Reality TV: Insulating Ourselves Against Sadness

[Posted from Baltimore]  

Recently, I glimpsed a few scenes from so-called Reality TV shows while visiting the homes of family and friends. I found them so ghastly, so offensive, so warped, that I had to ask Why anyone would watch such crap. There seems to be no limit to the depths to which producers of this cheap, sleazy, exploitative junk will sink.

On the amateur talent ‘Idol’ shows, many of the programs appear 100% devoted to people who deliberately abase and humiliate themselves just to get on TV. Those who survive are subjected to humiliation and torture by self-proclaimed, egomaniacal ‘judges’, and then again by no-talent, preening, smarmy, blathering ‘hosts’ who torture the ‘contestants’ (and the audience) for much of the show by teasing them about whether they have been ‘eliminated’, ‘fired’, ‘kicked off the island’ or whatever loser-humiliation the program wallows in. This isn’t clever people playing the court jester to the clued-out king. This is those with power rubbing it in the face of the powerless, throwing the Christians to the lions stuff.

On a do-it-yourself ‘reality’ show, a celebrity repeatedly berates her ‘apprentice’ candidates, accusing them of being lazy, incompetent, valueless. She says there is no work ethic, no pride in achievement anymore. On another, the celebrity literally screams at the ‘apprentices’ that he is the boss, that they are workers, that anything he says, or his wife says, is to be done immediately without question, and that any “worthless” candidate who doesn’t like it will be unceremoniously kicked out because “there are thousands of others who are dying for the opportunity” to face this obnoxious piece of crap’s abuse.

What is going on here? Why do people watch this garbage?

I considered several theories about this before I decided on one that made sense. Here are four theories that didn’t:

  • The Conservative Propaganda Theory: Conservatives rail about the fact that people don’t respect authority anymore, that they don’t appreciate the need and importance of hard work anymore. They will tell you that people are morally debased and inherently sinful: lazy, stupid, uncaring, spoiled, unfocused — and need to be constantly whipped into shape “for their own good”. These programs, by elevating the rich and famous to Godlike status and having them abuse their obsequious underlings, seem to be reinforcing this worldview. But the viewers I spoke to don’t see this moral/class war at all. In fact, they seem to delight in the foolishness, foppishness and excess of the power celebrities as much as that of the ‘contestants’. 
  • The Schadenfreude Theory: These programs, like most current comedy series that feature people behaving badly and being punished for it, could be seen to be a means to make people feel better about their own situation by depicting people in a much worse situation. This same grim tendency is also apparent in current horror films, which eschew suspense in favour of gruesome, prolonged and pointless torture of innocent people. The idea is that we vent our anger and frustration by relating to the physical and psychological violence inflicted on others. The fact that the victims are not ‘bad’ people, just innocent people ‘like us’ is precisely the point: They are the sufferers, we are fortunate by contrast, and therefore feel better about our personal situation, horrific as it may be. But the viewers I spoke to actually seem to feel sorry for the losers on these programs, and even relate to them and feel a little outraged at the blatantly unfair treatment they are receiving.
  • The Hero Myth Theory: One of civilization’s most enduring myths is that of the ‘average Joe’ who rises to become a hero by overcoming astonishing adversity. Most Disney movies, fables and business biographies are re-tellings of this myth. In reality, success, fame and fortune almost never come to those who overcome great adversity — they are mostly inherited or acquired by extraordinary good luck. But the few exceptions keep the myth alive, which is fortunate because it’s doubtful whether our current economy would survive if people stopped believing in it. The problem with this theory is that the heroes don’t win. The guys who win are the ones who are the most popular, not the most talented, or the ones that overcame the most adversity. The most popular are the cutest or most charming or folksiest. The lesson of the hero myth is not “nice guys finish second”, which seems to be the message of Reality TV. 
  • The Attention Deficit Theory: We are so exhausted, distracted and numbed after addressing the needs of the moment and the requirements of our jobs that at the end of the day we don’t want to work hard watching TV. We just want to ‘veg out’. I love mysteries, clever programs and films that require a lot of attention and energy, but I can’t take them every day. I just don’t have the bandwidth left. For the attention-deprived, special effects, graphic violence, and programs that we can follow without watching, or while multi-tasking, are all most people have the attention and energy to handle. The problem with this theory is that if you have a scarcity of something (time, energy and attention) the last thing you want to do is squander it on something stupid and meaningless. You want to spend it doing something that makes you happy (e.g. listening to good music, puttering with your favourite hobby, doing something with people you love, or making love), not something that leaves you worked-up and angry. 

The other day I heard an interview with an award-winning (and very funny) Canadian stand-up comedian who is moving to Europe because he is disgusted with the thinness and cheap vulgarity of his fellow North American stand-ups, and the indifference of our crowds to the quality of comedy. He suggested that this generation has been ‘dumbed down’ and now expects less quality, so those ‘selling it’ need not and do not bother to demand quality. That got me thinking — is this all about lowered expectations, and if so, why?

The theory that answers this question, and does make some sense to me, is the Self-Preservation Theory, and it holds that we are intuitively so pessimistic about our future that we need to insulate and inure ourselves against the sadness and suffering that we are likely to face. A recent study suggests that people who are prepared for pain report it as less intense, when it occurs, than people who are surprised by it. While the average person continues to think his/her life is, and will continue to be, better than average, we are overwhelmed with evidence that this ‘average’ is getting worse and will continue to worsen. Subconsciously, perhaps, we are preparing for the worst, numbing ourselves to anguish by witnessing it happening to others and preparing for it ourselves. It is our nature to lower our expectations when things get bad: During Great Depressions, wars, and in the face of personal tragedy, it takes less to make us happy and more to really make us miserable. We adapt.

Generations X and Y clearly have lower expectations of the future than our boomer generation had at the same age. They are the ones whose behaviours increasingly exhibit signs of anomie, fatalism, thrill-seeking and other tendencies (psychopathies?) illustrated in the lower right corner of the above chart. They are the ones who go to see movies with graphic violence and horror that we fund repulsive. And they are the ones (disproportionately) watching Reality TV. Maybe they’re just steeling for a future that will see even more horrific abuses of power, greater disparity between rich and poor, more suffering and misery for all. 

Or am I just getting old, and just don’t ‘get it’? What do you think? If the amateur talent ‘Idol’ programs only showed the ultimate winners, in glorious concert, and if the ‘apprentice’ competitions only showed hard-working fast-learning novices accomplishing remarkable things by working together, would anyone watch?

Whimsical postscript: Is it just a coincidence that we learned this week that one of Canada’s highest-paid ‘celebrities’ is the teeth-grindingly glib and talentless moron who ‘hosts’ Canadian Idol, who also happens to be the son of a former prime minister who so abused his power that his hundred-year-old political party waswiped out and taken over by a regional fringe party? What better evidence that wealth and power does not come from talent, hard work and integrity? — Oh, I forgot about the POTUS. Never mind.

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Reality TV: Insulating Ourselves Against Sadness

  1. SB says:

    When these ‘reality’ shows began to be hits, I wished for a real reality show. One where you are on the island with several people, some competent, useful, amiable; and some none of the above. The challenge is to last, say, eight weeks, without losing anyone. No one quits, no one starves, no one gets hurt. Even the meanest, laziest, most irritating person gets carried along by the team. Now, there’s a challenge. One that many of us meet daily.[trying this again — my apologies if it actually did post last time]

  2. Rob says:

    I loved the Finale of American Idol…it was very good entertainment…the start of the season I ignore..when it gets to 12 left I watch and enjoy the music..if you notice the Abuse from the “Stars” is Booed/Hissed and ignored..I TIVO it so I just watch the songs and have fun. I’m 43. If you think these kids do not work hard you are wrong they work hard!

  3. Peter says:

    Dave, another great post. You have been on a real roll of late covering topics of personal interest to me. Nothing explains life down here in the USA better than this six panel comic . It boggles the mind that some can’t see through the manipulation. A lot of Americans vote for the Repubs because they ses themselves not as poor but as “pre rich”.

  4. Sarah Nagy says:

    This issue of ‘lowered expectations’ is one of my personal current soapboxes. I enjoy making things, and I post pictures on my blog or wear them around town. I want to come up with a good answer for the most frequent comment, which goes something like this: “You made that? Oh, wow, I could never do that – you must be so brilliant, or talented, etc.” I usually wimp out with some non-committedly supportive response, when what I really want to do is shake the person while shouting “THE WORDS ARE AMBITIOUS AND PERSISTENT!! AND YOU COULD TOO!!!” Sigh. More fodder for the anti-‘learned helplessness’ movement.

  5. Gary says:

    There is no reality left! Its all on TV!!!!!! My favorite “reality” shows are science channel, discovery channel, history channel DIY channel.

  6. Eric Arias says:

    Hi Dave. I’m 20, a generation Y’er. My understanding is that you wonder why does the younger generation indulge in Reality TV as typified by Real World, Survivor, Big Brother and what not. I see you’ve already explored several theories on it. I would like to offer my understanding of the question. Personally, I notice I watch Reality TV or like entertainment when I feel a lack of drive, of energy, of direction. It is difficult for me to articulate what the lack is but I feel like something is missing. Usually this sense of missing is unconscious and I resolve the problem through entertainment such as reality TV. However, entertainment has never once solved that sense of lack. What I’ve found to solve the sense of lack is passion. I have projects which I am afraid to take up, yet I find once I pass the fear I am fulfilled in a way entertainment could never fill me.It seems to me that reality TV is not the only form of entertainment which distracts us from what is really going on inside ourselves. There is also recreational drinking, spending too much time online, videogames, reading mindlessly, eating junk food, sleeping excessively Perhaps the real question is why don’t we follow our passion? What is missing from our lives which would point us in the right direction?ON a final note, I think you do get it. I think that there are many similarities between Generation Y watching Reality TV and the Boomer generations enjoyment of buying things. THank you for your post and your blog. I enjoy reading them.

  7. Mariella says:

    I thought this reality tv shows were a Latin “priviledge” due to the senseless perception of what life could offer… (relating it to the intercultural socio/economic mess).Maybe we need to reinvent Magic.. some sort of relink to …. ¿to what? ……..I was trying to figure out what force (energy) could be the opposite of a “Reality Show” energy.

  8. Jon Husband says:

    yes .. I’m sure much of it is unconscious … lowered expectations, too. Have I ever shared with you a seminal article I read 4 years ago, titled “The Numbing Of The American Mind: Culture As anaesthetic, by Thomas de Zengotita (originall published in Harper’s). His newish book is an elaboration .. titled “Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It”

  9. Tovarich says:

    My theory has been that those who watch reality shows are also the one’s most likely to make fun of and ridicule others… they have low self esteem and it makes them feel better to make others out the fool, or to watch others make fools of themselves. Your piece, as always, was insightful… Thanks

  10. spy for sanity says:

    i like the idea of the alternative to Survivor at the top. I have thought of something similar, but with two teams and the object is to see who can crate the richest culture, take care of everyone the best, make the best use of available resources, be the most sustainable, and have the happiest tribe members. from surviving to thriving…

Comments are closed.