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TV and the Ruination of Civilization

by on February 16, 2015 6:15 AM

I returned from a week of travel and airplanes and came down with the flu.

I don't know if it was airplane air or conference air conditioning or just my resistance being down because my schedule of eating, sleeping and exercise was off due to the travel.

The flu successfully knocked me off my feet for a few days.

My takeaway from days on the couch, sipping ginger ale and flipping from channel to channel, is that our country is in serious trouble.

How did I come to that assessment? By reviewing what the public permits and encourages on cable television.

Aside from the usual day time talk shows, children's programming, 24 hour news and situation comedies, there is a whole bunch of intentional intrusion and pay-per-voyeurism on television.

As I flipped through the channels, there were options to watch big people, really big people, little people, people who hoard their things, and people who have ruined their lives with addiction. There are shows about people preparing for doomsday, others who were "naked and afraid" or some who were just naked and dating. There are shows about men with a handful of wives, families with more kids than a football team, little league football players and one infamous single Mom, just barely making it through with her 8 kids and 10,000 square foot home (undoubtedly purchased with the money she made from being famous).

Are we so starved for entertainment that producers and directors have to resort to stepping behind the closed door of someone else's life to keep us tuning in?

Through the lens of a fever, I found myself stopping on a show called My Fab Fat Life. The show follows a 30-year-old woman who lives with her parents and seems to have no source of income other than occasionally teaching what she calls a "big girl dance class." She reportedly weighs 380 pounds due to some hormonal disorder.

The show follows the woman and her friends, her efforts to date, her frustrations with living at home and the many issues, both physical and emotional, that come from being morbidly obese. Throughout the story line, we jump to her sitting in a chair as she narrates and offers her perspective on what just happened and how she felt about it. She shows us plucking the hairs from her chin (a symptom she shares is related to her hormonal disorder) as well as paying her best friend to massage her feet.

One episode featured her making the decision to buy a bikini and then running on the beach in said bikini as she tells her best friend that she has no issue with her size. In another, she becomes angry and tearful when she receives the news that she is developing symptoms of diabetes and other serious health issues. The ambiguity of the show is that while claiming she is fat and "fabulous," it is clear that she is very unhappy.

Advertisers and television networks believe that we will be entertained by this. As long as we keep watching, we prove them right.

Entertainment value aside, do we objectify people and their issues – treat them as something non-human by following them around with a camera, scripting their every move and then putting it on cable TV?

Does it dehumanize and desensitize us to real issues and the people who face issues like weight, ability and disability, addiction, and just plain narcissism to put them in front of a camera?

I used to think not. I remember when the show Little People Big World first aired on cable TV. The show featured parents Matt and Amy Roloff, both identified as "little people" and their children – three of whom were typical height and one who was also a little person. At first, the show seemed like an exercise in advocacy about how people with disabilities can and do live normal, productive lives. Their house was messy, their relationships both loving and conflicted and they seemed "normal" despite the challenges of living in a world that is full of barriers. Unfortunately, like all "reality" television shows, it soon devolved into scripted special events and tableaux created for our entertainment.

When we watch shows like "Intervention" and "My 600 lb Life," do we see the characters as something less than human and as a source of amusement and/or horror? Do we watch to make ourselves feel better and to reassure ourselves that "I would never let my life get that out of control."

What does watching these "real people" do for us? More importantly, what does it do to them?

As my husband always points out, "how many cameras are in the room to get all of those different angles?" The answer is enough to keep us watching.

I have thankfully recovered from the flu and am back to work and off the couch. I've given the remote back to my family and have resumed reading and writing for fun in my non-work hours. As soon as the weather breaks, I will get outside with the dogs and to start working on the landscaping.

Prognosis from a week with the flu? No more reality TV. It can make you sick.


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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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