Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Entertaining Pain

Channel surfing. It’s an odious practice at times –the search for something to watch on TV that will entertain and relax. I paused, transfixed, on the image of a group of young, morbidly obese people engaged in some kind of competition on a beach – urging a teammate onward as she struggled to reach the goal. “Come on! You can do it! Just a few more yards!” The young woman was on her hands and knees, barely crawling. The cheers continued. She collapsed in the sand, barely conscious. Her comrades gathered around her. “Come on! You’re almost there!” In an effort to reach the team’s goal, they began to drag her toward the finish line – no simple feat for a group of young people who averaged between 250 and 300 pounds each in weight. As they pulled their teammate over the finish line, their shouts of encouragement turned to screams of panic. “Open your eyes! Breathe!! Stay with us!” The young woman was not responsive. Even I could see that she was in a state of physical collapse from which she might not recover. The closing shots were of her being administered oxygen and evacuated from the beach by helicopter - - the video cameras capturing it all for later viewing by a public audience, complete with anguished commentary by the other participants in the show called “The Biggest Loser.”

I have alternated between sorrow, anger and incredulity since watching for those few brief minutes. Perhaps there was a good outcome. I don’t know if the woman survived. I don’t know how the producers of the show managed the after effects of that segment. I wondered how it is that the exploitation of human suffering and pain, and in this case, obesity, has become a form of entertainment.

A houseguest sits in the next room watching daytime TV programming. The volume is low, but not low enough for me to miss the mesmerizing chant of “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” as an audience cheers for Jerry Springer. Beginning there and throughout the day the most intimate of personal dilemmas and humiliation are broadcast as entertainment for the world to see. From Jerry to Dr. Phil to Judge Judy to “reality” shows – human pain and conflict seems to be fair game for public entertainment.

I try to convince myself that, perhaps, witnessing the conflict and tragedy in the lives of others on the flat screen might elicit compassion, perhaps eventuating in acts of kindness toward others in real life. And I suppose it does in some instances. But the taunting and adversarial shouts from the TV audiences as human beings play out their life dramas in public frequently give the lie to that fantasy, evoking scenes of gladiatorial contests in ancient Roman amphitheaters. Indeed, the exploitive voyeurism that typifies a lot of “reality” programming dulls the mind and flattens the ability to respond to human suffering with compassion. Human dignity is violently sacrificed on the altars of shock value and TV ratings. How have we come to this?

Vicki Hanjian

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