Monday, December 12, 2011

Public Burnout, Private Fallout

When Sarah started watching MTV’s Teen Mom recently, I questioned why she would reward such blatantly unbalanced characters. Though the show debuted with benevolent aims, to let young women see teen motherhood’s actual lack of glamour, it also provides a national, even global, audience for its stars. Considering the twisted, histrionic tendencies they’ve shown, these young women don’t need the reward of anyone paying attention.

Sarah responds by pointing out that she aspires to become a therapist. Her practice will almost certainly consist of people as damaged as these girls, and she needs to see their illnesses in action. In fairness, you can’t exactly order a DVD course on “Case Studies in Borderline Personality Disorder.” If she wants to examine such illnesses before hitting the field, shows like Teen Mom provide an otherwise rare opportunity.

But Amber Portwood’s public meltdown, resulting in a domestic assault conviction and bipolar disorder diagnosis, seems hardly inevitable. While her troubled relationships and illness existed before her strange stardom, the constant attention from TV cameras and Internet commentary certainly didn’t help. The likelihood of recurrence seems all the more likely with the attention paid to her recent weight loss. Narcissistic personalities don’t improve on display.

MTV pioneered reality TV nearly twenty years ago with The Real World, which was in turn based on a concept from PBS 20 years earlier. But The Real World recycled its programming every season, starting with a new cast in a new location. Though it encouraged obnoxious behaviors from its stars, it didn’t showcase them for years at a stretch. Exceptional snots like David “Tuck” Rainey were pulled early when circumstances got out of hand.

Such is not the case anymore. Portwood, with the rest of her cast, has been renewed for a fourth season. The E! Network refuses to divest itself of the increasingly embarrassing Kardashian franchise, even after Kim’s record-setting multimedia extravaganza wedding ended in divorce barely two months later. High-profile flame-outs are a license to print money for the networks that own distribution rights. Controversy sells.

Even on shows that don’t maintain permanent casts, the rotating ensembles get great mileage out of throw-downs. Variations on the claim that “I’m not here to make friends” have become a tedious cliché, but they persist because they encapsulate the behavior that sells ads. Unfortunately, the trite slogan has become its own satire:

The hosts of these shows hardly behave any better. Few people tune in to Hell’s Kitchen to learn anything about cooking, which is treated only fleetingly anyway. It’s far more interesting to watch Gordon Ramsay pitch a fit. Likewise, Donald Trump’s comportment on The Apprentice has been so appalling that one wonders why anyone supported that hambone for President.

I can’t help wondering what motivates these people. By that I mean both the screen personalities and the viewers. Many online commentators claim they want Portwood and Kardashian to recover from their highly visible illnesses; yet controversy draws audiences, which drives advertising revenue. The networks, and their stars, get rich every time some tantrum draws viewers.

The same sense of rubbernecking spectacle made Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse obscenely rich and famous as they signed their own hanging orders. And let’s be honest, if Kim Kardashian follows that same doomed road, it won’t much affect our lives. Even if she lives, she’ll pass out of public consciousness much like Twiggy Lawson and Gia Carangi before her. Kim is little more than a distraction, easy to forget.

Amber Portwood, however, has a baby. As twisted as she’s become, she makes a contribution to society. Presumably, she and her child will want to reintegrate into the American mainstream, hold jobs, and pass a legacy on to the next generation. Amber certainly put hard constraints around herself when her pregnancy ended her party girl lifestyle, but she and her child still have a future, however limited.

Critics easily claim that reality TV’s exhibitionistic tendencies cheapen our own thinking ability, but I think they set their sights too small. Allowing these quasi-celebrities to take up any more of our consciousness creates a system of reward for their systemic self-flagellation. They will continue to gradually destroy themselves, and those around them, as long as we pay them for the privilege.

If we pretend to care about Amber and her baby, perhaps our kindest gift could be ignorance. By breaking the system of reward, we could create an incentive for her to take care of herself. Then she can start taking care of her child.

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