So! Do you want to spend a few minutes talking about Christine O’Donnell and TV? Oh, let’s!
One of the books I got a chance to read lately was Reality Bites Back, by Jennifer Pozner, with whom I have had drinks! Full disclosure! And the book really is good at pinpointing the specific moments where you get sold a certain narrative, reality-TV-wise; like, of course you’ve got the show about stupid ethnic working-class people, and of course you’ve got the show about sluts competing for a man, and of course you’ve got the other show about Mo’nique teaching those sluts not to be sluts any more and this is heavily racialized, and, you know, if you can think of a thing that’s bad, or a way your thinking might become cheaper and uglier, you’ve got a reality TV show for it. Who did you hate more on Work of Art: Arrogant duplicitous hipster Miles (he thinks he’s so fancy, with his winning and knowing how to do things) or vapid pseudo-feminist whorepants Jaclyn (how DARE she use the term “male gaze” and also be naked sometimes) or stupid angry redneck Erik (ugh, how can he presume to call Jaclyn vapid and Miles duplicitous — at least they’re EDUCATED)? How sure were you that these were, in fact, their characters? At the start of that show, I hated Jaclyn with a fiery passion — she makes us all look bad!!! — but by the end of it, she basically glued a rock to a stick and curled up on the couch to die and/or be eliminated, and I was like, “lady, I know. I KNOW all of the other painters did self-portraits on a regular basis, too. I KNOW Miles jerked off on a piece and you’re the one who ‘wants attention.’ I KNOW Peregrine did nude or semi-nude portraits of other contestants, which they were uncomfortable with, like two times, and that the one time Miles ‘got’ you to undress it was played up as you being a slut and/or stupid and/or the victim of a predatory man who outwitted you. I GET IT. Hush now, my darling, and nap. Nap away the pain.”
The thing is, though, much of our culture is based on this narrative. We live in a spectator society; we want, and have, access to each other’s lives. The Christine O’Donnell thing is a story that most people will agree went too far; she’s a political candidate, it had pubic hair in it, etc. But the outing of O’Donnell and the reality narrative are pretty much the same. We watched and cultivated her oddity, we enjoyed laughing at her, we paid close attention and got all the footage we could, until someone took the natural next step and we all went “whoa.”
I might not be the best person to weigh in on this book, actually, because I can’t watch any reality TV outside of the Bravo stuff. Like, almost physically can’t. I’ve tried. (Jersey Shore, is a thing I watched. Oh, the pain.) When I was a kid, I had to run out of the room if a TV plot featured a character doing something that I knew would get him in trouble, I couldn’t get into cringe humor for the longest time because it upset me so much to watch characters being humiliated, I was driven to near-hysterics the one time I saw Hoarders because these people were so sad and they were having panic attacks and the one thing you want if you’re having a panic attack is for people not to notice it let alone stare at you, and the camera kept rolling and everyone could see it and what if people were talking about them or laughing at them and oh my God they couldn’t stop it or even know about it they had no control oh my God stop filming please stop stop filming stop. I have some serious social anxiety; I project it. I’m not proud — this isn’t a statement of my superiority or anything like that, it’s a statement about how I’m vulnerable in weird ways that mess me up — but I’m not watching reality shows either.
Pozner says that the success of these shows is based on money. That instead of putting more money into shows like, say, Firefly, and giving them enough time to win over an audience, they can make a zillion seasons of any given reality show on the cheap. Which is undoubtedly true! But I don’t think that, even given the most supportive network in the world, we would ever have a society in which everyone watches Firefly. Or Party Down, or Arrested Development, or Caprica, or anything else you loved that got canceled, or even Mad Men. I think reality shows actually are what a lot of people want, deep down. (And I think Pozner would probably agree, to some extent — she points to the value of schadenfreude, and to that of escapism, and obviously the whole book is about how the shows are crafted to play into cultural myths.) Those canceled shows are all good fiction; reality, from what I know of it, functions more as a community ritual. And we can use it to perform one of the most important functions of any community: Maintaining boundaries by inflicting shame.
I said it was an important function. I didn’t say it was a good function. It’s actually neutral, except for the fact that it causes pain. If you want people to behave in a certain way, disgrace and humiliate the folks who do differently; it’s scary, and it works. Whether you’re picketing the Marie Claire “I Hate Fat People Kissing” lady or writing a mean article about hating it when fat people kiss, there you are. The behavior you’re looking to enforce changes, and the merit of your actions changes — I’m not saying these are the same thing done for the same reasons, or “both equally bad,” because that’s nonsense — but the means ultimately don’t differ that strongly. There’s no point in writing about hypocrisy in relation to it, the same way there’s no reason to rant on about how meat-eaters and vegans both sometimes eat lettuce, don’t they. Yeah, no kidding; it’s lettuce. It’s shame. It’s one of the most powerful motivators we have.
And it relies on public figures. It relies on the people who audition for the shows, who run for office, who put themselves in the public eye. Why would anyone do it? Well: Is it considered normal to think of yourself as a villain or a fool? They do it because they imagine that, if their lives are looked at, they’ll naturally be the protagonists. The same way that all of us are protagonists in our own minds, because we’re in every scene of the movie.
Let us be clear here: I am not even saying that shaming is always wrong. I know it’s scary, but at this point I couldn’t even tell you whether it’s wrong. It’s probably not, at least not all the time. It depends on the behavior being enforced, and the judgment of the people doing it. One of the problems people had with that Gawker story was that it really wasn’t clear what behavior was being enforced: Having sex is bad? Not having sex is… bad? I mean, Christine O’Donnell’s bad. But “overly aggressive cougar slut refuses sex like total prude, is sexually inexperienced; also, pubes” isn’t terribly targeted, aside from putting the image of her naked in our heads, which is why it seemed sexist; just associating a woman with sex is enough to invalidate her worth, whether she’s being sexual or not. And aside from that, everybody knows that you’re not going to convert Christine O’Donnell — or even overthrow her; Republiladies live on this stuff — by publishing something about her sex life. Even when this stuff does make someone shut up and go away, it doesn’t make her change. The message wasn’t meant for her. It was meant for someone else.
It was meant for you. It was meant to say that if you step out, if you’re too loud, if you’re unlikable, if you’re a threat, this can happen to you. It always comes down to that: This is what happens when we don’t like you. This is what happens when you don’t measure up. If you still think of yourself as the hero of this movie, it’s fun because you never have to worry about it affecting you; if you don’t, if you have reason to believe that you won’t be universally beloved, it will put the fear of God into you. It happens a lot, and it’s not always something that happens to women, and it’s not always about sex. (It’s about sex a lot, though. Also it happens a lot to women.) And in the aftermath, once you’ve got the defenders and the detractors and the rubberneckers all together, there’s still blood on the table, and it’s still yours, and a substantial portion of the assembled are still arguing that it was your fault for showing up in the first place.
Maybe it was. And, honestly, “if you don’t want this to happen to you, don’t be Christine O’Donnell” is a pretty easy message to live by. But “if you don’t want this to happen to you, don’t have any critics” or “if you don’t want this to happen to you, never make anyone angry” or “if you don’t want this to happen to you, be perfect” are substantially less easy. “If you don’t want this to happen to you, go away and don’t try to do anything” is the logical assumption. When people go quiet, when they don’t step forward, when they’re afraid — the next time you’re afraid, for any reason, to make yourself better-known — don’t think it comes from nowhere. It’s like the NOW ladies said. The issue isn’t how this affects O’Donnell; she needs to lose. The issue is how it affects everyone else.