Our fascination with abusive reality television

Last year, a series of troubling allegations and disturbing news arose around the Duggars, the infamous Quiverfull family that had been entertaining reality television fans for many seasons. There was a kind of morbid fascination that surrounded the family — people watched them because they found them laughable or weird, and this was very much played up. In a way, it was a form of exploitation television relying on the other to amuse audiences, but it came with a dark streak, because the Quiverfull movement is extremely oppressive and rather terrifying even within the context of larger conservative movements. Audiences justified their amusement, though, until they couldn’t anymore because the Duggars were involved in direct sexual assault allegations, turning the entertaining into the uncomfortable.

People outside the conservative Christian movement don’t really understand the Quiverfull community, or they dismiss it as something fringe and laughable. Most of the best work on the subject is coming from people who have left the movement, or those involved in related schools of extremely conservative Christianity. They’re doing the best work because they take the subject seriously, knowing that conservative Christianity comes with very high stakes for people trapped within it, especially women — like the wives forced to churn out children for Quiverfull families, the girls expected to act like mothers to their younger siblings, the girls who become victims of molestation in households where sex is dirty and shameful, making it necessary to turn away from what’s happening since doing otherwise would dismantle religious beliefs and attitudes.

Outsiders look at conservative Christianity, whether it be Quiverfull families or Mormon fundamentalists or anything else, and think it’s a weird and sometimes entertaining part of society. The implication is that it doesn’t really touch the real world, and thus shouldn’t matter — because oppression within minority communities evidently isn’t important. Rather than acknowledging that many people are held in these systems against their will or trapped in really awful situations — like wanting to leave but not being willing to lose their family relationships forever — people just mock those entrapped in conservative Christianity and at the same time don’t recognise its influence on modern society. Those wondering at the slew of anti-choice legislation exploding in the US apparently can’t make the connection between being amused by Quiverfull Christians and the successful electoral campaigns of radical Christian candidates.

That’s what made the Duggars such good television from the perspective of TLC, which adores this kind of sleazy exploitation of social oddities. It made money from the Duggars just as other networks profit from shows like Duck Dynasty. It’s funny to viewers because it’s not their experience and these people are just backwards hicks there to entertain them. It has no real-world implications, they think, despite the fact that there’s actually a sizeable viewership that takes these shows very seriously, enjoys viewing them, buys tie-in merchandise, embraces their values, and views their players as social leaders. Networks only back away from this kind of programming when it becomes too embarrassing for even them to stomach.

This feeds into a larger system of entertainment via abuse of other human beings. In addition to reality shows documenting families and communities people think are ‘weird,’ numerous networks run shows like The Biggest Loser, in which people are mocked, threatened, and abused in dangerous ‘fitness’ programmes that involve extremely unsafe and unhealthy eating and exercise regimens. Similarly, Hoarders and the like exploit people with significant mental health conditions for entertainment, ostensibly all about sympathy from viewers but really designed as a sideshow spectacle intended to evoke morbid fascination from viewers. These People Are Not Like Us.

There is a sense of the modern day gladiatorial arena here, where the bread and circuses are found on television, allowing people to enjoy them from the comforts of their own couches. All of this programming is about exploiting people for entertainment and immense profits, without acknowledging the huge social cost created by the communities being documented, and by the very act of documenting them. People watch Duck Dynasty and laugh, but the attitudes of the show’s ‘characters’ are very real and the show affirms them for some viewers. The Duggars advance their Quiverfull rhetoric and the exploitation of women. We are reminded on repeated occasions that if people tried harder, like they do on The Biggest Loser, they’d lose weight.

This is about a culture where we are entertained by human suffering, just as we have been for centuries, and where we are entertained by the exoticisation of experiences that we don’t share. In the case of television, viewers feel superior when watching shows like Hoarders, confident that such things would never happen to us or anyone we know, or they enjoy the sense of being higher class than people like the Duggars, who are obviously undereducated and funny by nature of their hickish grasp of the world.

These are dangerous attitudes with significant social implications. By creating a social structure that positions human lives as tools for entertainment, we reinforce the notion that some lives are worth more than others, and that amusement at the expense of fellow humans isn’t an abominable thing. We should be challenging the support of pop culture that derives its popularity from human suffering and the validation of attitudes like those that support systemic intergenerational molestation and abuse, because these things are happening right in front of the camera and people politely look the other way so they don’t have to confront the problems embedded in their choice of entertainment.

Image: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr