How much humiliation are you prepared to take?

I’m not a fan of TV in general. These last ten years we didn’t have cable, nor did we have an antenna, so the only use of the TV we had was to watch movies. When we switched telephone provider, however, they were offering a package that included cable so we decided to give it a try.

I’ve gotten out of the habit of sitting in front of the tube to watch a program, although I’ve tried a sample and I must say I’m pretty appalled that in TV humiliation is the new black. From American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, who put themselves on the line only to be told, in compassionless words, that they stink, to Oprah and Oprah-like reveal-all, to improvement shows such as W Network’s Save us from our House and Trial by Jury, there is a slurry of shows that has humiliation as its central theme.

I find the latter particularly appalling, on several levels, even though I know the entire thing is scripted and staged. The premise, for those who don’t have access to the show, is that a person supposedly applies for either a job or a makeover, or a small part in a program. While they sit and talk with the host of the show, a jury of twelve “ordinary” people comment on the person’s appearance behind a one-way mirror. Their comments are recorded to be replayed in front of the candidate and the camera. The jury pays absolutely no attention on what he/she says, the delivery, the meaning. All they judge is what this person looks like from the clothes they wear and their physical appearance. The words are harsh, humiliating, hurtful (an ER nurse was told she looked like a hooker, like trash)

After having watched three shows (and that’s where I stopped, I can’t take anymore), I noticed the producers chose victims from less favoured backgrounds who could not afford the basics in life such as dentistry (most elected have rotten teeth, some have severe infections). Hence, also, the lack of decent clothes and/or education. In a week, voilà, they take this poor, hapless victim and give him/her a decent haircut, veneers for their teeth, the expertise of a makeup artist, and go shopping for a few new clothes. They’ll also make a token effort at helping them change their lives through basic counseling, although what you can do in a week against a lifetime of quiet despair, I’m not sure. All this, of course, followed by unrelenting cameras filming them at home, on the street, at the dentist, etc.

The victim comes back a week later, and she/he is judged again. Of course, all spiffied-up, she/he is now told she now measures up — or better.

There are several wrong messages in this program (and others): that the envelope, what you look like, is more important than who you are; that you can fix a life/emotional/educational/cultural/societal problem in an hour or a week; that the beautiful have it and otherwise your a loser; that humiliation and abasement are acceptable, as long as it provides entertainment and you get something quantifiable out of it, be it fame, a new hairdo, or a prurient need to streak naked emotionally.

Apart from the gruesomeness and voyeurism of watching someone else being completely humiliated, this kind of show raises the question of how much people are prepared to take to get their hour of fame. Let’s not kid ourselves: the people selected in Trial by Jury and any of these other similar shows are willing; they were not ambushed. Yet they will certainly go back to their old lives and their old habits, only with new teeth and a haircut that will grow out, and may be worse off in the end. But they chose to subject themselves to that treatment.

I’m not sure what it says of our society that people will want to expose themselves to humiliation for fleeting fame and a few perks, and that we will relish watching. Have we become a heartless race? How does watching these kinds of shows impact our perception of people, our judging them and finding them wanting? How does these kinds of shows affect our capacity for compassion, for generosity, for forgiveness?

On the other hand, I am reminded of a line from a song Felix Leclerc, one of our great Canadian poets and folk singer, wrote 50 years ago: Le plaisir de l’un, c’est d’voir l’autre se casser l’cou. One’s pleasure is to watch the other break his neck. Maybe we haven’t changed much after all. Maybe the medium has only helped expose an unpleasant side of our humanity. Maybe it’s good, as long as it makes us squirm.

I have not become a better person watching these shows. I have not learnt anything useful I can apply to my own life, except that maybe I should go another ten years without cable.

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4 thoughts on “How much humiliation are you prepared to take?

  1. Steve

    I agree completely with your article. Humiliation and quick fix TV has reached saturation level (or so I am told- I stppoed watching TV copmletely a year ago). Manners and etiquette have left the building. Perhaps the producers and directors of such trash, might be given a copy of Richardsons ‘Clarissa’: come back when you’ve read it and learned some.

    I recall watching, before I spurned the medium for good, a program called ‘The Swan’. It was a show which attempted to turn ‘an ugly ducking’ into a ‘swan’, by using plastic surgery and cosmetic dentistry. Kapoooof! All your troubles are over………..not.

  2. M. D. Benoit

    Never heard of that program, but I would have been outraged at the premise. I’m way back at the end of the line of beautiful people but I’ve never felt the need to enhance my looks to feel better. Enhance my dealings with people, be a better person, get better educated, work on my prejudices and judgements, yes. Shaving my cheekbones? Nope.

  3. stephe

    Not to mention the “reality” crap, and I use that term loosely. All the Paradise stuff, or whatever they were. Let’s set up couples with the promise of illicit sex and watch their relationships disintegrate. Are you serious?? Let’s go with the premise of having the best man win, but people can get voted off, which in effect means the best man doesn’t win. WHUT??

    I’m a television nut. I always have been. But all the steaming piles of this kind of mess never made it to my viewing.

    (All that plastic surgery, dentistry, lipo, etc. on the Swan all took place within a three-month period. On ONE body. Hurts just thinking about it.)

  4. M. D. Benoit Post author

    I’d forgotten to mention those Paradise programs, where the main quality for winning is not leadership it’s hypocrisy. Basically, whoever is the most successful, mean, wily hypocrite is the one to win. An acquaintance of mine use to watch this religiously with her 10-year old daughter. Now, what kind of message does that give the kid? That it’s okay to lie, back-stab, make shady deals, as long as you win?

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