Vol 4, Num 9 :: 2005.05.06 — 2005.05.19
Although I seldom write analytically about television these days, there was a time when, as the proverb goes, I ate, slept, and breathed TV criticism. It was my last year of college, and as a mass communication major, I was encouraged to do my thesis on a popular culture artifact. I chose to study postfeminism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer
, which meant spending hours not only holed up in the university library but parked in front of the boob tube, watching episode after episode of the hit series. It wasn?t a bad way to spend my senior year, academically speaking.
Aside from endearing me to Buffy for life, my thesis on television had some other long-term effects. I have to admit I?ve always been strangely fascinated by the lows to which humanity is capable of stooping, as evidenced by the majority of today?s network programming. While this fascination occasionally mimics gawking at a car accident while driving by, the framework for pop culture critique that I developed in college helps me to examine shows that many don?t consider worth their time. I always try to ask myself, What does this show say about our values? What does it say about who and what we love? What?s really going on here?
Part of the latest spate of reality TV, one show in particular has recently grabbed my attention?and, unlike its smarmy predecessors, it seems immune to critique on the surface. The program is Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and its premise is dramatic displays of charitable giving. Each week, a high-caliber design team descends upon the home of a family that is poor or has special needs (sometimes both) and completely redesigns it, often demolishing the structure and starting from the ground up. Along the way, the team pays attention to family members? tastes and desires, offering them a finished product that is not only a nice place to live, but a nice place for them, specifically, to live.
Among my acquaintances, this show is the new rage. People have lauded it as everything from ?the only redeeming hour of programming on television today? to ?a glimpse of the kingdom of God.? The reasoning behind such praise seems to be that in the midst of the self-absorbed gimme-gimmes who usually populate reality television, the folks behind Home Edition are a refreshing example of self-sacrificing generosity. Initially, I can?t help but agree?the power of celebrity (the show is hosted by home improvement guru Ty Pennington) and the wealth of corporations are finally being harnessed to benefit real people who need a helping hand. How can we argue with the fact that houses are being built and quality of life is being improved and that reality television seems to have developed a heart?
Indeed, it is difficult to argue. But I?m a pathological contrarian, and I can?t help but apply my television criticism skills to even a seemingly saintly program. Plenty of writers have already pointed out that Home Edition has overlooked important factors in its zeal, and ends up abandoning the families to hiked-up property taxes they can?t afford and the social consequences of having a huge new house in a still-economically depressed neighborhood. But that critique doesn?t go deep enough here. When we begin to ask questions about value and purpose, when we begin to ask what?s really going on here, we may find we come up a bit short on redemption and, unfortunately, a bit long on the disease that plagues all of reality television: narcissism. Not on the part of the families who are being helped, but on the part of Home Edition?s hosts, its sponsors, and?most condemningly?us, its audience.
Home Edition is the harbinger of a new television genre I would call “pornographic altruism.” A Slate magazine article about Home Edition describes it this way:
After a certain saturation point of sleaze, viewers could no longer look themselves in the mirror. As irresistible as it may be to spy on other people’s tawdry problems, at the end of the day, people want to feel good about themselves (and if a little smug pity gets thrown into the bargain, so much the better). Hence the new slate of transformation-themed reality shows, inspired by the monster success of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Extreme Makeover’s genius was that it found a way to combine morbid voyeurism with the cheerful pluck of an Amish barn-raising.
The show?s qualities of unabashed gawking (?Oh, my God, that poor cancer patient!?) alongside charitable gestures (?But at least now she has a grand piano signed by Elton John!?) are a deadly combination?one that gives us, the viewers, the emotional pay-off of good works without the actual, imperfect experience. Rather than developing true compassion, it provides us with a cheap and inauthentic substitute: sentimentality.
In the Home Edition universe, I am permitted to think that I am a good person for choosing this show and crying at the lavish displays of charity. Every single episode, I get a huge lump in my throat which spontaneously erupts into tears during the big reveal of the new house. I experience another spasm of emotions when Pennington tells the family that a Generous Corporate Benefactor has paid their mortgage or donated a full scholarship so their daughter can fulfill her dream of going to design school. I can?t stop myself from crying. My guess is that you can?t, either. What wonderful people! I think of the Home Edition crew as I blow my nose into my fiance?s t-shirt sleeve. What a marvelous corporation! I exclaim of Sears, the show?s main corporate sponsor. They really care about people!
I hope I don?t sound cynical when I say this, but I?m not sure this is such a positive response. Sure, we shed tears when we?re genuinely happy, moved, or overwhelmed. But we can also be manipulated, and I suspect that?s what happening when Home Edition tugs at our heartstrings and sends us into ecstatic paroxysms of benevolence. Let?s face it, a giant corporation that donates scads of money and products?thus ensuring that their logo is plastered on every square inch of the show?s set, plus its intermittent commercials?probably has ulterior motives. And when we, the audience, exclaim over their generosity and goodness at every turn, they?ve got us exactly where they want us: emotionally vulnerable, and ready to shop. (Which brings us to another question about Home Edition?s values: is gratuitous consumerist excess, the idea that a schmancy house will make you happy, really the equivalent of compassionate, sacrificial servanthood? We don?t have time to get into that here.)
This kind of sentimentality is the enemy of compassion: it allows to feel altruistic without actually being altruistic. Of course, we know that watching a television show about serving the poor is not actually the same thing as serving the poor?yet Home Edition is designed to make us, the audience, feel like we?ve done something productive for society by choosing it over a blatantly trashy program. Giving into this impulse is perhaps even more contemptible than devotedly watching, say, Desperate Housewives (which, personally, I admire for its critique of the American exurban dream, a little dose of which Home Edition could certainly use).
As Christians, we must also bring a kingdom worldview to bear in our critiques of popular culture. We must question what we demonstrate that we love when we praise shows like Home Edition: do we love the emotional payoff? Do we love the gushing gratitude of the people we have helped? Do we love the positive publicity that appearing to be charitable gives us? Jesus has some fairly strong words about our self-interested impulses: ?So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. ? But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.? I don?t expect Home Edition or Sears to play by scriptural guidelines, of course, but a verse like this certainly ought to make us in the audience think twice about approving gaudy displays of generosity wholesale.
Of course, we should not outright dismiss Home Edition, either. It is true that the show has some positive things to teach us. One that continually sticks out to me, for instance, is the value of creating beautiful spaces as well as functional ones no matter who will live there; as author Eric Jacobsen puts it in his book Sidewalks in the Kingdom, ?When a woman came to Jesus and poured expensive perfume on his head and feet, it was Judas who declared that such extravagant expressions of devotion were a crime against the poor… We do not take seriously human beings who happen to be poor when we reduce them to machines needing only food and water. People of all classes need beauty and dignity in their daily lives.?
I find this tenet of Home Edition?s do-gooding valuable and instructional, and it makes me wonder if we Christians might do well to serve those who need homes with as much energy and imagination. The only difference, I would guess, is that influenced by Jesus-ethics and the rigors of genuine compassion, the revolution will not be televised.
Kate Bowman is Student Activities Coordinator at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.