MTV’s New Post-modern Voyeurism

“It’s fun to be a bitch, especially when you have your friends backing you up!”
— Bjorn, “My Super Sweet 16”

“Yo momma’s like an SUV — big, black and room for six construction workers inside”
— Harp, contestant from “Yo Momma”

MTV and I are only a year apart. In essence, we grew up together. I was privy to its various stages of growth: its initial awkwardness, succeeding popularity and eventually, its ubiquity. MTV is no longer just a channel; it has become a brand, a culture, a specific way of life (in fact my peers and I are often referred to as the “MTV Generation”). MTV culture is at once all-encompassing yet grounded in specificity, rooting itself in values that espouse to commercialism, youth in perpetuity, image, and self-indulgence. Over its 25 year history, MTV has morphed repeatedly, initially being almost exclusively about music and videos. Now both have ventured into the periphery as the channel focuses more now on original programming, most notably reality TV like The Real World, Tiara Girls, Date My Mom and Pimp My Ride.

Two of its most eerily fascinating shows happen to be My Super Sweet 16 and Yo Momma. The basis of My Super Sweet 16 is simple. Each episode focuses on the coming of age extravaganza staged for a young girl or boy of wealthy parents. The show, just completing its third season, follows the privileged teen around as they meticulously plan every detail of their extraordinary (and often times outlandish) party, which on average costs around $200,000. Cashing in on a simple yet incredibly successful formula, the show adheres to the following clear dictates:

(1) We are introduced to the teen as they make plans for their extravaganza which includes finding the venue (e.g., reserving the mall for an impromptu fashion show in his honor, using one of daddy’s nightclubs as the venue for the party, etc.), creating a theme for the party which can center around a culture (e.g., Egyptian), color (e.g., pink) or attire (e.g., togas), and having daddy and mommy pay for it all.

(2) The invitations are delivered publicly and the teen makes a huge production of not only who gets invited but who is left out.

(3) Conflict emerges — a performer cannot come to the party, the teen finds out they are not getting a car, they can’t get the outfit they want, etc.

(4) The teen has a hissy fit.

(5) The teen is presented with a car (or two) to the dual envy and desire of their peers in attendance.

(6) The party is a huge success.

So is the show. My Super Sweet 16 succeeds in large part due a new sort of post-modern voyeurism. It’s a craven concept of the culture that, depending on your point of view, MTV has influenced or America has created and MTV has merely picked up on. It’s a mindset that has as much to do with the obsession with class and the individual as it does with being conspicuous in flaunting both as outrageously as possible. As Ann Marie Cox asserts in her 24, April 2006 Time Magazine article, “Their blingy flings are not celebrations of accomplishment; they’re celebrations of self”.

It all begins with the viewer — the voyeur — watching the spectacle. In the case of My Super Sweet 16, the subject is the teen, creating a self-fulfilling fantasy in the name of conspicuous consumption. The extravagance is used to become the envy of his or her peers, town, and essentially the nation. The individual of wealth invites her/his classmates (and essentially all of us as well) to celebrate her/himself, the limelight matched by the glare of the television cameras.

The particular insidiousness of this type of postmodern voyeurism is linked, at least partially, to the act of being a voyeur itself. After all, we are peeking into the privileged moments of an individual, which in turn generates pleasure, desire, jealousy, anger, or a combination of all four. Not only does the teen relish his or her wealth, they appear to enjoy knowing that everyone else is resentful. In fact, it becomes as important as the party.

But there’s more to it than antipathy. Power is also at play here. Take featured “princesses” Cindy and Sophie. They threaten to beat up girls who either hope to be invited, or attempt to crash their parties. Others, like Chelsi and Natalie, look with disdain on freshmen or other “un-cool” kids who perform sycophantic antics to get an invite. Bjorn and Lila go to great strides to make sure that everyone who is invited to their parties is “fabulous, hot and important” while Jazmin, Ava and Marissa venture to New York, Paris, and Las Vegas, respectively (usually in their private jets or helicopters) to guarantee that their party dresses are exclusive and expensive.

My Super Sweet 16 illustrates the hierarchies of class (these children often come from the wealthiest families in their towns), supremacy (they often create the social hierarchy among their peers), and the elevation of the self (the show is basically an ode to being rich and spoiled) all on a high school level. Americans’ willingness to be drawn into the madness is astounding. The show reinforces consumer culture, convincing us that we are lacking without material goods, and that metaphysical concepts like happiness and respect can be bought if you have the money.

Yo Momma

On the other side of the social coin is Yo Momma. One of MTV’s most popular new offerings, it typically reaches 6.1 million viewers and ranks number one in its time period (Monday through Thursday, 6pm) among the 12-34 year old audience versus the cable competition. As a matter of fact, it was the most watched show in its time period among 12-24-year-olds. Created and hosted by Wilmer Valderrama, the show takes the African American oral tradition “playing the dozens” and turns it into a callous cash cow. “Playing the dozens” is essentially a contest or competition that draws heavily on wit, mental agility, verbal acuity, and personal sting as two participants trade insults in a battle of scatological skill. The game is thought to have originated during the slavery era, specifically in regions like New Orleans. There, slaves that were deemed unfit for physical labor due to age, deformity, or some other reason were grouped together and sold as “cheap dozens”. To be part of the dozens was the lowest blow possible. In modern times, “the dozens” is an exercise characterized by jokes directed at an opponent or members of their family, almost exclusively, the ‘momma’.

Vaguely interested in how MTV would frame the cultural competition (and why Wilmer was the host), I decided to tune in. The basic format has Wilmer’s associates Sam and Jason visiting separate parts of Los Angeles. There, young people battle it out until one person is picked to represent his or her ‘hood at the grand battle. Wilmer then takes each semi-finalist to the home of his or her opponent and gets dirt on them. They then utilize this dirt during the showdown. The two finalists go head-to-head with members of their ‘crew’ on hand for support. In the end, Wilmer and his associates (as well as the occasional guest celebrity) choose the winner, who receives $1,000 and bragging rights.

About as famous for the sexually and racially ambiguous exchange student character he played on That ’70s Show as he is for his barrage of starlet ex-girlfriends (Jessica Alba, Ashlee Simpson, Lindsay Lohan and Mandy Moore), Valderrama has stated, according to a 3 April 2006 article in The New York Times that the idea for Yo Momma came to him one evening while re-watching Summer Catch, the 2001 baseball film he starred in with Freddie Prinze Jr. In one scene, two players were trading insults. “One of the guys said, ‘Your mother’s so fat that when she wears heels she drills oil,’ ” he recalled. “And I immediately thought, what if we can find that one clowner in every group, the smack talker, and show him at work?” He took the idea to MTV, which had already struck gold with ’70s Show co-star Ashton Kutcher and his practical-joke series Punk’d

My initial fascination with the show quickly turned to concern, and then anger as the “dozens”, re-packaged via MTV, became a playground of the same style of voyeuristic activity that runs rampant through My Super Sweet 16. Instead of materialism and selfishness being championed, though, racial co-opting and insensitivity were welcomed. Take the battle between Harp (white) and Justin (black). Harp spit out his insults along a finely crafted line of racial pejoratives as his repartee included “yo momma” cracks like:

“Yo momma’s so black she could go to a funeral butt naked and still be properly dressed.”

“Yo momma’s so lazy the last time she had a job the minimum wage was slavery.”

“Yo momma’s so old and fat, it wasn’t the underground railroad until she sat on it.”

He even attacks his opponent personally:

“I’m sure you’re hung like a horse, your penis is mis-colored and coated with fleas.”

Sadly, Justin was so overwhelmed by the onslaught that he had no viable response. He ended up losing the contest.

The postmodern voyeurism at play here is frightening as it creates a forum where white people, typically white men, can be crowned king of their ‘hood through the denigration of black people. This is even more ironic since it is a game that is steeped in African American tradition. The viewer watching the vocalized racism feels no shame since the offender is not only not called out on the bigoted insults, but celebrated for them. And the tragic news is that Harp isn’t the only offender. Several other non-black contestants have consistently used belittling epithets towards their black opponents.

Take the following: “You look like Aunt Jemima with Rumpelstiltskin boots”, “You so black and your teeth are so yellow, when you smile you look like a Pittsburgh Steelers helmet”, and “This girl is so ugly, she got a role on Planet of the Apes and didn’t need a costume”. Valderrama has never publicly verbalized any concern for the racial repartee that characterizes his show. Though he has looked noticeably shocked at some of the “yo momma” cracks that spew from some contests, he remains shockingly neutral, which makes his following comments even more confusing. “A good trash talker has presence and originality,” he exclaims. “They know how to project, how to make everyone around feel involved. They know that there’s a big difference between clowning and disrespecting. Disrespecting is not funny at all.”

MTV is a pervasive culture icon that literally molded and made my generation. And thanks to the popularity of reality TV, we have entered a new age of postmodern voyeurism. Currently, television has become a vehicle by which one can live out extravagant fantasies, escape social censure (i.e., Yo Momma), or take refuge in the knowledge that money can buy virtually anything in America: popularity, prestige, even the ability, without impunity, to be prejudiced. Through these two shows, MTV has given us all free passes to be vicarious participants in acts that we may (or may not) find deplorable and denigrating. Even sadder, we apparently can’t help but watch. As Sophie from My Super Sweet 16 exclaims, and I think MTV would agree, “People should definitely be thankful for me inviting them”. Shockingly, we are.