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The Christine O’Donnell Show

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.


  1. Kiri wrote:

    Thank you.

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  2. Moff wrote:

    Yup. If you put yourself out there, people might be jerks!

    That is certainly true.

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  3. mmr wrote:

    I don’t know. I agree with you in some senses, but in another way I think Gawker is right when they point out that they aren’t slut-shaming, they’re calling out a slut-shamer. It would be one thing if Christine O’Donnell was running on a platform opposing tax cuts for the wealthy and then Gawker ran this story. But she’s not–she’s running on a platform hugely defined by her constant, truly gnarly, condemnation of the sex lives of other people. Thus, I do kind of believe her own sex life is fair game. Also, I think the language of the Gawker story is very similar to the similar tales of Ted Haggard and that other guy, not to mention even straight dudes like the “Appalachian Trail” dude wherein we were all reading his emo personal love letters and gloating over them–so anyway, the gleeful uncovering of such extreme sex-based hypocrisy reads as pretty similar to me regardless of gender. I think the point is that these are people who hatefully and loudly judge others for not having a certain rigidly-defined type of sex life (a.k.a. slut shamers!), thus the Big Reveal that they themselves also do not ascribe to that type of sex life SHOULD IDEALLY BE instructive and liberating–like, look, obviously this is unrealistic and stupid, if even the most virulent ideologues can’t ascribe to it. I feel like the more this type of hypocrisy can be flayed open, the more obvious it will be to everyone that the “lifestyles” espoused by these people are fantasies and are not worth “defending.”

    I’m just as uncomfortable as you are with this article, though, on the one hand, because, taken in isolation, it does feel like gross misogynist bullshit. But within the context of this particular person’s political career, and within the context of similar exposures of sexual hypocrisy in male candidates, I develop ambiguous second guesses, I guess.

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Permalink
  4. mmr wrote:

    p.s. this is the same reason, though, that some random progressive liberal politician being gay comes as no surprise, and is not juicily gloated over by the media. Because that dude’s candidacy is not WHOLLY BASED UPON the destruction of people who do things he himself does in secret. The juicy-ness, the gloating, comes from the hypocrisy, I think. HOWEVER, it is true that if, say, Hillary Clinton was revealed to be slutty, people would probably write gross gleeful shit about it that would be misogynist. So I’m not sure if I just disproved my own argument. I guess I just really hate Christine O’Donnell and I think she SHOULD be ashamed of herself–not for being slutty, but for being slutty while basically saying all other slutty people should be burned at the stake.

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  5. orlando wrote:

    And her decision not to shave off her pubic hair reflects on the hypocrisy of her political platform how exactly? MMR, I fear you are being disingenuous.

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  6. emjaybee wrote:

    Queasies-making part of reality shows is how often they seem to be revealing, glorying in, and then doing nothing about genuine mental illness.

    Hoarders is an obvious example. But there were episodes of those Nanny shows where it was clear what was happening was borderline abuse/neglect of the kids/parents who were in seriously dysfunctional marriages. And yeah, the nanny would “yell” at the parents and make them a chart, but it was like putting wallpaper over a pothole.

    The series narrative was “Out of control kids need structure!” so these families were squeezed into that narrative whether it fit their situation or not.

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink
  7. SAMUS wrote:


    I feel like you’re saying it’s okay to slut-shame a woman if she’s slut-shamed other women. I don’t fully understand why that’s okay with you.

    Maybe it does make those of us who don’t like O’Donnell feel good to see her humiliated. But it doesn’t feel as good as it would feel if she were taken down a notch politically rather than personally. (Cue someone talking about how the personal is political — I know. I just feel like the Gawker story didn’t actually show her to be a hypocrite [everyone already knew about her Born Again Virgin thing], so the entire thing was just an exercise in humiliation.)

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 4:34 pm | Permalink
  8. Sargon wrote:

    @ MMR: How is O’Donnell being “slutty” even? Have you never met someone who, for religious reasons, doesn’t do p-in-v sex, but who still does other forms of sex? I know it seems legalistic, but it is a boundary that a lot of people like her subscribe to. So I really fail to see how her behavior is inconsistent with her professed beliefs. Sure, they’re inconsistent with that anti-masturbation thing from what, 16 years ago? But this incident was 3 years ago. And didn’t she basically say “that was a long time ago, I was young and foolish” when the masturbation thing came up during the campaign?

    As much as I highly dislike O’Donnell and will be happy to see her lose, I felt that this incident actually showed that she lives up to her stated principles better than a lot of right-wing politicians. It’s been depressing watching so many people on the liberal side of things willingly misinterpret this. The conservative christian idea of “chastity” these days is basically “don’t do that one thing that might make you pregnant,” not “join a convent.” I agree that it’s a weird and pointless definition, but it doesn’t mean that O’Donnell was lying. It just means she was speaking a different language.

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 4:52 pm | Permalink
  9. I’ve somehow managed to not hear about this latest Christine O’Donnell thing, but I really dig this post. It feels important and true and sad and a bit scary.

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 6:19 pm | Permalink
  10. mmr wrote:

    “I feel like you’re saying it’s okay to slut-shame a woman if she’s slut-shamed other women. I don’t fully understand why that’s okay with you.”

    Yes, it’s a good point. Of course I don’t think that is okay. I agree that my comment was awkward in that regard.

    I have a lot of conflicting thoughts on this gawker thing and am not sure of my own opinion, because so far I have two: the gawker article is sexist and slut-shaming and the author is clearly a horrible asshole / yet hypocrisy in political candidates (who want to legislate morality for all of us according to standards they don’t even bother meeting themselves) should be exposed for the good of the nation! (and yes, her behavior is “impure” according to her own definition, which is available in many statements and speeches throughout her candidacy: DARK STUFF)

    I am confused/conflicted, and don’t want my confusion to be read as me being an asshole (which maybe I am accidentally being! Which is even worse), so I will probably just butt out.

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 8:12 pm | Permalink
  11. Annaham wrote:

    Excellent post, Sady.

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 11:20 pm | Permalink
  12. Mongoose6 wrote:

    Oh God, the comments on the NOW link – do not read them. The depths of internet depravity are too much.

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 11:45 pm | Permalink
  13. lilacsigil wrote:

    I agree with almost all of this post, and also that some people are most definitely shaming the author of that Marie Claire article. But there’s also been a lot of thoughtful, reasoned responses (such as a kiss-in) which are designed to show pride in what has been shamed, rather than shame the original shamer. A creative, personal, non-aggressive response is not the same thing as writing to someone to shame them into apologising. I don’t want to cause the Marie Claire writer pain – I want her to be happy with her body and those of people around her, to not feel disgust and fear.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 12:33 am | Permalink
  14. k not k wrote:

    You know, this occurred to me when that Arkansas school board member posted really violent, nasty, hateful comments about LGBT people on his Facebook page, as well. That the (calm and carefully-worded) letter I did end up sending to the superintendent was part of a campaign to shame that man out of his job for what he’d said.

    The thing is, I decided that it was an acceptable instance of shaming because if you are calling for the mass suicide of queer youth and saying you’d toss your own kids out of the house for being gay, THAT IS SHAMEFUL.

    The Marie Claire thing falls under this category too, partially. The magazine did a shameful thing in publishing that piece. It’s totally ok to send a letter saying “you should be ashamed of publishing that”. But there is indeed a fine line between that and personally attacking a woman who has admitted to having an eating disorder, and who was clearly working out her own issues in that (very nasty) piece she wrote.

    As for Christine O’Donnell – yeah, I think the Gawker piece was way out of line. Her record speaks for herself and there are plenty of “shameful” things about it. Look askance at her old comments about AIDS, or her claims to be called to run for office by God from a couple of weeks ago. But I fail to see how it’s in any way constructive to see a woman who is setting herself up as a purity-obsessed madonna, and going “BAM! OWNED! Actually she’s a whore!!!”

    It’s just working within those old dichotomies, and you can’t use those tools without perpetuating them. Not that I think Gawker has any reason to think Deep Thoughts about the madonna/whore complex; I don’t think their calculus got any farther than “How many clicks will we get?”

    Oh my, such a wall of unfocused text!

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink
  15. Panic wrote:

    @Sargon: If you read the Gawker follow-up piece, you’ll see that she’s also publicly stated that it’s “wrong” to do “everything but” PIV. So the fact that she did it is indeed hypocrisy. Not that I’m FOR the Gawker article, but let’s not give O’Donnell any more slack than we need to.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  16. Sooz wrote:

    I think we can criticize O’Donnell on her political ideas and being absolutely terrible as a candidate for years without ever going near her private life, whether or not she’s stating her morals publicly. Seriously, the lady gives us plenty of material and “gets naked and has bush” is what people want to focus on?!

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  17. Exposing Christine O’Donnell’s sexual hypocrisy would have been okay if Gawker had actually a) done some real journalism; b) uncovered significant sexual hypocrisy.

    Instead, they gave a platform to some anonymous, misogynist douchebag from which to take potshots at O’Donnell.

    The main “story” wasn’t sexual hypocrisy. According to the post, O’Donnell did save herself for marriage in the grand abstinence only-handjobs don’t count-tradition. Yeah, years ago, she said masturbation is as bad as adultery, so technically fooling around with this dude was probably out of bounds for her–but we all agree she’s weird and way outside the mainstream even by Christian standards. Neither Christians nor the general public are going to be scandalized by this revelation.

    It’s like if she said she kept Kosher but got caught eating a piece of meat off one of her milk-only dishes. I mean, that would be hypocritical, but virtually no one would care.

    The real goal of the piece was to ridicule O’Donnell for being a confident woman who pursued a younger man. That’s what made it offensive.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  18. ozymandias wrote:

    I realize this is only tangentially related to the post but– thank you for writing the third paragraph. I’ve done that I-can’t-watch-they’re-embarassing-themselves thing since I was very small, and a lot of my friends DO NOT understand why I am not into 99% of comedies (in addition to the kyriarchy factor). I was really happy to discover someone else had the same feelings.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 5:23 pm | Permalink
  19. Bee wrote:

    I just wanted to chime in with Ozymandias to say thank you for the third paragraph. I can’t bear to watch people being humiliated or embarrassed, and am thus unable to watch a lot of tv shows or movies without shutting my eyes and clamping my hands over my ears, or leaving the room (often with my hands over my ears while yelling “not listening, not listening!”).

    Sorry for the not-so-relatedness! I do find the rest of this post very interesting, and it’s something I’m going to try to keep in mind whenever I see and react to these sorts of stories.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 8:26 pm | Permalink
  20. Ennu wrote:

    I couldn’t even read the Gawker post. I clicked over there to see what it was about, saw the pics of her laughing and wearing a ladybug costume, scrolled down and saw the excerpt about how totally disgusting her pubes were and promptly closed the tab. Fuck that noise.

    It was encouraging to see the number of people condemning Gawker for it, but discouraging that so many people apparently still thought she had it coming because she’s a hypocrite. As though that had absolutely anything to do with the post that was written about her, which was obviously meant to scandalize.

    It was equally annoying how many people defended the post by comparing it to what happened to Ensign and Sanford. It is NOT the same, people. Both of those men had affairs while they were in office and spent taxpayer money on their affairs. They didn’t have someone they only met once a decade ago write a humiliating article about what pushy whores they are and how gross they look naked. I don’t think they should have published the private emails between Sanford and his mistress, but it’s still not the same in the whole purposefully-meant-to-humiliate factor.

    Also, though this wasn’t the point of the piece, I can’t BELIEVE they canceled Caprica! I’m debating what the point of even having cable anymore is. Damn you Sci-Fi or SyFy or whateverthefuck your name is! DAMN YOU.

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010 at 2:53 am | Permalink
  21. Mazarine wrote:

    I think we’re talking about two different things here. One is reality shows. And the other is people who get slammed for their histories, whatever they are.

    In both cases, I think it’s about the media deciding what we will see of these people. Our perceptions are manipulated. We are made to feel afraid that if we put ourselves out there, we will get beat down in some way.

    I would like to mention that Jennifer Pozner’s book talks abouts something different than shame. She talks about the prevalence and rise of schadenfreude in this country.

    I won’t lie. I’m sickened that Rand Paul won, and glad O’Donnell lost yesterday.

    I don’t watch TV and I haven’t for years. Not only do I have a similar reaction to Sady’s (Can’t stand to see violence or people humiliated), there just doesn’t seem to be anything on there that will enrich my life.

    I think we should put ourselves out there. We should do our best to succeed, and focus on the people who agree with us. Just because someone is yelling, doesn’t mean they’re right.

    What about that twitter stream, “Shit My dad says” when the guy says, “Why do you have to focus on the one person who disagrees with you? It’s like going into a beautiful field full of flowers and focusing on the one spot that has dogshit in it!”


    Wednesday, November 3, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Permalink
  22. Sarah wrote:

    Reality TV as a community ritual was pretty much the topic of my thesis and I’m sad this wasn’t around last year to make me consider just what the ritual was enforcing…
    Thanks for your general awesomeness (as usual)!

    Tuesday, November 9, 2010 at 4:29 am | Permalink