“If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.” That’s been the battle-cry, the perennial response to objectionable TV. I don’t know exactly when it began: perhaps it dates back to TV’s earliest days, and the advent of the off/on switch, when someone was offended by Queen for a Day or Candid Camera. Whatever the case, it seemed to have gained its greatest traction during Tipper Gore’s lyrical examination and condemnation of rock and rap music in the ‘80s, which crossed over to the TV debate via MTV (which, by the way, was not exactly straight up censorship, though MTV, trying to cultivate a rebellious image, liked to act like it was.) Regardless of when it began,“If you don’t like it, don’t watch it,” as a supposedly viable solution to objectionable TV and its problems, is still very much with us.
First some background: God knows I have a high tolerance for cheesy “reality” TV. I loves me some Big Brother, Top Model, even a Real Housewives or two. My feeling is if adults want to starve themselves in the outback (Survivor); be made to do stupid stunts (Fear Factor); turn themselves into whores of either gender (The Bachelor/Bachelorette); or just generally humiliate themselves (any of the above) all for the chance at minimal fortune and even more minimal fame, that’s their decision. My objection comes (and forgive me as I become a bleeding heart) when kids get involved.
That’s why, of all the “reality” TV of the past 20 years, the one I thought was the worst was, surprisingly, a product of public television. PBS’s Frontier House, which aired in 2002, was America’s take on the British series 1900 House. It was entertaining and deeply educational. I also found it quite exploitative. Again, I didn’t care if adults wanted to live in the West, endure a frozen winter and starve like Chaplin in The Gold Rush, but I didn’t think these same adults should put their kids through it with them. Ditto my thoughts on the Saturday morning Survivor knock-off Moolah Beach, from 2001; the controversial, one-season CBS primetimer Kid Nation, which aired in 2007; and Toddlers and Tiaras, which began its reign of terror on TLC in 2009.
But my dander only really got up with the debut of Dance Moms on Lifetime in 2011. Now in its third wretched season, this allegedly unscripted series follows the students and mothers (or, better, victims) of “teacher” Abby Lee Miller at Miller’s dance studio in Pittsburgh, PA.
All of the so-called adults of Dance Moms are deplorable. The moms regularly subject themselves and their children to the bullying and nastiness of the school’s vindictive, abuser owner/founder Abby Miller. They scream at Miller, then they scream at each other and Miller (happily it seems) screams at them and at their kids. All gets forgiven and forgotten by the end of most episodes when the truly talented little girls win some “prestigious” dance competition. Apparently all the abuse in the world is okay as long as you get some cheap tin trophy at the end of the day.
Finally, after hate-watching it for a few weeks, I vented my outrage about the program on the show’s official website at Lifetime.com. Guess what I immediately got told?
“If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.”
Well, what did I expect?
“Don’t like it, don’t watch it,” is a very convenient and flippant answer. But it’s also a hollow one. It’s sort of like saying, “Well, if you don’t like murder, don’t commit one.” What “don’t like it, don’t watch it” is really asking is for any of us (all of us) to do is to turn a blind eye to something we find offensive, unethical or wrong. It’s the darkside of ABC’s What Would You Do?, where people sit passively and let someone steal, be racist, homophobic, or rude. And, as mentioned above, while it might be expedient, it’s not a solution.
Erudite broadcast scholar Dr. Mary Ann Watson of Eastern Michigan University has taken on this issue and its alleged quick fix. She compares the unrestrained, unfiltered airing of “anything goes” TV to second-hand smoke, toxins that get into the air and affect everyone around them, not just the smoker. Just as turning one’s head away from the smoke doesn’t alleviate its spread or clear up the atmosphere, turning off one’s TV does little to arrest the pollution of the cultural environment happening outside your front door or within society.
Watson’s is a skilled metaphor. The Jerry Springer Show has been on the air for 22 years. When it debuted, the sight of a fist-fight or shouting match on TV (Geraldo notwithstanding) was rare. Today, fisticuffs are the stock-in-trade of almost all reality shows from Lizard Lick Towing to MTV’s just-ended Jersey Shore to Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice. If our appetite for such violence has only increased, so has our tolerance of it.
Despite the recent or semi-recent flaps over Janet Jackson’s breast at the Super Bowl or Kathy Griffin pretending to pleasure Anderson Cooper on CNN this past New Year’s Eve, frankly, I wonder why we are not, collectively, more outraged, and more vocal, about some things we see on television. Television has always been labeled a “passive” medium. But have we, as an audience, become too passive, too accepting, of everything we see on it?
I fully understand, however, that in calling out things that are “offensive” on TV (or off of it) we are flirting with prejudice, First Amendment issues and even (very real) censorship. What is “offensive” to me, might not be offensive to you. To some, an interracial couple is offensive. To some, so is the sight of a gay couple. But toning down TV’s anger-for-the-sake-of-anger discourse? Putting a stop to shows where adults berate children? Surely there’s some common ground here we can all agree on.
Sometimes I think that the power to complain is the privilege and the price of living in America. Nothing—politically at least—these days seems proceed to without controversy. There are those who think “political correctness” has turned us into a nation of whiners and namby-pamby hyper-sensitives and that it has only further burdened our already near-crippling bureaucracy. But American society’s desire (clumsy though it may be at times) to move forward without overtly, carelessly offending anyone states something positive about the nation and what it stands for, namely an inclusiveness that harkens back to America’s vintage image of the “great melting pot.”
How we continue to go forth allowing for freedom of expression and artistic statement while at the same time attempting (even encouraging) people to call a halt to what they view as patently offensive, wrong, exploitative, demeaning and damaging is going to be a difficult path to navigate. But one thing’s for sure though, any balance we hope to achieve will not be achieved via denial or by turning off our TV or by sticking our heads into the sand.