‘Real Housewives,’ broken lives

Evan Agostini AP FILE – In this Feb. 5,2011 file photo, television personality Taylor Armstrong, left, and husband Russell Armstrong … Continued

Evan Agostini

AP

FILE – In this Feb. 5,2011 file photo, television personality Taylor Armstrong, left, and husband Russell Armstrong attend a Super Bowl party in Dallas, Texas. Russell Armstrong, the estranged husband of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Taylor Armstrong, has been found dead in his Los Angeles home.

Articles arguing that reality TV producers need to create, and commit, to a code of ethics, keep popping up. Given the amazingly poor, and often self-destructive kinds of human behavior featured in such shows, it’s not surprising that more reasonable people are beginning to question how producers treat the casts of these shows and what they do to stimulate some of the more truly pathetic antics that make up what often count as the shows’ highlights.

This debate has erupted especially in light of the news that Russell Armstrong, featured in Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, committed suicide after complaining to family members about the ”overwhelming” pressure of life in the spotlight.

Such questions become especially acute as reality TV reaches beyond adult performers, and features children in what are sometimes pretty sick situations. Another current example showed up in “Toddlers & Tiaras” and the case of a four year old child who was paraded on the stage in a Dolly Parton outfit complete with fake boobs and a “tush enhancement.”

This is sick stuff, but only slightly more extreme than what passes for normal on this show, which focuses on kids ranging in age from baby to pre-adolescent, competing in contests which reward them for dressing up as street walkers. Okay, that may be a bit harsh, but only a bit. These pageants demand that little girls slink across a stage in adult cocktail wear, swimsuits, and other apparel which puts these shows on the edge of kiddie porn. That’s just not right.

Suggestions for the content of the proposed code of ethics include limiting the appearance of children, assuring regular sleep for those who do appear, limiting cast access to alcohol, and guaranteeing contact with family and friends not associated with the shows. These are all reasonable enough suggestions, and it’s hard to imagine that such shows wouldn’t retain their enormous appeal even if they were implemented. But even if implemented, such a code is only one third of the answer, and the easiest one at that.

It’s easy to blame the companies who produce these shows because it shifts all responsibility away from us and onto what are, for most people, nameless, faceless entities. Blaming them and only them is the perfect way to avoid responsibility while sounding off about ethics – talk about an ethical short fall! The bigger and more difficult ethical issues with reality TV lay with those who perform in them and the audiences who watch them.

The producers need to do better, to be sure, but so do the cast members. Demanding more of them, would also need to be part of any truly ethical reform process. Who are the people who perform on these shows? Does anyone evaluate their mental health before allowing them to go on air? Why is nobody making demands about the ethical obligations which they need to assume before being allowed to participate in such shows? But that leaves the third, and most important part of this equation – us.

We, the American viewing public, have real power here. If we really wanted this to end, we would stop heckling the producers and simply turn off the shows. Television is a market, and if the market for exploitative reality TV dried up, exploitative reality TV would go away. If they didn’t make money for their producers, the producers would stop producing them.

Of course following the above course of action means giving up something many millions of us really love. Exploitative reality TV is like the worst kind of junk food which we almost all of us crave at one time or another – really tasty in the moment and incredibly unhealthy if consumed in large quantities or on any kind of regular basis. But also like junk food, the American public is not simply going to give up on this stuff, and pretending that we will is silly.

My own healthy, well-adjusted, generally quite successful teenage daughters are occasional viewers of some of these shows. As one of them said to me, “when I finish my homework at midnight, and my brain is totally fried, it’s what I want to watch.” I get it. It’s how I feel about pizza and beer from time to time.

Rather than bemoan the existence of most of this programming (the sexualization of children really should be banned without exception, in my view), laying off all the blame on others, why not look to ourselves, and admit that we want these shows, but will consume less of them. Think of it as a TV diet. Like any successful diet, it respects both that which we want and that which we need.

The ethical thing to do is always about doing better given what can’t or won’t be changed. It demands a mindful response, even when conditions are not ideal. That is what we should demand from the producers of reality TV, and from those who appear on it, and from all those who watch it.

About

Brad Hirschfield An acclaimed author, lecturer, rabbi, and commentator on religion, society and pop culture, Brad Hirschfield offers a unique perspective on the American spiritual landscape and political and social trends to audiences nationwide.
  • GoodvBadGovernment1

    “BREAD and CIRCUSES”

    “panem et circenses” – Roman poet 2000 years ago (Juvenal) introduced the
    idea. During the end of the Roman Empire, the Roman politicians had devised a plan to win over the poor: through cheap entertainment and keeping their bellies full. Note: In other words, make sure they remain brain dead.

    When Rome got this desperate and the poet coined this phrase, it happened to be the final years of their Empire. Promoting the absolute erosion of civic duty over frivolous folly – helped the Roman Emperors hold on to the power for just a wee bit longer, but in the end, the folly and trivia engulfed the whole lot! Rome no more!

    It’s not that I don’t stoop to the level of such voyeuristic, empty shows (I’d rather drill a whole in my apartment wall and watch my neighbor’s life) – what worries me more is the omens that are attached to a society that has sunk this low.

  • kmbd

    I totally agree. Yet, the demand for it is insatiable. Many reality TV shows are successful because they are exploitative. Some feature women behaving badly, showing the worst of themselves to us and each other. Yet, many people watch. It’s like Jerry Springer gave birth to a new genre. Exploitative reality TV is here to stay, I believe, until one day something goes way too far.

  • couwnt

    We know that Hollywood is the Liberals church, but putting this in the “On Faith” section is just ridiculous.

    This paper really has become a joke.

  • lufrank1

    Bottom Line: The people who watch this sordid crap are obviously not sensitive or bright…probably let their kids watch as well.

  • wek41

    No,no,no…no code of ethics, no regulation, none of that nonsense.
    These people are/were all adults supposedly familiar with living/existing in American society.
    Let the figure it all out and in the mean time provide more non-sensical “entertainment” to the masses.
    After all it seems our society has come down to “bread and circuses” as a panacea for all its ills and problems.
    So let ‘em alone,let ‘em promote their nonsense and trash and let the “free market sort it all out.
    Hayek rules !!!!!

  • wek41

    It’s about time all these “religious” ,tax free scam artists began paying their share of hte cost of running and maintaining society.
    Seems their efforts lately have not been very effective in preventing financial chicanery and crimes by the banksters and the Wall St. crew. Nor have they spoken out about the aggression and armed conflicts (wars) promoted and encouraged by the neo-con criminals and the GW gang.
    Seems all these “tax free” folks do is talk on Sundays ,appear on TV to promote sales of their “self-help” books and solicit donations.
    What they need to do is get off their dead a—s and move into the streets and neighborhoods where they might be able to do some actual good by helping people physically.

  • map529

    I must agree. Some of the main indicators of a society (civilization) in decline are: heightened militarism, disproportionate spending on military adventures, increased restriction of civil liberties, increased ignorance of the general public, increased paranoia by the ruling class, and use of low-class or base entertainment to keep the masses peaceful.

    It is time for some serious introspection. However, the typical member of the American public either has no interest due to lack of intellectual curiosity (a la Bush the Second), or due to lack of time because he or she is too insecure about his or her job or health care.

  • Curmudgeon10

    The content may be sick. But so are the viewers who support these shows and provide venue for the advertisers.

    Paraphrasing H.L. Mencken, no one ever went broke underestimating the lack of class and decorum of the American public.

  • jglass54

    Given what reality TV involves, I would assume that most of the non-celebrities who want to star on reality TV are already living dysfunctional lives. What well-adjusted, happy person would want to put their life on display and get involved in the super-charged, emotional hyperbole of a reality TV show?

    Personally, I can’t watch more than five minutes of any reality TV show that doesn’t involve some real skill (dance, clothes making, singing). Shows such as “Real Housewives” melt my brain and make me feel like taking a post-nuclear exposure shower to feel clean again.

  • Carstonio

    I’ve never been able to get into reality shows, for more or less the same reason I never got into pro wrestling. It’s not just the ridiculous stereotypes. The casts on the shows are presented as freaks and villains for viewers to jeer at., in act of phony of self-righteousness. I’ve only seen one episode of Real Housewives and my impression was that the show was designed as sour-grapes resentment for both genders. The producers seem to assume that both men and women long to see rich and sexy women presented as sour, hateful materialists. I’ve heard and read anecdotes about these shows being largely or entirely scripted, with editing designed to make audience favorites look good and other cast members look more villainous.

  • senigma

    Ethics, Television? Bwhahahahahahahah! You guys are so funny. No, really, were you high when you came up with this idea for an article?

  • GoodvBadGovernment1

    map529: Indeed.

  • Italiaxxx

    Reality show are stupid, fake, and scripted. Dont support this garbage. Stop watching = Kardashians/Kate/etc will go away.

  • mowjoe

    A new low; monetizing suicide. Even Snooki can’t top that one. Soon, snuff reality shows. The real divide in American is not the haves and have nots, its those who watch these shows and those who don’t. Cultural restraints are gone – the underbelly people will rise up at some point and demand their fair share of the restrained and cultured. The mob is coming.

  • REClayton

    Never thought I’d quote Nancy Reagan, but in this case, I urge your daughter to Just Say No. She, or anyone, can find countless diversions that are much more satisfying than this contempt-breeding garbage. Your beer and pizza may poison the body a little bit, but reality TV poisons the mind, heart and soul.
    One should always use great discernment in choosing one’s vices.

  • jjj141

    My wife watches these shows. Based what I’ve seen , these people deserev what they get.

  • jjlc125

    Reality TV shows have been a problem since long before Russell Armstrong’s suicide. A few years ago, a contestant on “Paradise Hotel 2″ committed suicide shortly after the show concluded production. Two years ago a contestant on “Megan Wants a Millionaire” became a suspect in the murder of his ex-wife. He later fled to Canada and committed suicide, prompting VH1 to cancel the show after a few episodes; it’s one of the few times the network has done the right thing.

    More recently, several members of the “Jersey Shore” cast have gotten in trouble with the law and “Dancing With the Stars” has come under fire for casting Chaz Bono and Nancy Grace in the upcoming season.

    Personally, I’d love to see the reality TV genre come to an end. I fail to see where it’s contributed much in a positive way to today’s culture.

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