Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Culture of Schadenfreude

What is it about our society that we love to watch other people suffer? Or at the very least, we're indifferent to it? Images of dead Iraqis do nothing to move us anymore...old news, we see it every day. (But boy, if even one animal gets it, PETA's all over it like the ugly that's all over them).

TV has its equivalent, too. It's euphemistically called "reality television" (apparently, the networks thought that "sick voyeurism" sounded too harsh and would turn off advertisers). So now, millions of Americans tune in weekly to watch "real" people (who just happen to be connected and go through a screening process that would make the Department of Homeland Security jealous) sing/design/whittle/whatever their little hearts out, so they can cheer them on. Right. Cheer them on.

But let's get real: aren't people really watching so they can see the rest of the contestants fail and fall on their asses? Whenever I hear people recounting the episodes from the night before (which is immediately when they arrive in the morning, since we apparently have nothing more pressing to worry about), I never hear them mention how well a particular person did; it's always about how poorly the others did. "And did you see her cry? That was the phoniest thing I ever saw!" (Apparently, these folks haven't glanced in a mirror lately--as their uncoiffed hair and six inches of roots would attest.)

The worst part isn't even that people sit glued to this electronic offal like drooling zombies, or those dead-eyed Gap kids from the singing commercials of a few years back. It's that we seem to enjoy other people's misfortune so goddamned much. Is it because misery loves company? Or because "thank God it wasn't me?" I have to wonder what it is about us that makes us enjoy watching other people so unhappy.

"But, Aaron," I hear you saying, "these people voluntarily participate in the show." Yeah, well, boxers voluntarily get into the ring, too, but does that make it any more appealing to watch them beat the snot out of each other?

"But, Aaron, you yourself just said that this 'reality TV' is just a big set-up." That's not the point. The point is, people enjoy the concept of real people being humiliated on network TV. It isn't just a gameshow anymore, either, where it's over after half an hour and they go home with or without their prizes. Now it's an entire season of "gut-wrenching, must-see TV" that still, in the end, manages to look completely contrived and predictable. And we go back season after season after season for more of this dreck, like a real-life soap opera. Only it's cheaper to produce.

(On a related note, why is it that the fashion "panelists" on these shows look like their own victims? For people who are supposed to be the arbiters and barometers of taste in world couture, these bitches all look like early Hollywood's depiction of lesbians in an opium den. Faces like mud fences and huge glasses that make them look like Miss Choksondick from "South Park.")

I have to admit, I don't watch this stuff very often unless I'm at someone's house who insists on tuning in. And since I tend to purposely avoid the type of people who feed off it, I've so far not fallen victim to this "SARS of the airwaves" that is reality TV. But it's impossible to avoid it second-hand, unfortunately, and people treat the non-watchers like there's something wrong with them. After all, who wouldn't rather watch Heidi Klum stand stalk-still like a 6-foot hogweed plant, while she tells somebody in her clipped Teutonic accent that their design looks like shit? Or watch Simon Cowbell sit there, trying desperately to butch it up while he tells some plump young girl from Chicago that she's too fat to be a pop singer? (He's apparently not heard Martha Wash.) After all, it beats tuning in to CNN and watching more miserable news about Iraq, Lebanon and the Bush Administration.

The trouble is, the more we tune out of our reality and refuse to participate in anything other than escapist entertainment, the more of our lives and true reality we actually forfeit. Maybe things wouldn't be so shitty if we all got involved and demanded change. It doesn't take that much energy, people. Just some attention.

"Get used to it, Aaron!" I hear you say. "The Heidi Klum/Simon Cowell juggernaut is unstoppable." Kind of like Michael Jackson in the 80s, and Elvis Presley before that.

And we all know how those turned out, don't we?


Blogger dirk.mancuso said...

"Maybe things wouldn't be so shitty if we all got involved and demanded change."

So I can count on you to lead the Chicago branch of the "Put Dirk Mancuso in the Summer 2007 BIG BROTHER House" campaign? I'll change the way you and the rest of America looks at reality tv. For real.

Thanks ever so much for your assistance. I'll do our people proud, I promise. And think of the blog fodder I'll have.

1:43 AM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Will there be nasty house pranks involved? Because if so, you can count on my support!

9:31 AM  
Blogger dirk.mancuso said...

Oh, there will be nasty house pranks, verbal smackdowns on any bitch that cries in that house, and cigarettes in the pool.

Oh yeah. I got that shit covered.

7:48 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Sorry, that whole kicking-people-when-they're-down-and-laughing-about-it, while it may be as American as hot dogs with mustard, just ain't my speed.

Surely they could settle everything with some good-natured bondage.

11:26 AM  
Blogger dirk.mancuso said...

From your, God's ear.

6:08 PM  

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