I Know How You Feel, I Really Do!

“To me, if you’re interested in questions of exploring issues around what America is, where we are and where we’re going, you need to be asking those questions in the context of race…We thought this could be pretty remarkable, fertile ground for storytelling.”
— R.J. Cutler, co-creator of FX series Black.White.

In today’s television climate, it seems that people are becoming less and less content with their own “privilege” and are ready for some “oppression swapping”: living within the confines of marginalized populations in society albeit if just for a little while. The ability to hijack oppression is indeed an advantage of having “societal privilege” which includes, among other things, the ability to live vicariously through another person’s reality while being able to retreat back into one’s own shroud of advantage when it’s all over.

Take for example when Tyra Banks put on a “350 pound fat suit” for a November 2005 installment of her talk show. She wanted to see, and expose first hand, the taunts and exploitation that overweight individuals face everyday in American society. As an overweight person, Tyra ventured into clothing stores amid snickers and cold stares and faced immediate rudeness as she went on three blind dates. “It just was heartbreaking, because it was so in-your-face. You know, it was so in my face. And I’m, like, I couldn`t believe it” Tyra exclaims.

Tyra, like many others who oppression swap, may have had good intentions when she set about to expose sizeism, but then again, isn’t the road to hell paved with said motives? Tyra is one of the fashion industry’s most visible (former) supermodels, who operates her life within the spectacle of “beauty privilege”. By donning the fat suit, she takes on the pre-requisite condescension and superiority of those who “oppression swap” in her quest to “validate” the experiences of overweight people — if only for one hour in one show. Of course, she then gets to take off the suit and go back to being gorgeous.

Morgan Spurlock (director of the widely acclaimed documentary Super Size Me) took a similar approach for his FX show 30 Days. A six-part television experiment that was one part documentary and one part reality TV, each episode allowed a person to live for the title timeframe in a situation, and experience a culture completely antithetical to his or her own. Over the course of the series, we saw: a Christian living with a Muslim family; a homophobe living within a homosexual community; two 30-year-old professionals (who ravenously consume fossils fuels) at an eco-village, learning to live off the land; and a mother, concerned about her daughter’s intake of alcohol, binge drinking herself. For the first episode, Spurlock and his girlfriend Alex took a vacation into other people’s hardship, by literally spending a month trying to survive on minimum wage. With no savings, Morgan and Alex couldn’t afford a deposit on a decent apartment so they ended up living in a vermin infested place above a former crack house.

“Home sweet hovel,” Alex mused after a hellish day of work at a local coffee shop where she received tips from absolutely no one. She walked home in order to save the bus money, and dinner consisted of a can of beans and some crackers that she’d stolen from her job. Morgan got up at the crack of dawn for his construction job, and took home a measly $44 for 11 hours of hard physical labor. He was so unaccustomed to the rigors of construction work that he injured himself. But because the pair had no health insurance, the medical bills threatened to upset their fragile income and lead them towards the abyss of bankruptcy.

Oddly enough, it all felt very much like what The Simple Life (which is a great example of oppression swapping) was trying to do, albeit in a much smarter manner. Morgan and Alex approached their task earnestly and honestly, and were ultimately crushed by the enormity of it all. The Simple Life, on the other hand, found the producers encouraging spoiled socialites Nicole Ritchie and Paris Hilton to wreak havoc on the poor people they stayed with, completely condescending to their way of life. Instead of making them adjust to the limits and deprivations of working class people, the powers behind the scenes of the show encouraged them to be their callous and clueless selves.

I admire what Alex and Morgan tried to do; that is, expose the hardships of the working poor in American society. In a sense, the episode is commendable in that Spurlock exemplified the actual difficulty of living off of minimum wage and having no health care. But was Spurlock truly philanthropic in his quest to expose the problems of the American working class? Let’s examine this overall scenario more closely. No doubt Spurlock maintained a sense of social justice throughout his ordeal, but the experience was framed within the exorbitant paychecks, kudos, and the ultimate acknowledgement, — a stint on Oprah — that he received as a result of it.

This sort of thing has been done time and time again in various forms of entertainment media. In Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s New York Times bestseller Random Family, she recounts the tumultuous cycle of abuse and poverty in the lives of two Puerto Rican girls from the Bronx. Jennifer Dworkin’s documentary, Love and Diane, tells a similar story of a devastating cycle of poverty, drugs, and disease in an African American family in New York.

Both works exhibit the hardship of the people in them, exposing the harsh realities of their lives, yet the only people who seem to benefit from this exposure are the creators of these works. Both Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s and Jennifer Dworkin’s careers have skyrocketed, but the subjects of their book and film, respectively, are still caught inside the maddeningly vicious cycle of need, abuse, poverty, prison, and illness. Likewise, Morgan and Alex were able to jump out of their minimum wage lives after 30 Days and reap the financial benefit of the series (it was just renewed for a second season, and a DVD is coming soon) while those who live on minimum wage continue to do so.

But perhaps the most abrasive example of this idea is FX ‘s recent six-part series entitled Black.White. An overly ambitious project, the show’s premise took the Sparks, a black family from Atlanta and put them in “whiteface” while the Wurgels, a Caucasian California crew, were placed in “blackface”. Each family then experienced life as the other race as they lived together in a house in the San Fernando Valley. Created by Ice Cube and R.J. Cutler (known for his documentary War Room), the show strove to have its heart in the right place. But the series is fatally flawed and conspicuously contrived, as if dressing up like another race can alleviate or even tap into the racial strife that is still very much alive in America.

The show was filled with many disturbing moments, like the time when the Sparks (in “white” mode) sat in on a focus group and witnessed a white man confessing to a deep urge to wash his hands anytime he comes in contact with a black person. Or the time Nick, the Spark’s son, revealed his true race to his unwitting white friends, and then playfully allowed them to use the n-word in his presence. Can one really experience Blackness (or Whiteness, for that matter) merely by makeup? While the intent of the show may be laudatory, its end result did nothing more than illustrate the primary flaws of the show.

The big question then is: why? What is the obsession with hijacking oppression? Is this just the latest money making craze in reality TV or documentary? Or is there more to it? What will they think of next? Find random people to dress up like an Arabs and attempt to get them through airport security? The fundamental problem with oppression hijacking is that those who participate in it assert authority and false empathy over the subject matter while supposedly experiencing the way the “other half” lives.

But this experience is, by its very nature, artificial for several reasons. First, it’s being done in front of a national (and in some cases international) audience for all to see… and eventually praise. It is also framed within a context where the participating party knows that he or she will only have to deal with this “inconvenience” for a short period of time. Finally, the oppression hijacker interacts very superficially, if at all, with people who are actually in the marginalized position. The stories of the down and disenfranchised are re-told through the voices of the privileged. But such sentiments are just re-packaged reactions. They are intended to give the cause more authenticity and make it more probative. It was Napoleon Bonaparte who once said, “Among those who dislike oppression are many who like to oppress.” When looking at this reality TV trend, I think he may have been on to something.