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Xenophiles: Voyeur TV

Tuesday, 29 April, 2014

Words by Bren Carruthers
Illustration by Heath Hipwell

We currently live in a new Golden Age of TV. With audiences downloading, dissecting, and deconstructing a slew of shows like House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Hannibal, and True Detective, television has never been taken so seriously. But what has happened to the cavalcade of crap we used to watch: reality TV?

While reality TV really came to prominence at the turn of the millennium, most notably with Survivor and Big Brother, it has arguably been around for much longer. The classic show COPS, which began in 1989, allowed viewers to sit back and enjoy the perverse spectacle of the poor, the drug addicted, and the mentally ill being ‘helpfully assisted’ by local police officers. A revelation in its time, it was simple, cheap to make, and it got good ratings. Millions tuned in to gape, slack-jawed, at the low end of the socioeconomic order—a culture they had not experienced or understood. It was pure, unthrottled voyeurism. Very little has changed.

These days, a significant portion of reality TV parades minorities and subcultures, and holds them up for ridicule more than it demonstrates factuality or reality. It places more focus on exploitation rather than information. Jersey Shore is far more memorable for the vanity and hedonism of its cast (and the damage that it did to the Italian-American community) than any sort of documentary analysis or insight. Similarly, Extreme Couponing is more exploitative of some of the people hit hardest by the global recession as they ride the borders of rationality in their pursuit to save money.

Perhaps the most prolific example of exploitative, voyeur TV still in production is Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. A spin-off from Toddlers & Tiaras—a controversial reality show that followed the lives of America’s child beauty pageant contestants and their families—Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo has thrown the titular star and her self-proclaimed redneck family into their own spotlight.

Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter suggested the show was a crime against humanity.

Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo is a car crash, and everybody rubber-necks at a car crash, right? It’s human nature. Yes, except that if you play that card, you also have to realize that human nature comes with the capacity to draw a line, to hold fast against the dehumanization and incremental tearing down of the social fabric, even if this never-ending onslaught of reality television suggests that’s a losing effort. You can say no to visual exploitation. You can say no to TLC. And you can say no to Honey Boo-Boo Child. Somebody has to.”

Voyeur TV has now even reached a point where it matches the more traditional definition of voyeurism. With the rise of events like Tough Mudder and the popularity of boot camp-style exercise regimes, the Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid has been a hit, as it cashes in on the recent trend of survivalism. The show centres on the extremely unlikely scenario in which a man and woman are stripped naked and ‘abandoned’ in the wild, and follows them through the following 21 days as they attempt to pursue the absolute basics of survival—food, water, shelter, and occasionally clothing. Of course, as you would expect, even a basic web search demonstrates that the majority of viewers seem to only be interested in uncensored footage and sexual fantasy.

Yet, despite the severely problematic nature of this exploitation, it’s impossible not to consider the phenomenon a double-edged sword. Even in the depths of low entertainment, there are important, immeasurable positives.

A number of shows centred on hoarding have helped bring the phenomenon into public consciousness and ease some of the stigma, but at the same time can only compound the stress and difficulties subjects face as they attempt to change their lives. On shows like Embarrassing Bodies and My Strange Addiction, privacy and dignity are exchanged for medical advice and assistance. In both of these cases, the public spectacle has also helped countless others to seek assistance for their ailments.

Shows which have focussed on Amish teens during their rumspringa—a time when many leave their communities to experience the world and decide whether to return—have offered these teens incredible experiences that would not otherwise be available to them, and arguably helped inform their choice. And while the ethics are difficult to navigate, the ‘stars’ are always consenting.

Despite all of its failings, Voyeur TV will be here to stay for the foreseeable future. The cash and captive audiences are too much for television producers to decline. At the very least, we can hope that the exploitation factor doesn’t grow any further, and the genre is sanitised—both figuratively, and literally. Have you seen the neck crust on Honey Boo-Boo’s mother? It’s disgusting. It isn’t Game of Thrones, but it’s must-watch TV.