By: Anne Morse|Published: November 30, 2009 7:28 PM
Watching Others' Lives, and Watching Our Own
What’s on TV tonight? Other people’s private lives, often in excruciating, appalling, and grubby detail.
On The Learning Channel, you can watch total strangers try on their wedding gowns while the salon staff makes catty comments about the bride and her family behind their backs. Or watch the Duggars raising their “Eighteen Kids and Counting,” Jon and Kate and their brood of eight, or the 10 offspring in “Table for Twelve.”
Reality shows are designed around subjects and scenarios you’d never have imagined would attract viewers—such as Hoarders, about people whose homes have become solid waste dumps—virtually unlivable (unless you’re a rat) because the owners have a hard time throwing stuff out. (I have to admit—I’ve watched Hoarders a couple of times—and after each episode, forced myself to throw out a pile of old magazines or clothes.)
Also on TLC, you can find Little People living in the Big World. I’ve seen shows about real-life drug abusers trying to kick the habit, overweight people trying to become the Biggest Losers, slim people Dancing with the Stars, and spendthrifts trying to get their credit card debt under control.
You can watch the fashion police—that is, the hosts of What Not to Wear—humiliate women whose friends have turned them in for committing felonies against fashion. Real-life fishermen risk their lives fishing for crab on the Arctic Circle, badly behaved dogs are retrained by experts, and chefs battle it out to become the next Iron Chef.
Haven’t had enough? Tune into House Virgins, about people trying to decide which house to buy. Or catch one of the reality shows that follow couples repairing fixer-uppers.
Some of these activities are so tedious in real life it’s hard to imagine why anybody would deliberately sit down and spend hours watching someone else do it, but apparently we do. Including me. Not very often, but often enough to wonder why I—along with millions of others—would waste my time in this way.
One reason: the reality shows are there. They are cheap to produce, since their makers don’t have to budget for car chases and exploding buildings. Camera crews just show up and start filming the filthy house, the narcisstic bride, the would-be models. But that doesn’t explain why so many Americans choose them over dozens of other options—including some well-produced television dramas, news, or even classic sitcom reruns.
I think part of the answer has to do with social isolation. Today, more people than ever live alone. Reality shows give them a chance to peer in on the lives of other people—often families—doing ordinary family things. Apparently, we prefer to watch real families interact, even if they do it badly, because it takes away from feeling so alone.
The answer also has to do with voyeurism. For example, in the British reality series How Clean is Your House? professional cleaners Kim Woodburn and Aggie MacKenzie visit the filthiest homes they can find, lambaste the owners for their dirty habits, and then scour the houses from top to bottom. As noted on Wikipedia, much of the show’s campy appeal “comes from the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing how untidy some people let their houses become (many have not been cleaned in years).”
Just as we slow down to stare at accident victims along the road, we watch, in fascination, as people battle bizarre diseases, or as real-life gunshot victims are raced to the hospital, to be treated by actual emergency room doctors. Will they live or will they die?
We may not have the carnival bearded lady to stare at anymore, but we do have the gals from I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant and the folks on Medical Miracles, which offers up, for our viewing pleasure, people with rare and freakish diseases. For those with a taste for gore, we have Discovery Health’s Dr. G, a real-life medical examiner who inspects the corpses of murder victims to determine who and what killed them.
There’s also the fun of seeing other people humiliated, as they often are on these shows. And it gives us a nice, emotional lift to see people whose clothes, house, kids, cooking, and dog are far worse than our own. Boy, do we love judging others. We especially love it when they’re caught in wrongdoing. The ratings for Jon & Kate Plus 8 rose dramatically after Jon’s affair hit the tabloids.
But is all of this voyeurism healthy? With television, as with all other aspects of life, we need to apply the worldview test. Why do these shows appeal to us—not other viewers, but us, personally? And is watching these shows unwholesome?
I think they are—in part because we could spend our time in much better ways. And if we long for family life, or friendships, we should seek them out in real life, not through television.
It also seems distasteful to watch programs that invite us to judge others. What other possible response could we have (besides horrified fascination) to watch people who hoard garbage, cheat on their spouses, or end up in the ER because they drove drunk? These programs invite not our compassion, but our contempt. They encourage us to focus on the trivial, the petty, the banal, and the grotesque.
In Philippians 4:8, we are reminded to dwell on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute”—things that are excellent, and worthy of praise. Including the best of television programming.
Some of us—including me—find ourselves watching rubbish simply because we have nothing better to do. And the next thing we know, we’re watching brides throw tantrums because they can’t have the $10,000 dress, or people who haven’t cleaned their bathroom in 20 years. For times like these, to help us withstand the temptation, we need to keep a stack of great films on hand, and invite friends over to watch them with us.
Or, if we have the strength, we could even turn off the TV and get back to living out our own, much more worthwhile, reality shows—lives that embrace family, friends, and meaningful work and play.
Anne Morse is a senior writer at BreakPoint.
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