I don’t usually watch much television. I may sometimes make time for a show I know is airing that I am particularly keen to watch. But on the whole I either wait for boxsets to come out, knock around on Netflix or have a look through what’s available (usually in the way of scifi or documentaries) on the catch-up services. Whilst recently house sitting for my parents I was stripped of my access to my boxsets and Netflix so I found myself watching a lot of television (compared to usual). If I’m honest I was mostly watching the Food Network because that’s how I roll.
However, when flicking through the channels to make sure I wasn’t missing something interesting elsewhere I was kind of shocked by some of the shows I found clogging up the British television networks. Somewhere around the time that Maureen first got behind the wheel of a car on national television, production companies had the realisation that reality television, in its many forms, was cheap to make and pulled in high viewing figures – win/win.
These shows have developed into a range of formats – some mimic fly on the wall documentaries, some take games shows and talent shows to the next level and some follow celebrity lifestyles. One thing they all have in common is voyeurism to a greater or lesser degree. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, they obviously hit on something within the viewing public that craves the spectacle. They are the circuses to our bread.
What I was shocked to find amongst the kind of show that most people think of when they think “reality TV” – X-Factor, Embarrassing Bodies, The Only Way is Essex – was a whole range of shows that seek to villainize sections of society, be they rich, poor, immigrants or in any way different from the considered “norm” the show was presenting. If I’m honest, most I couldn’t bring myself to watch and those that I did I had to turn over after a short while. So whilst this leaves me in no place to judge their specific content, I can tell you how seeing such things made me feel – and I bet that wasn’t anywhere near as crappy as they make people feel who are the subjects of these shows.
The thing is, these shows are terrifying for the fact they potentially misrepresent people, but more so misrepresent issues facing today’s society. Whilst we are all sat at home being fed hatred for our fellow citizens and being made more open to media lies about certain groups of society, we are blind to the actual villainous practices of politicians, banks, and massive tax avoiding corporations.
Benefits are the subject of shows such as Benefits Street, Saints and Scroungers and On Benefits and Proud, which propagate the misrepresentation of both those on benefits, reinforcing the stigma attached to claiming benefits, and of benefit fraud.
Benefits are widely misunderstood as it is – people talk about benefits being available to people they shouldn’t be, with little awareness of what a “benefit” constitutes. Despite its common usage it is not a catch-all term. Things such as sick pay and maternity/paternity leave are actually “benefits”. Some benefits have to be earned by paying into the system. That is not to say that there aren’t people who rely too heavily on benefits intended as a safety net rather than wage or lifestyle, but shows like this can lead to the demonization of any and all on benefits, with no regard that during these recent hard times many of us are only two or three pay cheques away from benefits or even more dire circumstances.
Worse still, it ignores the bigger picture and the real financial problems of our country. So many people are having to claim benefits because of the terrible economy of recent years, not helped by changes to employment laws that are often not in the employees interest.
Benefit fraud is criminal and it is a shame that it happens, however, the tax payers money lost through benefit fraud is a drop in the ocean compared to the great degree of fraud perpetrated by the not so poor. When comparing benefit fraud to misspent politician’s expenses or tax evasion, especially by corporations, it becomes a bit of a joke – another good post on which here.
Demonizing the young:
Let’s face it – teenagers are dicks. We all know this because we were teens once ourselves, and most of us ended up growing up just fine. Every generation looks back and thinks that the youth of today is somehow worse than they were – more criminal or less moral. Think back people and know this isn’t true. I can tell you stories about some teenagers I used to know that would have the youth of today blanching! Really, they aren’t all bad, and certainly no worse than we were… seriously!
Our disposition that teens are terrors is linked primarily to two things. Firstly, the fact that as we get older we become more distanced and disconnected from the youth, including our own pasts, so we stop understanding on many levels what it was like to be a teen. And quite likely a large pair of rose tinted glasses has been adopted for our own colourful pasts. Secondly, our opinion is informed by our exposure to teens – and this includes their portrayals in the media, which by and large are negative and largely focused on the “bad kids”.
On television this is propagated in many shows, some subtle like Sun, Sea, Sex and Suspicious Parents, where we are just led to believe that all teenagers are irresponsible. Even so, the focus on just the negative can lead teenagers to seeing themselves and each other that way, creating an ugly viscous circle.
It’s for this reason that shows such as Invasion of the Job Snatchers annoy me. A show about a group of unemployed teens are given work with the chance of getting a permanent position. As with all reality television, this is far from representative. Along with the good eggs you also get those specifically selected for ratings – the ones the viewer is going to love to hate. Most reality television shows are manufactured to produce conflict – a taxidermy enthusiast friend of mine was turned down for popular dining show as she responded, when asked, that she’d have no problem dining with a vegan. Well, if she’s going to be all reasonable about it she isn’t going to make good reality television! The really terrible thing about this is that she is an adult, the kids in these shows are just teens. They are being exploited for ratings, the effects of which they may struggle to cope with – what will national recognition to them? On top of which the message being sent to the viewing public is that the future is bleak – after all what kind of terrible human beings will these teens grow into? One thing I know is that it was hard being a teen, and I didn’t have to put up with this kind of attitude and demonization, we really can’t understand what it is like to be the youth of today, and, sadly, we should probably be grateful for that.
Maybe I was lucky, maybe it was just the time of day, but I didn’t come across any shows that focused on immigrants. As such, I’m not really going to focus on this other than to say that the shows I have encountered in the past and the portrayal in the media in general has not only demonized immigrants, but also dehumanized them. For my own sanity I won’t dwell on the subject here, as it is too large and complex a subject for this post. I am just grateful I didn’t come across any of the shows out there I know exist!
I’m not trying to have you believe that everyone is a perfect, moral, ethical and upstanding human being, but what I am trying to point out is that demonizing groups of people based on a common denominator (age, social status, wealth, immigration status) is essentially an “ism”. The reality of this reality television, is that it is actually inciting hate, and that really is a sad state of affairs (and a good reason to stick to the food network!).