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American Freak.


I saw Lobster Boy in person. I was sixteen, living in Urbandale , Iowa. I went to a carnival with a school buddy hoping to meet girls. (That was pretty much the extent of my ambition in those days.) We saw the tent, we heard the barker's come-on, so we went in. There was Lobster Boy, sitting on a folding chair, delivering his pat little speech and trying to sell autographed photos of himself.

God knows I was as oblivious and insensitive as only an adolescent boy can be. But I knew I had made a mistake. I knew I had done something wrong. I had committed what I can only think of, even now, as a sin.

I don't know how Lobster Boy felt about himself or his life. I don't think my shame-faced staring hurt him, I'm sure he was used to it. It hurt me.

I've meant to write about reality TV in general, and American Idol in particular, for a long time. But Jill Parkin does it for me:

She is obese, she cannot sing and she is totally deluded. She is surrounded by her hugely overweight family who all share her belief that she has a wonderful voice.

They are not very clever, but they are desperate for her to appear on television. What do you do?


Do you let them down gently, and explain that it would be kinder for all concerned if the young girl was not encouraged to humiliate herself in front of millions?


Or do you clap your hands in delight, certain in the knowledge that your boss, the multimillionaire despot, is waiting with his courtiers in a room nearby - and this young girl is the kind of contestant that pleases him most?

This one will wow him.

How the crowds will snigger and jeer!

Send in the fat kid and let the blood sport begin.
Pastor Jeff adds this:
Parkin makes a convincing argument that reality TV is the new freak show of the 21st century. Programs are designed not to find and reward talent, but to display a procession of weak, vulnerable, and socially challenged people whom we can gawk and sneer at. Shows like "Big Brother" and "Survivor" intentionally force opposites together in hopes that a volatile reaction (or even an explosion) will give a big ratings payoff.

Except we're talking about people, not chemicals. I understand that the participants know what they're getting into -- well, mostly, anyway. The minimum age for contestants on "The X Factor" has been lowered from 16 to 14, all the better to take advantage of adolescent awkwardness and emotional vulnerability.
I despise Idol. I despise cruelty. I cannot tolerate people who revel in, or profit from, other people's humiliation. Simon Cowell is not witty. He's not funny. He's a tedious little thug, a dull, halfwit version of Don Rickles. A punk. A creep.

And the people who admire him? Let me be charitable and express the hope that they are merely insensitive. Let me express the hope that their choice of television shows doesn't really reflect their true selves. Let me express the hope that they will in time come to realize that a freak show makes freaks of the audience.

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“American Freak.”

  1. Blogger Objectivist Says:

    I have not watched a single reality show precisely for this reason. You're absolutely right; this is the modern equivalent of staring at a dwarf and a bearded lady. When Survivor first came on, I was certain that it would be largely ignored since surely, we as a society have evolved past that. The disgust has never worn off. Now I'm certain that if it were legal, and we could have gladiators (or inmates) killing each other and battling lions, it would be as much of hit as it was in Rome. It was actually the popularity of reality shows that convinced me that people as a whole have not made any progress along the lines of ethos or intellect. Any evidence that points to the contrary only speaks of a small minority, again, kinda like in the days of the Roman Empire. Not much of a difference at all. Given this, I also think that the potential for another Holocaust or some other atrocity is no less in the modern Western society than it was at any time before.
    See, again, agreeing is just no fun.

  2. Blogger amba Says:

    Amen, bro. Perhaps even sadder than the avidity of the audience is the deperation to be reified by the gaze of the camera that drives people to humiliate themselve on the threshold of fame.

    As for despising cruelty, I even have trouble with the cruel humor in, e.g. "South Park," which isn't "real" and which is regarded as so hip.

  3. Blogger Pastor_Jeff Says:

    Michael,

    The ten minutes of reality tv I've ever seen were more than enough.

    Thanks for the link, but much more for sharing your compassion through your gifted writing.

  4. Blogger Tully Says:

    I despise Idol. I despise cruelty. I cannot tolerate people who revel in, or profit from, other people's humiliation.

    Amen. Vicarious bullying, enjoyed with no risk to the second-hand bully. Despicable.

  5. Blogger step314 Says:

    But American Idol has done well if it has demonstrated to people that it is possible to have too much self-esteem, something one might not believe if one has been brainwashed excessively by the popular psychologists, etc., one finds on many of the daytime talk shows. Even the people ridiculed gain disillusionment. I think on the whole reality shows are a good thing compared with normal television. Only a subset of them engage in ridicule, and to the extent their stars really are (fairly) ordinary people they serve to counteract the excess and selfish idolization of celebrity that exists in Hollywood. And American Idol has a laudable democratic element that is just the thing in our technologically advanced age where the essentially non-existent (marginal) cost of the data of music makes some kind of public funding of music preferable to a copyright system, provided people as a whole (through some kind of averaging) have a vote on where the funding goes. Economic efficiency demands marginal cost equal to price, which means the price of music and information should be essentially zero nowadays.

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