With most new television seasons beginning in February, there isn’t much for us TV junkies to watch until then. My vows to read more fall by the wayside however, when on a day off I get hooked on America’s Top Model. The over the top theatrics of Tyra Banks and the very bizarre yet all too common phenomenon of outrageously campy gay men telling women how to walk, model, and wear clothes were not good selling points for me, but I’m always a sucker for people trying to make it in whatever industry they choose. Most of the time these things are about chance “talents” pertaining to one’s looks or how one moves. It was fascinating to see how the industry can transform an ordinary girl into a “high fashion” model. What all this has to do with fashion (and I use that term loosely) and how this is supposed to sell clothes is beyond me. You might as well leave the clothes on a hanger. But it was either watch this or watch a women-murdered-of-the-week show. The male gaze is always evident in these shows; from birth (toddlers and tiaras and their gay male trainers) to death.
Still I have nothing against programs that are competitive in this way, as long as it’s NOT about singing. There are way too many singing shows on television. Many, many people can carry a tune and sing well, but that’s not what these types of shows are looking for. They are looking for stand-out looks and star quality. They try to make the audience the casting director and at the same time humiliates them and us while doing it. Yes, American Idol, I’m talking about you. Why anyone would want to tune in to Simon Cowell’s degrading remarks and boorish behavior is beyond me. But what about those programs that aren’t competition? Take Glee for instance. There is absolutely nothing interesting about this show (exception Jane Lynch). It doesn’t resemble real life at all but that’s not the point. This program and High School Musical are about selling music, again and again, and providing a forum for making social statements about gay teen boys and harassment they go through. Worthy, yes, but when will we see teen lesbians and what they go through? Again, it’s still a male gazed culture. These shows and others that feature music as background material are merely trying to sell new music and music long thought dead. They know that teens watching these programs will go out and buy just about anything. Blame WB and it’s stable of shows like Dawson’s Creek, Supernatural, The Gilmore Girls and for this phenomenon.
UPDATE: My daughter made me watch a marathon of Glee that she recorded on the DVR and ok, I have to admit, there’s something compelling about it. The singing’s good. But perhaps my grudging respect has got to do with the football jock, Puck, who falls for the tough fat chick. That swayed me. smile.
They are also increasingly product placement commercials since most with DVRs zoom past commercials inserted every 5 minutes. America’s Top Model is all about Cover Girl cosmetics. Project Runway is all about L’Oreal and Garnier hair products. Top Chef features appliances and cars. Survivor is about Dorritos, soft drinks, and bathroom products. You don’t even have to have a plot driven show any longer as long as you have products inserted. In a way, this is far more preferable than the inane commercials we are inundated with every 5 minutes. But what does that mean for programming? Why would we rather watch this stuff, even with all the commercials interwoven with the action? Are we really such voyeurs of humiliation? Or, are we sheep doing exactly what we are led to do?
A new show that I started watching, uncorrupted yet by product placement, is the SyFy Channel’s Face Off. No doubt they are waiting for popularity polls to pick up to begin placing major products, but for now, they are product free. Up and coming make up artists face challenges in the traditional Top Chef format of a 15 minute challenge and a bigger competition in the remaining hour. One in particular was fascinating. Contestants had to paint a nude human into a giant photo backdrop. The judges were top make up artists in Hollywood and the host is a Westmore, of the great movie make up Westmore dynasty. What’s also fascinating about this show is realizing that this, and other shows, is where all the nerds you knew in high school went. Every make up artist has an ear lobe plug, every Project Runway contestant dresses bizarrely it seems but a more universal truth is evident among all these shows; human beings come in two sizes; selfless/friendly and selfish/hateful. There doesn’t seem to be any in-between. Of course we are only shown what producers want us to see, but I have a feeling it’s not far from the truth about these people. (You can’t tell me that Camille Grammar isn’t exactly as she’s portrayed on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills!) Still, Face Off shows promise, which means it will be promptly ruined by something. Count on it.
But this kind of television is junk food. There are two classifications of entertainment; High brow and Low brow. It works for literature, movies, television, anything pop culture throws at us. And what makes something “high brow” or “low brow?” Why the audience of course. Depending on which programs you watch, which books you read, where you get your news, you are classed into a particular category. It’s been going on for centuries, even before television came on the horizon. It also shows itself in politics. The great unwashed masses are supposed to sit back and let the elite run the show. To rebel against that is to make a few people very, very nervous. They tell us what we like, what we should eat, what we should wear, how to take a vacation and where, which politics and social issues are important, you name it, they tell us about it. And you are supposed to LEARN what they want you to learn from it, all while spending money. If you are going to sit in front of the television and insist on being “inactive,” they are going to push shows like Heavy, Biggest Loser, I Was a Fat Teenager, and the like, all intermingled with diet and exercise equipment commercials. The housewife with small children at home is supposed to learn from WE, OWN, Lifetime Channel, and ABC’s Hallmark Channel, and TLC that you need to stay indoors and take care of your children because to go out of these safe zones will result in parasites, stalkers, murderous boyfriends, missing children, etc. That’s the purpose of television after all; to tell you what to think, how to live, and who to hate, as well as to fill us with fear of the big wide world. Looked at as an occasional snack, television is amusing and relieves boredom. But a steady diet of it will fill you with nothing but “empty emotional calories” and will probably just make you angry. Are we going to let them get away with that?