The other day while at a salon, I had the chance to watch a program I have never seen before and hope to never witness again. It’s called My New BFF and the premise involves a co-ed group of people, who, for no readily discernible reason, are competing to be the (albeit fake and temporary) best friend forever of one Paris Hilton. In the segment I caught, a 19-year-old woman was voted off the show, thereby losing her opportunity to spend six months trailing behind this creature like one of the lap dogs she purchases and discards at will. What struck me was how the unfortunate contestant took the news – she broke down in tears and, sobbing loudly, told the camera that her life was over and she didn’t know how she would be able to continue. I appreciate that most teenagers have not yet developed the ability to put things in their appropriate context but it saddened me that those tears wouldn’t be shed for something more worthy of pursuit, say a university scholarship or an opportunity to study overseas.
As it happens, I don’t share the country’s fascination with reality shows. I watched the first Survivor in the summer of 2000 and while I thought it was a novel concept at first, I lost interest when the contestants started to behave badly and I abandoned the genre after that. I know there is a reality show hierarchy of sorts and you could make an argument that shows like American Idol celebrate talent while My New BFF represents just a sad opportunity for people who are looking for their 15 minutes of fame. But I am unable to stomach any of them.
The problem is, I suffer from fontrum. According to the Urban Dictionary, fontrum is the act of feeling embarrassment for people who don’t have the common sense to feel embarrasment for themselves. The symptoms of fontrum include a queaziness in the pit of the stomach followed by an overwhelming sensation that if you don’t remove yourself from the situation in question immediately you will be faced with indisputable proof that the human race is, in fact, doomed.
My particular strain of fontrum is so acute that I am unable to enjoy live performances of any sort and even have to change the channel during painful Academy Awards acceptance speeches.
Evidently, millions of people are not afflicted with fontrum, and, some actually take pleasure in watching other people make a complete ass of themselves in the heat of competition. And it seems that the people who produce reality programming have no bottom. Just when you think the bar has gone as low as it possibly can, something else comes along to challenge your assumptions.
But my main beef with the reality genre is that there is no place for etiquette on these shows. Moreover, etiquette, civility and manners are viewed as weak and worse still, bad for ratings. While I can’t place the blame of the decline of etiquette squarely on the shoulders of reality programs and their creators, they have certainly contributed in the following ways:
Lack of discretion – A civil approach to life is one in which the gory details of your personal affairs remain private. Dirty laundry is not for public consumption and it is certainly not for mass consumption. Moreover, rather than retreating after bad behaviour goes public, the perpetrators seem very pleased with themselves and in some cases, go on to win the million dollars, shot at love, bachelor/bachelorette, job with the Donald, in spite of their indiscretions.
Nice guys finish last – Richard Hatch set the standard on that first episode of Survivor and it’s gone downhill from there. Perhaps it’s naive to think that someone can win a competition on brains, diplomacy and finesse but celebrating someone who has none of these qualities doesn’t bode well for the future of civility.
Misplaced ambition – In her brilliant book Generation Me, Dr. Jean Twenge theorizes that for many of today’s young people, self-esteem is much more important than accomplishments, and I believe that the proliferation of reality shows feeds into this phenomenon by making icons and celebrities out of people who are famous more for their diva tendancies than any meaningful contribution to the world.
Lack of awareness – I am particularly annoyed by the reality shows whose focus is to document the exploits of various groups of young, beautiful, rich slackers (see The Hills, Laguna Beach, Princes of Malibu). That these do-nothings are able to aquire fame, magazine covers, fashion lines, CD recordings, etc. by virtue of being born into the lucky sperm club is a really sad aspect of our current culture. Free of the need to work, they could be using their wealth and privilege in so many positive ways but they choose fame over philanthropy.
Exploitation of children – If the definition of etiquette is a “sensitive awareness of the feelings of others” then parents who exploit their minor children for reality show fame are the worst etiquette offenders of the lot. As a parent, I am hypersensitive about my children’s privacy and I believe that all children deserve to reach adolescence without the unwelcome baggage of magazine covers, embarrasing photos and Internet discourse waiting for them.