The Age of Assholism, Part II: Old Media

This piece originally appeared on a blog I wrote about culture and entertainment from a Leftist perspective.  The blog was called Knowledge and Valor.  This piece appeared there on 13 April 2007.

To further elaborate on yesterday’s topic, I thought I would explore the marriage of cruelty and pseudo-wit in traditional media (i.e. television and radio). While the practice is probably more widespread in the “new” media of the Internet, it is seeping into the traditional media like raw sewage. This is especially true in the arenas of reality television and of cable networks.

Perhaps the worst offender in this area is Bravo. Long gone are the glory days of that network when it was commercial-free and showed independent films and purchased syndication rights for innovative television series like Twin Peaks. No, there are no more noir festivals on Bravo. Since its purchase by the media arm of GE that put it in the same universe as NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, etc., it has turned to a network of cookie-cutter reality series that thrive on petty bickering and nasty gossip mongers. (Perhaps this explains the recent purchase of Television Without Pity by Bravo. After all, TWoP is the flag ship for shallow, hateful ranting by obsessives who go to ridiculous lengths to prove how “snarky” they are. In other words, the poster child for the Age of Assholism.)

Bravo’s downturn started with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. While the show had its entertaining moments, it was basically a shallow bitchfest about the glories of fashion and home decor. Then came Project Runway. Again, not a horrible show as far as reality TV goes. It was original and had some entertaining moments. However, it also wallowed in the shallow end of the pool with its obsession with fashion. With the horrors inflicted upon women in the name of fashion, it’s hardly a topic that I feel needs to be further glorified. The worst part, though, was the fact that more important than real creativity was the drama–the petty gossiping, the in-fighting and backstabbing.

This trend continued as Bravo has trotted out one PR clone after another: Top Chef, Top Design, and (the newest) Shear Genius. All focus on the interests of people with more money than time or heart. Interior decorating, hair styling, gourmet cooking. Infinitely more important than, say, U.S. foreign policy or the position of women in modern society, don’t we all agree? Rather than encourage women to tell the fashion industry to go fuck itself, Bravo and its slew of shallow “lifestyle” shows instruct women that nothing is more important than how they look, what’s on their walls or how their hair is styled. Why worry about the gender earning gap when you could be looking forward to New York Fashion Week? These values fit perfectly with the Age of Assholism, as do the form the shows take.

Other cable networks have followed the same business model as Bravo. Most notably, the network that formerly touted itself as The Learning Channel long ago decided that teaching people about science and other cultures was so passe. Instead, it was time to focus on interior decorating and fashion. We were given a hundred episodes of Trading Spaces each year (and that’s only a slight exaggeration). It’s not that Trading Spaces itself was (or is, in its last season) so horrible. It was that it represented a depressing and dramatic shift away from the educational network that The Learning Channel had been to the proponent of conspicuous consumption that TLC is. It also led to the explosion of DIY home “improvement” shows and networks. This trend has resulted in countless series that show people remodeling “out-dated” homes. They dramatically destroy usable cabinets, furniture and other home decor so that they can replace them with newer, more expensive items–usually to the point of environmental insanity. Wood floors are torn up and replaced with new wood floors because the new residents don’t like the color or the type of wood used. The wasted resources, the lost trees are glossed over. Cabinets are smashed, twisted and torn off walls because they aren’t fashionable enough for the new residents. Again, the environmental impact is rarely (if ever) mentioned. Perfectly usable appliances are carted off to landfills because they aren’t made of stainless steel. Counter tops and tiles meet the same fate so that granite and other stones can take their places.

The horror doesn’t stop with the glorification of environmental irresponsibility, however. There are also the shows that prey on (and create) female insecurities. Most notably, the hackneyed import of the BBC’s What Not to Wear, introduced to the U.S. by TLC. The original BBC version had its faults. Most notably, the two hostesses stressed the importance of fashion in women’s lives as if this was a foregone conclusion. Women inherently care about clothes, revel in make-up application, and have orgasms at the thought of buying new shoes, right? However, they also stressed helping women overcome their insecurities. They didn’t rail on the guests for carrying a few extra pounds or being on the other side of 40. Instead, they helped them find their best physical traits and show them off. While the hosts used coarse language (“tits” had to be mentioned at least once per episode, it seems), they did not revel in the discomfort or humiliation of these women. The hostesses even went to the women’s homes and jobs to see how these women lived their lives on a daily basis.

Of course, the U.S. version couldn’t stick to the caring, if crass, tone of the original. Instead, we got the glorification of cattiness. That is, we got the “snarky” version. Now, the hosts were a straight woman and a gay man, both of whom had been plucked from the ranks of “professional stylists.” (What the fuck is a professional stylist? Who actually pays for that shit?) Unlike the British hosts, who would point to their own physical flaws to show women that even “imperfect” bodies can be beautiful, the American hosts portray themselves as the arbiters of all that is fashionable and acceptable. They relish the humiliation they inflict on these women. They toss out “witty” one-liners at the women’s expense left and right. The only praise we ever hear is after they have suitably broken a woman down and forced her to submit to their ideals of female beauty. Their message is always one of conformity. “Style” is not about what a woman likes or what she thinks is valuable, it’s about what other people think. It’s about looking the part. It’s about beating out anything original or thoughtful in a woman, and making her into a carbon copy of the woman beside her.

Sadly, it looks as though the British version is going the way of the U.S. version. The original hosts have left, and the new hosts leave something to be desired if their first episode is any indication. In this episode, they styled two women who had recently had mastectomies. One of them was lectured to forget about that “feminist stuff.” She was instructed that she already had a good job, so she didn’t need to worry about standing up for women’s position world anymore. Because we all know that fashion is more important than principle. Besides, isn’t feminism all about what we can get for ourselves, fuck everyone else? It is if you ask these two rejects. If anything, they are prime examples that the Age of Assholism isn’t merely an American phenomenon.

That’s unfortunate…

One response to “The Age of Assholism, Part II: Old Media

  1. Great post! I actually looooved What not to wear (with Trinny and Susanna, the UK version) back in 2006/07. And what I loved about it was exactly the caring tone you described. I myself was very insecure about how to dress in order to feel good (=feminine, show off my "assets", be accepted as attractive female *puke*), and watching that show did actually help me quite a lot to look at my body, see the "good" parts and find clothing that suited me. I saw a few episodes of the US version in 2008 and it had none of the charm of the UK version. It was way too glossy, vain and mean.

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