Monday, 20 January 2014

We Can't Always Resist, But Why?

Surprising confession time - I do make a point of watching the reality TV show Made in Chelsea. This surprises a lot of people; upon hearing this they are quick to say something like "I can't believe an intelligent, educated person like you, with so much sexual charisma, watches a programme with such stupid people in it". Ok, I made up the 'sexual charisma' part, but you know what they mean - it is expected that a program about vacuous people (albeit privileged people) would only appeal to equally vacuous people. The main reason I watch Made in Chelsea is that I find it an interesting social experiment - I'm peering into the lives of the kind of people who are not in my social milieu, and that is often an interesting thing to do.

But here's the main point - I'm clearly not alone - these programmes of plentiful vacuity, like Made in Chelsea, Towie, Big Brother, Jeremy Kyle, Celebrity reality shows, and so forth, and magazines covering the lifestyles of half-witted pop icons and pin-ups, are increasingly more popular - and this popularity shows no signs of abating. The Spectator, which isn't exactly known for its vacuity, has the kind of writers who think that the increasing popularity means we as a nation must be getting more vacuous too.

I'm not so sure - maybe the opposite is true; maybe it is because we are all getting smarter, more knowledgeable and more academically gifted that vacuity has become so popular. If you think about consumable products in terms of the usual economic course - an increase of something (oil, gas, timber) causes its price to go down not up, and this may apply to vacuity too - it is commanding a higher price because it is in shorter supply than ever before.

While we're on the subject of TV - the show hitting the headlines in the past week or two has been the controversial Channel 4 programme Benefits Street. It had all the things you'd expect from a show in which filmmakers recorded two years' worth of footage of people at the low end of the educational and socio-economic scale: it had deprivation, despair, criminality, drugs, drink, cigarettes, recidivism, illiteracy and hopelessness; it had people trying to play the system, people who had virtually no chance of getting a job, people who were financially better off not having one; but it also had charity, kindness, sympathy, helpfulness, support, love and friendship, as people empathised with each other's problems, and rallied together in spite of their plights.

It is ironic, of course, that in terms of socio-economic status, there is a night and day difference between the cast of Made in Chelsea and those featured in Benefits Street. If Made in Chelsea, Towie, Big Brother, Jeremy Kyle and Celebrity reality shows are examples of our increased fascination with vacuity by virtue of being a smarter nation on average, then shows like Benefits Street are examples of our increased fascination of a demographic that have had the double misfortune of a) being victims of a system that at present makes some people more rational for choosing the payout of being on benefits over the payout of getting a job; and b) of being caught in a lifestyle trap in which basic education, literacy, social skills, employment prospects and genuine hope seems to most of them like pie in the sky.

Clearly what they need more than anything is help, not demonisation - and by 'help' I don't mean swatting a few mosquitoes, I mean draining the whole swamp of stigmatisation and giving them the love and support to start anew.

* Photo courtesy of