Misery Meets Reality TV: Queen For A Day


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.

Holiday Depression is Coming to Town

It is that time of year. The TV shows us happy families, all smiles, getting together around the Christmas tree or a turkey dinner. Festive window displays adorn your local department store. Greeting cards proclaim good cheer and the values of family and fraternity. And there you are, alone or lonely, wondering how it is that you haven’t been invited to the party.

The media often represent a version of American life that overstates the happiness quotient of the average person. It is difficult not to believe that many, if not most people are having a better time than we are; are more loved, more popular, and having more fun.

First off, don’t be fooled. You are not alone. Just because you are not represented in the media ads, doesn’t mean that you are solo in your suffering. Many of the “holiday singles” group keep a low profile at this time of year, fearful that they will be judged to be losers if they proclaim their isolation; few want to be objects of pity, and that is exactly what they expect if it should become known that they have nowhere to go and no one to be with on Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year’s Eve.

But many people are alone: many of the divorced, widowed, and childless; many who live at great distances from their families; many who have recently broken-up with someone; many who are estranged from family or friends; many who have recently moved; and many of the unemployed, who have lost the connectedness to co-workers that was an emotionally sustaining source of support.

Holidays can also be difficult because of the haunting memories of better times. This is especially true if the loss of loved ones is fairly recent. The first holiday or two after a divorce or death is usually especially difficult to endure, so great is the contrast between the focus on family that the holiday brings and the solitary fact of being bereft. Moreover, holidays tend to rob the lonely of the distraction of work, generating significant expanses of empty time, filled only by reflections on one’s sorry state as the time moves with a dull, clumsy, funereal tread.

On top of all this, there is the problem of Seasonal Affective Disorder (appropriately signified by the acronym SAD). Typically, the pattern is one of onset of a depressive episode in the fall or winter, with remission coming in the spring. Additionally, the seasonal condition is not due to some external event (such as the beginning of school in the fall), but rather is thought to do with the relative unavailability of “bright visible-spectrum light” that is characteristic of  “the dark months.”

What to do then, if you are suffering from the holiday blues? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Although your unhappiness presupposes the absence of satisfying social contact, at least consider whether there is someone to whom you can reach out and who might even welcome your participation in his holiday celebration. Social withdrawal tends to feed on itself, only making us feel worse. While it is true that a rejection is painful, many people are more than usually welcoming at this time of year; the risk might be worth the reward.
  • Keep busy doing something productive. Don’t spend hours watching television alone, if at all possible. Clean your house, build something, exercise, or perform some other useful function.
  • Consider volunteering at a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. Not only is this important work, but it will fill the time and might even make you aware that, however bad your situation, it is still better than that of some other people. One other benefit is the human contact that such volunteerism provides, including the possibility of making new friends, among whom might be some others who find themselves alone on the holidays.
  • Make a list of the things about which you are grateful. Most of us take much for granted. Perhaps there are still things in your life that you can count as blessings. Such reminders are often useful in boosting a sagging spirit.
  • If you have the means, travel can be a good and beneficial use of your time at the holidays. Fares are often cheaper on the holiday itself. Going to a warm climate or a new place might serve to break up your routine and, once again, give you a chance to do new things and meet new people.
  • Social-networking sites on the internet may be worth investigating. While not usually as satisfying as face-to-face human contact, this new type of relatedness can lead to friendship for some, and reduce one’s sense of complete isolation.
  • If you have been on the planet for a while, remember the past difficulties that you have overcome and how you did so. It is very likely that the same human qualities that enabled you to get past other tough times will get you over the holidays.
  • If you have been diagnosed with a seasonal depression (SAD), consider obtaining a light box that provides a full light spectrum for your own in-home therapy. These can be found easily by googling “light box.” Such devices are typically not enormously expensive.
  • Psychotherapy and/or anti-depressant medication are always available should you wish to take on your sadness in a most direct and powerful way.