Saturday, 18 May 2013

Honey, we shrunk the brains

South Park takes on Honey Boo Boo and June
One of the cultural highlights of the past few weeks – nay, the past year – has been the arrival of a new digital TV channel from our cousins across The Pond.

And TLC, the channel formerly known as The Learning Channel, has chosen to announce its arrival in the UK with the highly educative Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

This is a ‘reality’ TV show about a ‘redneck’ family where the mother pushes her seven-year-old daughter – the eponymous Honey Boo Boo – into child beauty pagents that she is never likely to win, and which is how the family was spotted in the first place, during another of TLC’s shows, Toddlers and Tiaras.

The family – parents and four girls – get to go to the Redneck Games, eat ‘sketti’ (spaghetti with a sauce of margarine and ketchup) and comment on life in general.

The audience, presumably, gets to feel superior, in much the same way it does over the ‘guests’ on Jeremy Kyle’s modern-day freak show or on that of Jerry Springer.

Actually, it’s difficult to know on whom the joke is this time. TV stardom has, for the family from rural Georgia, been enough to lift them far away from any impoverishment.

And the programme differs from other examples of reality TV in that they seem to be remarkably functional. The mother, June, has apparently set up trust funds for all her children, noting that such fame won’t last.

TLC – formerly known as The Learning Channel, remember – is also breaking Breaking Amish to UK screens.

This reality show is about a group of young Amish/Mennonite men and women who are taken to see the bright lights of New York, with much being made of whether, if they decide to go home, they’d be accepted back.

Lives lived out in front of cameras, for the entertainment of millions and the profit of a rather smaller number.

Now don’t get me wrong – the idea of giving young people from closed communities the chance to see the outside world isn’t one that I object to in principle.

What concerns me is the question (and let’s assume none of it – or only a small amount – is staged) that really quite dramatic personal experiences, with the potential to be life-changing to the extent that the young people in question might find themselves being ostracised by their families and communities, are being played out for entertainment.

And let's go back to the fact that nobody knows quite how much is 'real' and how much is staged and scripted. It's a blurring of lines that has the capacity to blur the critical senses. This is not the willing suspension of disbelief.

All this reminds me of HL Mencken’s famous quote about the apotheosis of democracy will see a moron elected to the White House – simply substitute culture. And then consider the impact of that on the former.

I’m not opposed to reality TV per se: it can be both educative and entertaining, without being exploitative – as illustrated by the BBC’s recent series, The Tube, about the working lives of some of the vast team that keeps London’s Underground running.

But that’s quite different from, say, Big Brother, when Jade Goody, a very vulnerable woman, according to a former teacher of hers I once met, became famous for being thick.

Later vilified for a racist comment on another version of the programme, she lived out the last days of her life in the public eye, turned almost into a martyr by her battle against cancer.

It all seems so vacuous and vapid and vicarious and vicious: and that is not a comment on Goody herself.

And it’s hard not to believe that such commoditisation of human lives devalues humanity in general.

But further, how much does the public vilification of Kyle’s guests – carefully chosen for their dysfunctionality, since that is what is ‘entertaining’ about them – contribute to the ease with which government and mainstream media demonise vast swathes of the population?

And politicians kowtow to this: from Barack Obama feeling obliged to mention being ‘endorsed’ by an infant would-be beauty queen, to David Cameron and Ed Miliband jumping on the bandwagon to condemn Hilary Mantel’s comments about the Duchess of Cambridge from a position that merely illustrated either their total ignorance of what she had written or their readiness to ignore the facts for the sake of being seen to make the ‘correct’ sound bite that would most please certainly elements of the press.

Honey Boo Boo and her family have been satirised already in South Park – from which no target is, rightly, considered exempt – but goodness, doesn’t it sometimes feel as though there’s a losing battle going on?

Nor is all this a snobbery about what ‘chavs’ watch or read. Consumption of gossip magazines and such programming is spread beyond any one social class, just as the consumption of junk food is.

And if junk food is bad for the physical health, what does junk culture do for the mental health?

For Honey Boo Boo, her parents and siblings, they seem to have been able to exploit the system as much as it has exploited them. And good luck to them in many ways for that.

But what will be the end result for those Amish/Mennonite young people – including the ones featured in a second series?

What about the Kyle guests, whose very dysfunctionality provokes enough Twitter traffic to trend, as viewers share their revulsion? It’s documented that they receive no real help to deal with the problems that allow the show to exist.

We’ve got a cult of easy celebrity, whereby fame is awarded not for actually having done anything or having any sort of talent, but simply for being prepared to act as outrageously as possible in front of a camera.

Geordie Shore, The Only Way is Essex, Made in Chelsea and Desperate Scousewives: moronic television made to moronise and desensitise the public, who appear to have enough of an appetite for it all that such dross keeps appearing.

Television that, when voting is concerned, garners more participation (even though it costs money) than some elections.

And if that doesn’t depress you, nothing will.

So where next in this drive to shock and titillate? Who knows?

But you can bet your bottom dollar that someone is mulling over a new approach even as I write and you read. And that, at its root, it will be about making money for a few with little regard for the larger cost.

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