Saturday, October 6, 2012

Measuring mental health

Apparently, we as a society have decided that the best way to help those of us with mental health "issues" is to publicize them. No, not give them a forum to speak, to help us better empathize and understand. We publicize them for our own entertainment. We give them a television show. And we call it reality.

Now this new way of  "helping" has gone on for awhile, but it seems that paying for dysfunction the rest of us can watch is our way of measuring our own mental health. If you're not crazy enough for primetime, then you must be OK.

We started with putting people in artificial situations, like in a house with other twentysomething strangers, or on a "deserted"  island with cameras, calling it Survivor, and watching gleefully as people scheme and dream their way to a million dollars. It's a game show, and the players have to make up the rules as they go along. If it's not interesting enough, throw a few challenges at them. Though I've never watched this particular "reality" show, others have drawn me in, the way an accident on the highway compels us to crane our necks, searching beyond the flashing lights.

But some of the ones now most popular celebrate people with either no discernible talent (hello, Jersey Shore and Kardashians), or real mental health problems (hello Hoarders, My Strange Addiction). In between are those people with amazing fecundity, those whose houses, or pets, are haunted, and of course, people who sexualize their preadolescent daughters (and some sons) by putting them in beauty pageants. And the only people not in on the joke are the stars themselves. Watch enough episodes of Toddlers and Tiaras and you know these frustrated moms, the former beauty queens and the ones who may have never been considered attractive in their youth, are living out their princess fantasies of crowns and gowns through their daughters (and a few sons). The joke's on them. Or is it?

I give you, Honey Boo Boo.

I have never watched this new "reality" show. And I won't. My daughter and I do watch Toddlers and Tiaras, and this is how this particular child was introduced to the world. I found her and her family sad and obnoxious, and who wants to waste time watching people more obnoxious than those you have to encounter every day not on purpose? Unfortunately, not watching doesn't mean escaping this train wreck. Everyone knows about this dysfunctional, and unattractive brood that is now raking in big bucks so the rest of the world can feel superior to them. Who's laughing now? A presidential candidate was asked who he preferred, Honey Boo Boo, or Snookie. That's like the old Three Stooges choice of being burned at the stake or facing the guillotine. Curley chose being burned alive because "a hot steak is always better than cold chop." To paraphrase Stooges actor Dudley Dickerson: This world has sho' gone crazy.

A few years ago, the antihero became the protaganist, in movies like The Godfather, Goodfellas and other genres of cops and robbers where you learned about the robbers, so you didn't root for the cops. It crossed over into television with The Sopranos, The Shield, The Sons of Anarchy. Who did you root for, and against. It made for shows and characters more three-dimensional and messed with our minds about good and bad, right and wrong, morality, immorality and amorality. Still at the end of The Sopranos, most got what they "deserved" or you were left wondering. At the end of The Shield, there was no sympathy left for these bad-hearted cops.

But we've crossed over to nonfiction now. While we're not cheering amorality anymore, we're not empathizing with people who can't throw their garbage out either.

And we're measuring our own mental health by whether we would become good television fodder. I may be crazy, but not reality show crazy yet. It's a sad state of affairs when we measure dysfunction by Nielsen ratings. It's probably not a sign of the Apocalypse. But we might be getting close.

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