It’s been a little while, but my friend and colleague Philalawyer decided to talk a bit about Americans and their fascination with fame and reality television. As you can imagine, it’s not a flattering portrait we paint here.
Philalawyer (PL): Unless you’ve been in a cave on Mars for the past few years, you’ve probably asked yourself, “Is America beginning to unravel?” Has this nation finally gone mad? Drooling and staggering ahead like some lost ward of a sanitarium – its faculties all but destroyed, crushed under the weight of a society defined by its sloth and ignorance… its greed, envy and mendacity?
This is a dumb, rotten age, and allusions to Rome aren’t extreme. Imbeciles and thieves at every turn, stalking us in all the headlines. Wall Street a gentrified dog track, television filled with common fools and Washington driving the Republic headlong straight off a cliff. And as the flames get higher and higher, the fiddling only gets louder. Self-help pimps rule our literature, mega-churches swell with frightened masses and the “MySpace Nation” soldiers on, blissfully unaware as it consumes its diet of Kardashians, Ritalin and low carb Mango-tinis. A country “doped,” as Lennon sang, “with religion and sex and TV.” Welcome to the New Dumb, the United States of Decline.
It’s said these times test faith. But that misses the crux of the issue. Other than possibly laughing, God’s nowhere to be found in this mess. This is a scientific matter, better addressed to Darwin, and the question at the center is simple. Is the cause of our failure and embarrassment a medical, clinical regression? Is America Psychologically Devolving?
1. The Reality TV Phenomenon/Cult of Celebrity Culture
PL: Warhol said in the Sixties that everybody would get 15 minutes of fame. Sadly, his prediction’s proving more than overly-conservative. From Nicole Ritchie to that horrid Gosselin family to the pathetic wretch pushing his kids into the “Balloon Boy” hoax, it appears every piece of celebrity garbage with a parent rich enough to hire a publicist for them, or piece of white trash with an interesting enough drug addiction or willingness to embarrass himself for a camera is getting what feels like 15 months of fame. We know why the producers give us Reality TV. It’s cheap as hell, allowing studios to pump out programming at 1/5 of the cost of scripted material. The issue is why people like it. Are we losing our imaginations? Are we losing our capacity to appreciate art? What on earth is interesting about watching the Gosselins drag their kids from school to Wal Mart to soccer practice?
My personal suspicion is that people like watching this crap for two reasons. First, for the 100 I.Q. audience who takes it non-ironically, it brings the concept of “celebrity” down to their level. They can live vicariously through the Gosselins – “They’re just like me! Ergo, I’m a celebrity! Undiscovered, but every bit as fascinating!” For the rest of the audience, it provides a classic guilty pleasure, wrapped in a comfortable reinforcement of their elite position – “Look at these pathetic rubes dancing for the camera. How utterly provincial. Thank God I’m elevated enough in society that I’d never have to stoop to this.” What do you think?
Dr. Rob: I definitely agree with the whole concept of Identification. We connect with those people because we are led to believe they are like us. But they aren’t, at least not on camera. They’re whatever characteristic we have taken to 11, especially our negative qualities. They’re coached to be over-the-top, a persona. The bitchiest, the douchiest, the sluttiest, you name it. They’re just not as good-looking or wealthy as Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt; therefore we erroneously think there’s no “acting” involved.
The “elevated” people certainly love to spin the idea about being above all of that, but why is it that they need to have those thoughts every week? To me that’s often just a defense mechanism or justification, which is worse in so many ways. I appreciate the guy who says he likes seeing a version of himself on TV much more than the intellectual snob who’s getting off on the same idea but won’t come out and say it.
I don’t know if there’s all that much interesting about the Gosselins dragging their spawn around town. What is interesting is the conflict, the pain, our need for Schadenfreude. If Kate isn’t bitching about Tom’s new skank or screaming at the kids or crying about how hard her life is, we don’t care as much. We don’t stop to watch two people on the street talk about the Yanks/Sox, we stop when they throw punches about Game 7, 2004. We don’t stare at cars as they drive down the street, we keep our eyes on them when they’ve crashed into a brick wall going 85 M.P.H. People may give a shit when two reality contestants get together for a brief tryst, but we really pay attention when one cheats or slaps the other around. People love watching pain, plain and simple. That’s been the case with art for centuries and that fact won’t ever change. So we haven’t lost our appreciation of art, we just want the dirty details amped up as much as possible.
PL: Generally, I have no problem with people consuming garbage art. It’s comfort food for the brain, and if you like it, have at it. The problem is, a lot of people seem to be obsessed with becoming part of this new “celebrity.” Look at all the aspiring microcelebrities on the Internet, and the “inside baseball” thrust of shows like Entourage. The idea of being a celebrity – of anyone becoming a celebrity, regardless of his or her utter lack of talent – is the new focus. Nobody remembers that people like George Clooney or Meryl Streep became celebrities because they had a skill. In a world where something as vacant as Paris Hilton can shoot to stardom and wind up the equivalent of Angelina Jolie in many people’s eyes, the gullible everyman is going to grab for his moment in the limelight with increasing frequency. That means many more “Balloon Boys” in the future, more narcissistic oversharing and more inane micro-celebs like Julia Allison polluting the web. Society reflects art as much as art reflects society, and I’ve a sense our elevation of the common is a dangerous lowering of the bar. A society reveling in exhibitionism and the basest, least challenging forms of entertainment seems to me a society on the decline, a country beginning to regress.
Dr. Rob: Uh oh, are you also talking about you and me? Are we polluting the web? We have some talent…don’t we????
I would agree with you about consuming garbage art if it stopped there. And for many it does. I want to punch my friends in the heart when I see them watching it because I simply hate the idea of giving the Hiltons and the Kardashians exactly what they want: adulation in exchange for raging idiocy. But I think you’re spot on. The Balloon Boys are just getting started. And I don’t care if Bruno had to interview 1,000 parents to make his point, he still got at least three to basically agree to throw their kids into a pit of fire. If you’re hot, rich, or simply willing to dance around like a monkey, there will always be a society that will throw quarters at you.