Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Judging the "other"

There's a trend in modern cable network programming. This glut in similarly themed shows is a shameful one, to say the least, but I must admit to this voyeurism myself. Remember when cable channels like History, Discovery and TLC used to actually be about something of historical significance, discovery of something new or an actual learning experience? Somewhere along the lines so many offerings on these networks simply became a viewing of the other.  
The other is anyone different than ourselves that can be looked at in a judging manner for its difference from our own realities. There is no better place to position oneself in judgment than through so-called reality programming. The only reality involved in these pre-determined, most likely scripted, antics is that the set-up sequences are really shown on t.v. 
Coincidentally, a common theme runs through those premises. I contend that American audiences are inundated and obsessed with shows about seemingly lower-class people. 
Maybe content producers see periods of national disquiet or economic instability as a perfect time to make American viewers feel better than other people. They apparently believe doing so helps people think they don't have it so bad after all. Hollywood pacified the masses with musicals on the big screen during previous wars. Why not encourage modern viewers to self-medicate with reality shows during the current war? It's happening elsewhere after all, so it's easier for us to not think about it. 

Any change of the remote control can bring you to an omniscient position above people who act weird, especially those who live in the poor south and talk funnyAnyone who talks or acts differently gets the mark of a lower IQ, and spotlighting regional accents seems the fad of the moment. We're left looking down our noses at the plight of middle- to lower-class citizens on the television screen.

Cases in point:
  • Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (TLC) spawn of Toddlers & Tiaras
  • Dance Moms (Lifetime)
  • Hoarders: Buried Alive (AETV) 
  • Swamp People (History Channel)
  • American Hoggers (AETV)
  • Call of the Wildman (Animal Planet)
Producers apparently assume viewers savor a few minutes of escape from their own realities and all else happening in the world. Hollywood did the same thing with musicals during previous wars, and we now have reality television to meet our voyeuristic needs during the current war. We don't have to think about what's going on here if the war isn't happening here in America. So why not pacify the masses with a bunch of fools acting ridiculously in their own element? Where these "reality" families live and work and act is different than our own state of being, so let's make fun of them!
by Charles LeBlanc
via Creative Commons
It's what I call the Jerry Springer syndrome. "My life really isn't so bad, huh?  Look at those idiots on 'The Maury Show.' Now that's white trash!" 
How is it okay to look down our noses at them?  It's all right if it's done anonymously from our living room, right?  Well ... it's not okay. Their misfortune and folly puts the joke on them. We can detach ourselves from other people via the couch, and it apparently makes us feel better about ourselves and think we're better than them.  
Those people may not look, act, or talk like we do, but that doesn't mean they're any less human than us. Even if they just sneeze differently or squint their eyes to see better, we still poke fun. The reality shows portray people with unique jobs, habits and maybe even mental illness. And sure ... some may even act inappropriately in front of the world and get paid to do it. 
Perhaps most "normal" people would be ashamed to do some of the seemingly crazy things seen on these shows. Making them appear so much different, and less than as a result, diminishes the reality families and dehumanizes them as "the other." But we are the ones watching the shows and only have ourselves to blame. 

I've always said, it's like the law of supply and demand. More specifically, it's the "uses and gratifications" theory of mass communication. Networks can't fund production of shameful television if viewers don't watch it. We support their creation and air time by choosing not to watch something else and by supporting the companies that endorse these shows. So how are we any better than those families? How can we continue to feel superior? That's reality for you!  

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