fact, if these modern fools are providing rich entertainment which wouldn't be available without their consent.

Non-consenting people still have to ultimately agree; Candid Camera and Punk'd (with the eponymous Ashton Kutcher) still have to get release forms to agree that the images and film may be used for commercial purposes. The only ones allowed to take photographs and movie now and not ask permission are the neo-Gonzo journalists, who are blogging and putting their work on Vimeo and YouTube. Citizen journalism is all the rage, but is it helping with debate or informing us of news?

Still further there are the shows that are not just entertainment, people straining for stardom. there are shows that purport to help. Let us fix your failing marriage/botched DIY/crumbling business/uncontrollable children/crappy eating habits/terrible fashion sense/wonky nose! Let us film it and your emotional rollercoaster ride, then let us put it on TV, sell adverts in between 13minute segments and maybe sell the series on internationally if we get the ratings! It will be free, or at least you'll get travel expenses, or we'll make sure you realise that this is your one-off chance at a cure/answer and if you don't want to be part of the TV programme, we'll take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and give it to someone else!

Emotional blackmail much?

Who are they targetting in their participant recruitment? The poor, the ill-educated, the substance abusers? Do they seek out the ugliest, fattest people with alcohol/nicotine/drug addictions, who do too much eating and too little exercise? Who would be their ideal subject? Incest-survivor who is heroin-addicted with bratty child by artificial insemination, being dumped by their ethnic-minority partner, thusly losing their home and needing a fashion makeover to help with their enormous belly?

How many times in the shows do you see someone and think, "that could be me"? I hardly ever identify with any of the participants. I am thusly seeing them as 'others'. I am therefore forced to think that the conditions or situations that make their cases televisually interesting are therefore unique to people not like me. Is it that if the idea of someone like me had to face these problems it would be too distressing, too close to home? Are we deliberately making these unusual situations worse by labelling those involved as exotic or somehow other than me? Do the participants realise that they are being invited to be on the show because they are weirder than other people? How are these researchers selling the idea? Do they think they are raising awareness of these problems and thereby maybe raising money for the cause? Will their lives improve my nationally explaining the situation and making people less likely to stare and be less cruel? Wont the focus be on them more from them making themselves more widely known? Will their attitude to the situation change from being one of disadvantage to making them think they are somehow special? Will that make them less accepted in their own communities? 'I had a telly show made about my bad foot, so please excuse me cutting the queue in the supermarket and yes, I don't mind switching in the Christmas lights in Middling-on-Sea'.

How self-aware are these participants in putting themselves on display? Do they have a choice? Like, PT Barnum's circus folk, could they make a living, a life any other way? Could the fixative promised be gained any other way?

Even media that is supposedly totally news oriented are becoming opinion providers and gossipers. For commercial success or even just survival, newspapers are having to concentrate on that which titillates and that which cannot be gotten elsewhere more easily or cheaply - namely celebrity updates. Wired explains the situation with clarity but the matter is all the more alarming for its frankness - we are being directed to being consumers of tat and there isn't much we can do about that.

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