Professor Arthur Sharon
11 November 2014 “Humiliation is the unifying principle behind a successful reality television show”, Alessandra Stanley wrote in the NY Times. We all exist in a society where instead of focusing on people’s attributes, we are conditioned to mock their shortcomings. We live in a society that thrives on drama and has a constant need to be entertained. Whether it’s the latest People magazine or your Twitter feed, our society has to be caught up on the latest train wreck celebrity, or who’s suffering in rehab. In fact, we have focused so much of our culture on other people’s suffering and misfortune that we have created an entire television genre for it: reality TV. From the 17th century up to the mid-19th century, people with disabilities and deformities were gathered to create ‘freak shows’. People would come and pay to view these ‘performers’ as a form of entertainment, such as going to the movies in today’s society. After the mid-1950’s, society started to realize that this was immoral, and the ‘freaks’ became objects of sympathy rather than subjects of exploitation. That is- until reality TV was introduced. “During the first years of the 20th century, viewers by the millions were tuning into watch participants argue, struggle, and reveal the most intimate details of their lives” (Balkin). A&E (the network responsible for Hoarders, Intervention, etc.) has become the fourth most watched entertainment network in America. They have disguised their shows as a way to empower individuals with disabilities, but in reality they are showcasing their vulnerabilities.
These types of shows are so popular because of schadenfreude. This German word means feeling joy or pleasure when one sees another fail or suffer misfortune, and literally translates to ‘harm-joy’. At what point does empathy turn into exploitation? These shows aren’t showing that individuals with disabilities such as mental illness or addiction can recover and live ‘normal’ lives. Instead, reality TV takes advantage of real health issues to satisfy morbid curiosity. We can now watch ‘weird people’ from the comfort of our own living room. The world can watch as a 700 pound man receives a sponge bath because he’s incapable of bathing himself. Our society can watch as a family of small people struggle to reach the top shelf, and laugh at them. How is this mockery we are experiencing any different than attending a ‘freak show’?
‘Freak shows’ exist everywhere in our society. The show Intervention showcases individuals as they self-destruct. The show focuses on addiction and how the addicts’ decisions affect their lives. The camera crew approaches the addict about filming them for a documentary. If the person agrees, the crew films their every move. Then, the addict’s family stages a publicly televised intervention. The addict is deceived into being filmed. Robert Thompson said, “These shows are designed in many ways to make us feel superior as we make fun of the people on them.” Viewers have a dumbfounded fixation on the destruction phase and experience detached mockery towards the addict. Taping human behavior at its lowest, most mentally sick point for entertainment purposes shouldn’t be a norm in our society.
In the show Hoarders, the theme focuses on people suffering from Compulsive Hoarding Disorder. In this program, a team of ‘experts’ visit the hoarder’s home and try to clean out the premises. Instead of the victim of mental illness being treated like a patient, they are shamed and looked down upon. The ‘experts’ accelerate the psychological process for filming purposes and intentionally hope the person does not cope well. By not coping well with a stranger coming into their home to clean out their precious belongings, this creates the drama, tension, and conflict that this show needs to thrive. The hoarder is told to just throw things away, but like depression or any other mental illness the hoarder can’t