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Posts Tagged ‘reality tv’

Less this kind of tabloid

I used to be embarrassed by my tabloid habit. Why did I love reading schlocky sensationalist stories? A part of me absolutely cringes at the rabidity with which people follow some of the top tabloid stories. And think of how eager vast swaths of America is to watch reality shows about people with truly fucked up lives. We’ve entrenched the phrases “train wreck” and “can’t look away” into our language. The part of me that cringes thinks humans must be ghouls to want to read about children raised in dog kennels and young women locked up in dungeons and families that fall apart around their parents myriad indiscretions. Why do we want to misery and misfortune and suffering as entertainment?

The less cringe-inclined part of me has a ready answer: it’s all part of our story.

All the things that humans do to themselves and to each other in the pursuit of their lives, it’s all part of the human experience. Of course, we’re curious about it. There but for the grace of [insert cosmic intermediary of your choice here] go we. We could be the train wreck tomorrow. We could be the victim whose blood stains the sidewalk on the 10 o’clock news. We could be the confused person covering her head with a jacket as she runs from her lawyer’s car to the courthouse. It could be us, and so we want to prepare ourselves for it. We want to look at the train wreck and imagine how we would handle such things.

Some people are inclined to use their vantage point for judgment. Well, that’s what she gets for leaving her toddler alone! Well, that’s what he gets for marrying her. Well, that’s what happens when you live that kind of life.

For me, my interest in these tragedies are all about the question “And what then?” As with any trauma, people have to choose how they deal with the aftermath. That is a thing that never ceases to interest me. And so I find myself reading the Daily Mail, ferreting for details about the young man who was starved and imprisoned in his own home for years, before being put on a bus to California. What becomes of him now? What about the guy in a sham green card marriage who coerced his older, wealthy lover to enter into a sham marriage with his mother to get her a green card? Or the woman in Ohio who learned after her husband’s death that the man she was married to was actually her father, too. Once you get beyond the titillation, you have the opportunity to look right in the face of human experience and wonder, how does a person process this revelation, integrate this knowledge into her psyche, and go on with her life? These are important questions.

More like this kind of tabloid

Not all traumas are as traumatic as that young man’s life. Not all secrets are as shocking as learning you married your father, but when you explore the fallout from that sort of secret, you’re exploring general ways in which people handle these things. (In this case, Ms. Spruill is choosing to go public, to seek out other siblings lost in the turmoil of her mother’s life.)

As a writer, I think that’s why I go on being obsessed with these stories. Possibly I’m just making excuses for my interest, but when I read these stories I believe I’m fueling my understanding of humanity. These things happen to real people and real people must deal with them. So while I have not yet written a story about a woman who marries her father, nor do I particularly plan to, I have definitely written stories about people who uncover secrets they wish they hadn’t.

I don’t think my urge to read tabloids is any different from a writer of murder mysteries researching ways to dispose of a body. It seems morbid and creepifying, but it serves the story. People do commit murder and hide the bodies. People who write about these things need to peer into that dark place. Those of us who write about more tame aspects of human experience, we still need to inquire into the extremity of life’s shocks and surprises.

So I’ll carry on with my tabloid habit, still a little ashamed but convinced it’s research. How about you?

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It didn’t take long for the initial reports out of Miami to turn into a roar of “Zombie Apocalypse!” People didn’t even wait to hear the details. Give us a man eating another man’s face and we will run with it, even if it requires us to make a joke out of what looks like a tragedy in the cold light of day. Why?

Because we need stories. As zombies love brains, as meat loves salt, people love narrative. We thrive on narrative, because it holds back chaos. It introduces order and meaning and structure. Narrative is at the heart of religion, for example. Humans invented religion to explain things they didn’t understand. Not sure what lightning is? Make a story about a god who uses it to punish people. Voila! Order out of chaos. Not sure what happens after we die? Frightened by the uncertainty? A good story explains away the uncertainty. Don’t worry, you’ll come to a river, where you’ll have to pay a boatmen to ferry you across. If you’ve been good, you’ll go to a beautiful meadow. If you’ve been bad, you’ll go to terrible place of torment.

Without narrative, we have to stare down the chaos of life. Instead of zombie apocalypse and its offer of freedom and survival of the cleverest, we end up with some unfortunate man with a patchy history of bad and desperate behavior who took a drug and did terrible thing, and it means nothing. That’s one of the scariest phrases in the English language–it means nothing. That’s why as crazy as it sounds, we like the idea of “zombie apocalypse” better than we like the sound of “random act of gruesome violence.”

Fear of meaninglessness is why people start charities. To honor a loved one who died of cancer. To protect people from the fate of a loved one killed in a drunk driving accident or a kidnapping or some other horrible, random act. The stunned and wounded people the dead leave behind want death to mean something. They don’t want it to be brutish and random and meaningless.

And so narrative becomes the savior. Random horrible death becomes a story. The cancer victim becomes a valiant hero whose death will encourage others to walk for a cure! (Until bad PR causes problems with that narrative.) The guy with his face eaten off, he’s the start of the long-awaited zombie apocalypse!

This is why I laugh at people who bemoan the encroachments of reality television. As though it were reality.  Other people complain that reality television is scripted. The outrage! You mean the producers are manipulating the show to produce more drama? They’re–dare I say it–crafting a narrative? Kim & Kris weren’t really in love? They were just acting?

Our love of narrative is the reason we will never tire of telling stories. Books aren’t dead. Cinema isn’t dying. Yes, it’s probably going to change, but not so much we won’t be able to recognize it. Sleep for a thousand years and return to civilization and there will still be stories you recognize. In fact, they’re likely to be the same stories told a thousand years ago, even if we use new technologies to tell them. Stories will never end, because we need them to understand our own chaotic lives.

You mean it’s not real?!?! NOOOOOOOO!!!!!

To my mind, one of the more interesting things about “reality tv” is that it’s all about the self-narrative. The characters create themselves as the show goes on. Like deeply imbedded improvisation. I know that as a culture we like to dismiss reality tv stars as narcissists, but imagine what it would be like to have a TV crew filming your life. Think of the ways that your life could be manipulated to tell a cohesive narrative arc. Think of how you would want to create and reveal your own character. For extra credit, consider what kinds of freedom to do and say what you want might be born out that scripted narrative. Show your work.

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