Misery Meets Reality TV: Queen For A Day

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How much of others’ misery can you stand? How much of their success?

Television has an answer for us, but more about that a little later.

According to Dan Greenburg and Marcia Jacobs in How to Make Yourself Miserable, it is essential that your life should stay within the “Acceptable Failure Range,” lest you lose your friends. Exceeding that range in either direction — too much success or too much unhappiness — will alienate some people. Or so the authors say, tongue in cheek, in this funny old book.

Although I don’t know of research evidence to support this notion, I suspect there is something to it. It is easy enough to fall into the shadow of a friend who glories in his attainments and reminds you regularly of all his achievements.

If the old saying, “Misery loves company” is true, one must be careful about being too full of yourself and your good fortune around friends.

Similarly, many people fear that others will tire of their tales of unhappiness and woe. They anticipate causing their acquaintances to experience compassion fatigue and shun them. This expectation leads some of the afflicted to avoid discussion of deeply personal injuries, or to speak about them only infrequently. Indeed, our society encourages an upbeat, “can do” attitude and expects us to “move on” perhaps more quickly than we can easily manage.

Faced with unhappiness or life crisis, it is interesting to observe how a person handles it. Some find relief in talking about it and appreciate patient and supportive listeners. Others do not want to speak or think about it, turning to distraction or to a very small group of confidants. Taking your cue from the person in distress is best.

If you can handle difficult and painful conversations, you are a very good friend indeed. And, if there is a practical and specific kind of assistance that you can offer (running errands, preparing meals, driving to a doctor’s office), you will provide more help than if you simply say “let me know if there is anything I can do.”

As a society, we seem to have an ambivalent relationship to disaster. When it happens to someone else, it can be fascinating. No wonder that TV stations use a motto to describe how to determine the first story on the news: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

When the calamity is in Uzbekistan, it is one thing. It is then easy to keep our distance: it is both out there, thousands of miles away; and “in there” — inside the TV set. Moreover, when the media inundate us daily with so many tragedies, each individual one loses its impact.

So-called “reality” no longer seems quite real.

Unless it happens to your brother-in-law and it becomes quite something else.

In the 1950s and ’60s, there was an old TV program called “Queen For a Day.” A forerunner of the ubiquitous reality TV of today, it featured “real people” (only women) telling the MC the profoundly unfortunate circumstances of their lives and usually breaking down while doing so. Ultimately, each contestant was asked what she would like if she won; this usually took the form of medical equipment or household appliances.

An applause meter registered the studio audience’s approval so as to choose the winner. Sort of like a latter-day Roman Colosseum, the virtually all-female 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 effectively hoping to surpass her competitors in terms of desperation and heartbreak, often describing diseased children and extraordinarily bad luck.

Once the “Queen” was crowned and perched on a makeshift throne (to the tune of “Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March #1, which you know as the processional music to which you graduated high school), she received not only the requested item, but a carload of other things, perhaps including a vacation.

One can only imagine what the losers felt like, having once again been consigned to the anonymous trash heap of human misery. Perhaps they thought, “Wasn’t my life bad enough?” Almost certainly, failing to win 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.”

Of course, there was nothing demeaning about the misfortune itself. But, the fact that these women had to parade it in front of a national audience — a group of strangers — all in the hope of some material reward (however, necessary), was lamentable. Indeed, the discomfort of the contestants was not disguised.

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 the history of civilization.

Having said all that, should you dare, you can watch various episodes on youtube.

The image above is John Collier’s Queen Guinevre’s Maying (1900) sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“Not Invited,” “Picked Last,” and Other Small Tragedies of Childhood

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Unless you were an unusually charismatic or talented child, you know what it feels like to hear about a party to which virtually all the other kids were invited, and realize that you weren’t; or to be the last person chosen for a team of your peers, and chosen only after even the marginally talented athletes were picked. And then, if worse than that is possible, to be assigned to play right field, the spot on the baseball diamond where you were expected to inflict the least damage to your team.

Or, if you are female, you might remember trying to join a group of girls engaged in conversation, only to find them falling silent upon your approach, and then being told that the conversation is private.

Humiliation, embarrassment, sadness, and chagrin, call it what you may, that feeling lingers. And it lingers long enough, dear reader, that you are just now probably thinking of an example of it from your own life.

Bummer.

Most kids don’t want to stand out from the group, but want to be a part of the group. And to be the last one chosen, or not to be invited at all, makes you stand out in the worst possible way. Your secret is out.

Until the moment of your “unchoosing,” you probably only suspected that you were a lousy athlete or an unpopular person. Now, not only do you know it for certain, but so does everyone else.

It can even happen to adults. I’ll give you one rather singular example. The event occurred at a staff meeting of a psychiatric hospital. The psychology section was having an election for the offices of President and Secretary. Two people were running for the former office and only one for the latter. It was the custom to ask all the candidates to leave the room when the vote was about to be taken, since the election was done by a show of hands.

The Presidential election was quickly completed. Now came the vote for Secretary, presumably a formality, since the only person who wanted the job was unopposed on the ballot.

But things were not so simple as they seemed. The candidate for Secretary wasn’t well-thought-of by his peers. And so, someone nominated the just-defeated candidate for President to run against the solo petitioner for the unfilled office. Sure enough, the previously unopposed gentleman was defeated.

It was the only time in my experience that I ever heard about or witnessed someone lose an election in which he had been running as the sole office-seeker moments before. And you can imagine how this turn of events must have struck the man who had left the room thinking that his ascension to the office of Secretary was just a formality. Playing right field would have felt good by comparison.

No, no one wants to stand out in that way. You don’t want to be the kid who brings the worst gift to your friend’s birthday party. You don’t want to wear clothes that are different from those of your friends, or outdated, or too big, or too small, or too worn. You don’t want to be the kid whose mother cuts his hair. And, if you are female, you don’t want to be the only one who “isn’t allowed” to wear makeup or lipstick, or have one’s hair done in the latest style.

Clearly, all the psychic injuries inflicted during childhood don’t happen at home. It’s a wonder that there isn’t a medic on the playground to deal with the walking-wounded. The resilience of little children indeed must be impressive to permit us to survive and flourish despite the hard experience of our youthful innocence.

So, the next time your son or daughter comes home looking a bit sad, perhaps you will find a way to encourage him or her to recount just such a fresh defeat on the playground that is sometimes also a battleground or a forge in which a young personality is shaped. And, if they do, remember your own hard time when you were your child’s age. It just might make the moment a bit more poignant and allow you to “be there” for your precious offspring in the best possible way.

The above image is called Rejection by Mjt16, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.