“Visually unusual beings”: Now there’s a euphemism.
In a history of circus freak shows, the site Monstrous.com notes, “Since Antiquity, visually unusual beings had been exhibited in public spaces. In the 16th century, street performances involving these beings were organized for the enjoyment of the public.” The phenomenon exploded with P. T. Barnum in 1841 and “for more than a hundred years, the sideshow was to become an indispensable appendage of American circus culture.”
Those who were freaks by choice–who were fairly compensated for it and knew exactly what they were doing–managed it fine. Some, like John Merrick, the “Elephant Man,” reportedly had no other employment options, so the work saved their lives; some even became quite wealthy and retired from the circus to enjoy many comfortable years of private life. However, the problem that eventually ended circus sideshows was that most of the “freaks” were vulnerable people coerced or tricked into performing. Once the public caught on to this and either a) expressed their outrage or disdain or b) stopped going because they knew their friends would disapprove, sideshows lost their appeal.
Until now. If ever there was a compelling argument in favor of reincarnation, reality TV is it: It’s got Barnum’s mark all over it. These shows make it possible to watch people smoking crack, scratching at hallucinated meth-bugs, eating non-food items, and protecting the feelings of inanimate objects, and here’s the best part: Nobody has to see you watching it. So much for politically correct peer pressure.
Lots of people have lots of opinions about reality TV, but for me it comes down to two words: informed consent. It’s both a legal and an ethical concept with many facets, but the basic gist of informed consent is that the person:
- has been given accurate and complete information about what s/he’s consenting to,
- has not been pressured or coerced in any way,
- can withdraw that consent at any time, even after completion of the project, and
- is legally and mentally capable of giving that consent.
Is a person with persistent psychosis or advanced dementia mentally capable of giving informed consent? Rarely. Is a 13-year-old legally capable? No. How many minors and apparently mentally incapacitated people have you seen on reality shows? Riiiight.
As I see it, there are four types of people on reality shows. I define these four types based on where they fall in two different dichotomies: Famous or anonymous, and savvy or at-risk. By at-risk, I mean more easily conned, tricked, manipulated, pressured, or exploited due to their mental or “visually unusual” traits or behaviors. Here are the four types:
- The “Savvy Celeb”: A celebrity who starts or joins on with a reality show strictly as a career move. Take Donald Trump, for example.
- The “At-Risk Celeb”: A celebrity who is already burdened with personal or professional problems when s/he signs on with a reality show. Whether or not s/he will be exploited depends largely on his or her advisors. Charlie Sheen is a current example.
- The “Savvy Unknown”: A non-celebrity who recognizes s/he has something of interest to producers, wants to sell it, and makes a fully informed choice in selling it. Example: Octo-Mom.
- The “At-Risk Unknown”: A non-celebrity hoping to receive help for a problem featured on the show. They’re not doing it solely for money or fame or prizes; they’re doing it out of desperation. The people who appear on shows like Hoarders, Intervention, and Beyond Scared Straight are examples.
When participants give fully informed consent (not just “permission”), fine. When they don’t, the show is exploiting them. I think it’s safe to assume that those who are already celebrities when they appear on these shows have advisors (agents, lawyers) to help them avoid unwanted exploitation, but the Unknowns do not, and not all of them are savvy enough to recognize what they’re agreeing to. Some have never even seen the show, but they bow to their family’s pressure to participate or they believe, incorrectly, that being on the show is a form of therapy.
The best possible outcome: The participant’s life is unharmed and also enhanced in some way by his or her appearance on the show. The worst possible outcome: Participating in the show causes the person harm. When that participant is a Savvy Celeb or Savvy Unknown, the harm is certainly unfortunate, but it was the person’s informed choice to risk it. Even the At-Risk Celeb is making an informed choice about participating in a project that s/he, as a professional entertainer or public figure, understands is intended as entertainment. None of those three scenarios, even with tragic outcomes, presents a compelling argument against reality TV, because the participants knew what they were getting into.
The At-Risk Unknown–the person who is not a professional entertainer or public figure, has no circle of savvy advisors, and has a desperate need for help–is another story. When that person is denied informed consent and exploited or otherwise harmed, the circus should be shut down.