[5 May 2004]
I’m on the brink of leaving television behind forever. It’s been a long time coming and perhaps I should have done it sooner. But like just about everyone in America I’m a TV junky and I’ve had to wean myself off gradually, using my inner nun to punish those times when, rather than do something productive or meaningful, I plopped down for a night of the dead ecstasy of a flickering inanities. I honestly believe it used to be a much less guilty pleasure. When I think of the naivete and comparative rebelliousness of shows like The Dukes of Hazard, I can’t help but become one of those disgusting people pining for a golden era that may or may not have existed. One thing is for certain: television has become an endless field of Sadean cruelty; a bloodied public altar where people sacrifice their privacy and decency for a sick shot at ephemeral fulfillment. In short, it’s coming for us.
When reality television first began to crop up with dandelion tenacity, I had a moment of utopian hope. In principle, it seemed like a rejection of the star system, a popular revolt against the cult of the celebrity by people who’d collectively snapped out of their pagan worship of all those shiny wads of aluminum foil in Hollywood. I’ve always considered the whole system of celebrity to be some crude tribal ritual whereby chosen people are lavished with the resources and adoration we all want but can’t have before we carry them to the lip of the volcano and hope that their public destruction will make the fates a bit kinder to each of us. They’re like Greek Gods who are one step removed from ordinary life, moving among us with a vague, transcendent glow, but plagued with human flaws that they wear like small children’s bones turned into jewelry.
A teensy, impish part of me hoped that reality television would end up being some kind of entertainment apocalypse that the democratization of fame would lead to its collapse. I dreamed that we would be sitting around watching our own lives on the flickering box and then it would dawn on us how much of our existence we waste in front of a yawning tool of sating stupidity. That it might occur to us that all that television seems to do is generate a perpetual void a phony litany of inadequacies that can only be healed with consuming products that you previously hadn’t realized were so crucial to your happiness. Now, with pharmaceutical companies free to whore out the latest in neurological tinkering we’re even bombarded with a new era of pathologizing the wholly normal and justified. “Ever feel uncomfortable around other humans? You’re fucked up, man, you need some drugs and you’ll need to take them for the rest of your life so that our executives can afford to use the word ‘summer’ as a verb.”
But any radicalizing potential that could have emerged from reality television was quickly quashed when marketers realized that people truly are dumb enough to be sold what they already have. The star system has in fact exploded, making it’s senselessness much more bold and shameless. You become famous now simply by being on the television in what capacity, it matters little. Whether you sucked the ex-President’s cock or simply sold your every last shred of dignity to have American touchtone vote a spouse for you, we ingest our newly-breeding celebrity culture at a rate that makes crack seem homeopathic.
I came to these realizations while having the misfortune of watching both The Swan and MTV’s I Want A Famous Face. The Swan seems to be the more evil of the two shows, though perhaps this is one of those moral arguments that’s academically cute, like figuring out whether Hitler or Stalin was a bigger asshole. The Swan is a greater feminist nightmare than Republican women who crusade for the right of inferiority. There’s no philosophical equivocation on The Swan, no moment when cooler heads prevail to suggest that maybe, just maybe, these women are beautiful in their own right, at worst needing a trip to the gym and a few items of clothing that aren’t sweat pants. No, on The Swan it’s straight to cut-rate surgeons who find tons “wrong” with these women several areas that could stand to be sucked out, sawed off, or ground down. After judging their natural physiques defective in reference to some implicit Platonic ideal snipering in the periphery, these women get treated to further ego brutality by being pitted against one another in a beauty competition. Basically, the show’s goal seems to be creating women whose psyches are so potholed by the show’s scalpel-imposed beauty cages that they will probably spend the rest of their lives between surgeries.
MTV (or the network formerly known to play music) has minted its own youth-oriented version of the body mangling fad. It’s hard not to find this show a little insidious for taking advantage of young people who are hit particularly hard by shallow social hierarchies that ostracize other people based on how they look, how “cool” they are, or how much money their families have. It’s a particularly Lord of the Flies period that, if you survive, you look back upon in total bafflement, especially at the melodramatic molehills that comprised many of your waking hours. I used to believe that MTV had a plucky, smart-assed counter-cultural edge, epitomized by Kurt Loder’s dour, bemused delivery of the “news”. But this show is the apotheosis of conformity and the death of anything that could be considered social bravery or the virtues of rock n’ roll bravado. After all, these people don’t even want to look beautiful in some way that would maximize their intrinsic physical attributes, they simply want to be shoddy facsmilies of safe, saccharine, shitty pop celebrities many of whom are probably only weeks away from a VH-1 Where are they now? episode. If Janis Joplin were alive today she’s be getting botox referrals from Courtney Love.
Plastic surgery used to be something dirty and hidden, a product of cancerous vanity akin to pedophilia in its sick unnaturalness. Celebrities vigorously denied their morphing, expecting us to believe that yoga and kabala had magically rearranged their faces. That it now has a marketing vehicle in reality television is one of the most disturbing developments in the history of television. That people seem so cow-eyed about this ghastly new low has as much to do with television’s sensory-dulling as it does our collective apathy toward other people’s suffering. Why say anything when it passes the time so deliciously?
That there are people with medical degrees willing to perpetuate the idea that it’s quite alright to go get your skull shaved so that you can look like Christy Turlington speaks volumes about the ethical depth of the profession. Why hasn’t the American Medical Association condemned the dark arts of its most bottom-feeding specialty, plastic surgery? I’m not saying that burn victims or people born with serious deformities shouldn’t have reconstructive surgery done to make them comfortable with their lives. But that’s an order of magnitude removed from running a televised carny booth advocating that people butcher themselves because they stumble a flattering J Lo ass shot in People. I can’t decide anymore if, collectively, we’re bigger dipshits or sick fucks. I’m leaning toward sick fucks.
There was a time when television’s greatest harm was its subtle messages of emptiness and herd banality, pestering us with images of families that didn’t exist and prodding us to buy expensive things in order to make us more likely to get laid. Now, it wants you under the knife, indulging every petty masochistic moment of self-loathing you’ve ever had, even if it endangers your health and life in the process. It’s increasingly hard to find television programs that don’t exploit ordinary suckers and implicate us in voyeuristic violence. It was only a matter of time before our Frankenstein creation came back for a piece of its creator. Like Old Yeller, despite our love for the suckled glow of the boob tube, it’s time to take it out behind the woodshed and put a bullet in it for the love of God, Country, and the pursuit of a life where fame and infamy aren’t the only reasons for existence.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/sawyer040505/