How much of others’ misery can you stand? How much of their success? How much of their sexuality?
Television has an answer for us, but more about that a little later. First, let’s look at our private responses to the fluctuating fortunes of ourselves and others.
Dan Greenburg and Marcia Jacobs in How to Make Yourself Miserable, recommend your life should stay within the “Acceptable Failure Range.” Exceeding the limits in either direction — repeated success or endless unhappiness — will alienate some people, so the authors tell us, tongue in cheek?
I’m comfortable with this idea. Few wish to fall into the shadow of a friend who glories in his achievements. You know the type — towering SAT scores, career victories, and trendy restaurant visits are not just reported but repeated.
If the old saying, “Misery loves company” is true, one should limit being too full of yourself and your good fortune around friends.
Others in a fraught personal moment hesitate to describe their raw misfortune for fear of stressing out their social network. They anticipate compassion fatigue and expect to be shunned — the “Debbie Downer” of their group. USA society encourages an upbeat, “can do” attitude and expects us to “move on.”
We have an ambivalent relationship to fortune’s two-faced coin. First we separate the people we know well from everyone else. A different set of rules applies to each of these groups.
A celebrity’s high-flown lifestyle might intrigue us rather than generate jealousy, but headlined heartache is addictive so long as harm doesn’t happen to someone for whom we care.
A calamity in Uzbekistan is one thing. Distance is built-in. The disaster is both out there, thousands of miles away; and “in there” — inside the TV set. Moreover, when the media inundate us with tragedy stacked liked chipped dishes one upon another, the individual damage of each one makes little impression.
The lives of others — their “reality” — no longer seems quite real once we have become habituated to it. Our unconscious defenses protect us from recognizing that, we too, are subject to the sword of a savage Fate, both random and indifferent. In effect, the broadcast disaster is like a stage play, entertaining but soon forgotten.
That is, unless your brother-in-law calls with a message so painful even the smartphone is stupefied.
The 1950s first revealed our fascination with the sad lives of strangers, unrecognized until a national network TV program called “Queen for a Day” became a hit. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, public sorrow was thought unseemly except at funerals. QFAD turned forbidden self-disclosure into entertainment. A forerunner of the ubiquitous reality TV of today, the show featured “real people” (women who were not celebrities) telling the emcee the unfortunate circumstances of their lives and sometimes breaking down while doing so.
This was preceded by an unconscionably upbeat welcome from the host, Jack Bailey, a pencil-mustached man with glistening black hair and the attitude of Harold Hill in The Music Man: a fast talker far too cheerful and insincere for the occasion, whose pores oozed Hill’s flim-flam slipperiness. Four “contestants” sat behind him, all looking as if they awaited crucifixion, chests heaving, scarcely in emotional control. Each was about to bare her tragedy to a theater/restaurant audience of ladies having lunch with a side-order of Schadenfreude, the German word that describes our amused, but guilty reaction to watching someone else slip on a banana peel.
This was pre-civil rights television. White women desperate enough to endure this humiliation were asked what they would like if crowned; usually medical equipment or household appliances.
Once all the tragedies had been recited Jack Bailey requested applause for the opponents in the order in which he’d interviewed them. A meter registered the audience’s measure of their pain’s sufficiency. Sort of like a latter-day Roman Colosseum, the spectators determined who among the lady “gladiators” got a “thumbs up.” The program was some form of “See if you can top this,” with each contestant hoping to surpass her competitors in terms of desperation and heartbreak, diseased children and poverty.
Once coronated, the “Queen” was robed and seated on a makeshift throne to the tune of “Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March #1, better known as high school graduation processional music. Her majesty then received not just the requested item, but a carload of other things, often including a vacation.
I can only imagine how the losers felt, having once again been consigned to the anonymous trash heap of human misery. Perhaps they wondered, “Wasn’t my life bad enough?” Defeat added to their already long list of disappointments, despite a few consolation prizes.
The TV writer Mark Evanier called this program “one of the most ghastly shows ever produced,” further finding it “tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting and utterly degrading to the human spirit.” A confession here: I viewed it as a kid.
Of course, the misfortune itself was not demeaning. But, the fact that these women had to plead for and parade their need in front of a national audience and strangers nearby — all in the hope of some material reward (however, necessary) — was lamentable. The discomfort of the contestants was not disguised. To add to the irony, they were surrounded by beautiful models in skimpy outfits, all wearing their own crowns. Every one of them looked ready for the Miss Universe bathing suit competition. Compared to these youthful and comely human stage props, the rest resembled victims of a recent mugging. The objectification of all the featured females, from the leggy sexuality of Bailey’s nameless assistants to the throw-away dismissal of the three losers, was appalling.
Many of today’s reality TV “stars” require no such financial incentives to lay bare (sometimes literally) whatever is most personal in this more shameless moment in history. TV channel VH1 debuted a new series called “Dating Naked” on July 17th. Three couples quickly go on nude dates in this cut-rate version of the Bachelor/Bachelorette enterprise. Surely this is the final defeat of mystery in romance. To their credit, the producers blurred the naughty parts and included contestants who look like real people, not models.
Think about it. We are scandalized if someone finds a way to watch women in the shower room without their knowledge. We find it outrageous, and welcome the legal prosecution of the “Peeping Toms” who do this. Yet, when the TV reality participants agree to national emotional or physical nakedness, many of us salivate in anticipation. Yes, there is a difference between the “Toms” and the rest of us, but not in terms of our curiosity and prurient interest in behavior once thought of as private. Are we better off today than before “Queen for a Day” led the way to “Dating Naked?”
In fairness, “Queen for a Day” wasn’t the real starting point. One could go back to the gory glory of the Roman Colosseum, whose inaugural games in the first century A.D. are said to have involved the slaughter of 9000 animals in hunts staged before tens of thousands. We know about the gladiatorial contests of the time, while boxing matches and bull fights continue in the present day.
People can and should learn from the lives of others — what to do and what not to do. What seems a shame — but oh, so human — is our penchant for paying attention to things from which we can learn little. A more charitable stance, however, is to recognize we need the distraction. “Gapers’ blocks” produced by “rubbernecking” happen despite knowing we are contributing to a traffic jam. By comparison to “Dating Naked,” actions worth emulating are usually quiet, private, and boring. The class clown gets us to laugh, while the valedictorian goes home and reads.
Having said all that, should you dare, you can witness various episodes of the show that picked up and transformed the voyeurism of the Colosseum and adapted it for television. The YouTube link at the top of the essay includes a complete 1956 QFAD show. When it is over, you might think a second about today’s reality entertainment and the Roman audience 2000 years ago. For me, there is one conclusion: Darwin was wrong!
The publicity photo of Jack Bailey and his “Queen For A Day” assistants was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by We hope.