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An Exhibitionist and Voyeuristic Culture

This weekend a friend sent an article to myself and to a list of other people. He was outraged at a story that appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He is no doubt right to be outraged. Here are some excerpts from the story.

Just how far will people go to get their hands on a new PlayStation 3? Just ask KDWB-FM, 101.3’s morning show host Dave Ryan, who on Tuesday morning asked folks if they were willing to give up their baby for 24 hours in exchange for one of Sony’s highly coveted video game consoles. More than a dozen people called to offer up their kids, but only a few realized it was all just a gag.

“We got more calls than we could handle,” said Ryan, who referred to the practical joke as a “social experiment.” “They were lined up willing to turn their kids over to strangers for a freakin’ PlayStation.”

KDWB morning show executive producer Steve “Steve-o” LaTart said he was surprised how many people were interested in the bogus swap, which consisted of handing over your child to LaTart for 24 hours in exchange for a PS3.

“There were a lot of phone calls that we didn’t even get to, and I would say three- quarters of them were serious,” said LaTart.

People with babies of all ages — including a 2-day-old and a 1-week-old — made it on air. One of the more serious sounding calls came from a woman named “Katie,” who agreed to give up her 1-month-old for three days. She wanted to sell the PS3 on eBay to make some extra money for the holidays.

“In a way it’s flattering that we’ve built up 13 years of trust and that’s great … yet at the same time, hey, we thought we knew Kramer too, you just never know,” said Ryan referring to Michael Richards, who played Kramer on “Seinfeld,” and his recent racist comments.

After announcing that the contest was a prank, “Katie” called the station and asked “does that mean I don’t get the PlayStation?” She was clearly more than willing to give up her child to get her hands on this year’s top gift. It seemed to her a small price to pay for a Playstation. It’s sick.

And yet for some reason it didn’t surprise me a whole lot. This is the kind of behavior that is only too common in our culture. We live in what is now an voyeuristic, exploitative society. We love to see into other people’s lives and because of technology, this is easier to do than ever before. But there is more. As voyeurism has increased, so has exhibitionism. Countless numbers of people are willing to sell their bodies, souls or children for a fleeting fifteen minutes of fame and a ten thousand dollar paycheck. From world famous celebrities to absolute nobodies, we yearn to be noticed and have been only too willing to sell ourselves. Humiliation is marketed on television and a blurb in People magazine has become adequate payment for having personal problems brought before the world.

We, the consumers, feed this frenzy. When we turn on the television we want to watch celebrities, both new and old, living out their lives before the cameras or learning to dance or cook or crochet. We want to watch families whose spending has spiralled out of control try to fix their broken finances. We want to watch families whose kids are overweight learn how to eat healthy food or adults who are fat lose weight or couples who have forgotten the joys of sex to rediscover intimacy or normal people slurp down blood, guts and bugs. We want to see people learn what not to wear, to see people with rolls on their stomachs get liposuction and funny-looking noses get the perfect Hollywood nose job. We want to escape our own problems by wallowing in other people’s problems which somehow always seem so much worse than our own. We want to see the sad, pathetic, tragic details of their lives, their personalities, their bodies. The more detail we get, the happier we are.

Back in March a web site made public a memo from ABC dealing with the hit show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Looking to cast a new season, the show’s producers asked network affiliates to look for families who could be on the show. Their wishlist is nauseating.

We are open to any and ALL story ideas and are especially looking for the following:

Extraordinary Mom/Dad recently diagnosed with ALS

Family who has child with PROGERIA (aka “little old man disease”)

Congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis, referred to as CIPA by the few people who know about it. (There are 17 known cases in the the U.S.-let me know if one is in your town!) This is where kids cannot feel any physical pain.

Muscular Dystrophy Child - Amazing kid who is changing people’s views about MD

MADD/Drunk Driving - Family turns tragedy into triumph after a losing a child to drunk driving

Family who has multiple children w/ Down Syndrome (either adopted or biological)

Amazing/loved Mom or dad diagnosed w/ melanoma (skin cancer)

Home Invasion - family robbed, house messed up (vandalized) - kids fear safety in their home now.

Victims of hate crime in own home. Family’s house victim of arson or severely vandalized.

It is clear that the show was not seeking these people primarily because they are the most worthy of help, but because they make the best stories. The worse the tragedy, the better the entertainment value.

The problem extends beyond television, for we turn on the computer and visit Youtube which perfectly combines exhibitionism with voyeurism. We excuse what is pornographic or semi-pornographic by pleading humor. We no longer seem to know or care what is outrageous and exploitative. Young girls who lip-sync and dance in their bedrooms become instant celebrities. Car accidents become entertainment, beatings become amusement. We pour out our personal problems on our blogs and complain about ex-girlfriends on MySpace. Even the murder of American soldiers has become entertainment with videos of soldiers having their throats cut make the rounds on the Internet. We visit sites filled with gory photographs or just go all the way and visit one of the millions of pornography sites. It’s out of control. And yet all of these web sites and television shows are just giving us what we ask for.

Reality is no longer reality. Fame is no longer fame. Reality television offers anything but reality, and yet we are drawn to it. The internet offers fleeting, exploitative fame. It is escapism and exploitation. Somehow, it seems, we have come to care about other people’s lives more than our own. We invest ourselves in other people’s problems, other people’s joys, hurts and pains all the while ignoring our own. We escape from our own lives by caring about other people’s.

When a radio station offers to trade children for a Playstation 3, it does not surprise me that people are willing to accept the offer. We live in a strange new reality where tragedy can reap generous monetary rewards and personal problems can be marketed and sold. And even if there is no financial compensation, fleeting fame seems an adequate reward for exposing even the most humiliating, intimate details. We live in a society where it makes perfect sense to give up a child for 24 hours in order to get ahold of a new Playstation.