Throughout history, differences in the human condition have been fodder for exploitation and entertainment, dating back to the 16th century with street "performances" to entertain the masses. In 1850 you could hand a man a quarter or less and gain admission to P.T. Barnum's "Great Travelling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome" where you could look on in fear, wonder, amazement, or horror at a bearded lady, "Siamese" twins, a three-legged boy, "Fijian cannibals", giants, midgets (as they were referred to then), or any other number of human "oddities".
This phenomenon seemingly reached its peak in the mid-to-late 19th century, when there were over 100 such side-shows traveling with circuses and fairs around the country.
As we moved onward in to the 20th century however, our knowledge, understanding, acceptance and compassion grew, and shows like these disappeared from the mainstream. We have evolved and we look back on these cruel and demeaning displays with pity for the ignorance collectively suffered and sadness for those used and abused because of their differences.
Or have we?
I don't believe we have.
We're just better at making it look acceptable now.
These days all you have to do is sit in the comfort of your own living room and turn on the tv. But while the venue may be different, what's happening is exactly the same as if you handed a man a quarter to see what's behind that curtain. If you watch TLC, that is.
TLC. Formerly The Learning Channel, they actually used to show educational programming. But when it was clear that was not where the money was, they changed their name and moved in a more lucrative direction. Lucrative, and unsettling.
Over the last decade TLC has essentially become a modern-day P.T. Barnum. While it can be argued that just about every channel/network out there offer some questionable programs (consider this a shout-out to MTV... ), TLC has cultivated a programming line-up that would rival any side-show of the past.
A current list of some of their shows:
- My Strange Addiction
- 19 Kids and Counting
- Sister Wives
- Hoarding - Buried Alive
- I Didn't Know I was Pregnant
- The Little Couple and Little People, Big World
- Toddlers and Tiaras
Let's look at that list. A recent episode of My Strange Addiction featured a woman who was obsessed with carrying around the ashes of her dead husband... and eating them. Then we have procreation run-amok and polygamy. People whose compulsion to collect so much of something that they endanger their own lives. Women who give birth without having any clue they were even pregnant. Shows about... that's right... little people. Sound familiar?
Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. I am not calling any of the people on these shows "freaks". What I am saying, is that their differences, whatever they may be, are being exploited for the purpose of entertaining others. Of course these days, with the exception of the children, being shown like this is the choice of those we are watching. This was sometimes the case during the heyday of the circus side-shows as well, where many of the adult "exhibits" displayed themselves willingly, in order to earn money. Seems to me, this is not much different today.
But let's please not forget the children. Who truly have no voices here except what their parents or guardians have chosen for them. How is being put front and center on a tv show that people watch because they think you are at best, a curiosity, any different than the parents that sold or contracted their children to the freak-shows of old?
The jewel in this dirty crown without question is the abhorrent and irresponsible Toddlers and Tiaras. This show has been in the news quite a bit recently, and for good reason. Here, TLC shines a big, blinding spotlight on the world of "beauty pageants" for little girls. And by little, I mean as young as a year old, and by beauty, I mean if you consider spray-tans, fake teeth, false eyelashes, more make-up than Ru Paul in full drag, hair that defies any explanation and outfits more suited to 18 yr-old cheerleaders or Vegas show girls, beautiful, on babies and elementary school-aged girls.
I could rant for days on how horrifyingly wrong this is. Why these pageants are legal is frankly a mystery. The exploitation is rampant and obvious - for all of the supporters out there, all you have to do is watch a few episodes with Eden Wood's mother in them and you won't be able to get away from it. For all who cry "scholarship money!", I'd like to point out, that at least from what they have shown, cash is handed over to the winners of these pageants, not checks made out to trust, cash. Ms. Wood said right on camera that she was just waiting for "Hollywood" to call to offer her 6 year old a 2 million dollar contract so that she could then go out an buy a big house in L.A. What parent says to their 6 year old "it's all on YOU, all the money, all the work, it's all on YOU." ? How can you say "well, when we first did her make up we were really bothered by it because she looked 17 and she's only 4, but, well, you get used to it, it's just what you have to do." ? Actually, no, it's not. No one is putting a gun to your head and forcing you to do this to your children.
Yes, I understand that there are exceptions, and that there are likely parents of these girls who are truly trying to earn some money to help with their future education. But people, giving your 4 year old fake boobs, a hot-pink, skin tight outfit, making her up to look like a bad Barbie on What Not to Wear, filling her full of coffee and Pixie Stix, and making her believe that she is not beautiful unless every single thing about her is fake... is not the way to do it. The body image issues these very little girls already have, just make me sick to my stomach.
And while TLC may not be forcing anyone to do anything, they are certainly providing the incentive/motivation/vehicle for this to continue and possibly flourish. The chance to "be on tv" and "get famous" are powerful drugs to those hungry for any kind of attention, even if it's negative.
Human nature will not change. I'm not writing this to judge anyone who watches these types of shows, I understand that when given the option to observe unusual people or circumstances, we will. We will always be drawn to things that are different, things we find strange, outrageous, bewildering, amazing, in both good and bad ways. Whether it's because we are curious, afraid or confused and want to understand, or because knowingly or not, we feel better about ourselves when we see others in situations we deem difficult, or, we actually find the differences of others entertaining somehow, there will always be an audience for the freak-show.
TLC has simply chosen to capitalize on this.
Ol' P.T. would be proud.
I think about this a lot because I have a son who is profoundly autistic. Who, even in this day and age, prompted a man to say that he"should be in a cage". My little boy, referred to as though he were some sort of wild creature because he's different. Back in the day, he probably would have been abandoned or sold to some freak-show purveyor. This makes me die a little inside.
So am I being too hard on TLC? Am I over reacting? Come on now, it's just tv... right?
You tell me.
*originally posted on my blog 9.6.11*
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