In a post a while back, I made some comments relating to the popularity of reality television and how I thought our society had become more voyeuristic. I received a comment on that post which, in addition to other great points, made the claim that human nature has really always been this way. The more I think about this idea, the more I see the probable truth in it.
There is a common saying that if we do not remember our history we are doomed to repeat it. While this is usually meant as a warning, it illustrates the point that historical trends often present themselves in cycles, unless society changes in some fundamental way. If voyeurism is indeed an essential human trait, this would explain why reality TV has more longevity than other previous fads in the entertainment world. But it would also mean that we should be able to find some other manifestation of this voyeuristic trend in our past as well as our present. I think the source can be found if we look at a particular segment of the reality TV world, namely the medical and the addiction-related shows. The medical shows typically focus on bizarre medical conditions that require highly complicated surgical interventions. The addiction show s follow the lives of people living with addictions or mental illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. I have not watched these shows extensively because the very idea of these shows is to gawk at people who have a genuine medical or psychological problem that makes their lives very difficult, and I find this idea repugnant. Yet there is a phenomenon from the past that is remarkably similar to these shows - circus sideshows or “freakshows”. In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, travelling circuses were very popular, the best known of which was probably Barnum & Bailey. In addition to the acrobats, clowns and animals, most of these circuses had a sideshow, typically consisting of individuals who had some form of physical abnormality, such as the “fat man” or “bearded lady” or the “siamese twins”. Unlike other circus performers these “freaks” (definitely not a politically correct term but it is the term used most often during that time) didn’t actually do anything - they just stood around and were watched by people who would “marvel” at them, meaning stare at them.
These sideshows were very popular in the first half of the 20th century. In the postwar era there were fewer travelling circuses and “freakshows” tended to be less prominent. My guess is that this might have had something to do with advancing technology that provided other forms of entertainment that were more readily available (primarily the TV). There was also some increased awareness of the exploitive nature of the sideshows. I don’t know when the sideshows stopped, but it was several decades ago (my guess is 60's, maybe 70's - perhaps someone has more accurate knowledge of this). In today’s more politically correct times, we outwardly applaud this development as we consider it cruel to ridicule or even just stare at a fellow human’s peculiarity (even this term may offend some - see how hard it is to be PC?). Still, are we really as progressive in this regard as we pretend to be?
Now we get back to reality television. Is it really so different to stare at the bearded lady or the midget as to watch a TV show about the horribly cluttered home of a “hoarder” or about the inexplicable repetitive behaviours of someone who suffers from OCD? Now the makers of these shows claim that the purpose of these shows is to enlighten the world about the people living with these unusual situations, so we can all be more understanding. I don’t buy it. We have had actual informational shows about addiction, mental illness and similar topics for years, and they usually consist mainly of medical experts giving interviews, facts and figures, and other features without broad entertainment value. They provide genuine information; the only thing they are missing is the visceral thrill of seeing the “freaks” in their “natural habitat”, which the new breed of shows excel at.
Some shows have taken this idea even further and have essentially taken the freak show and put it on TV. There are shows about the excessively obese, the tallest people and shortest people. There is also a show about people trying to break world records, which often involve some physical contortion or use of a particular condition. These are all classic elements of the circus sideshows of old with not much changed except it is now on television.
Taking these points into consideration, we can see that these reality shows really are just a new manifestation of a voyeuristic desire which now does seem to be a part of human nature. Many of us may claim to be offended by the exploitive nature of the sideshows of old and now the reality TV shows, but these things clearly would not exist if people did not enjoy watching these displays of the unusual. While there are some reality shows that I do watch, I personally do not watch any of these shows but I know people who do. Hopefully some day we can evolve a little more as a society and actually progress beyond the need stare at people who are a bit different. Unfortunately I think this is a bit Utopian; I don't see this happening anytime soon.