Sunday, 5 February 2006

How much lower…

As a child, I remember being told by my parents not to stare at people who looked ‘different’: lots of not-so-old men who’d been horribly injured during WW1 were still around at the time and they were a startling sight. They were affectionately called gueules cassées (broken faces) and the French National Lottery was set up to collect money for them. They were respected, not mocked.

So, I never let my gaze even linger on someone whose appearance is a bit odd or who is in a wheelchair or whatever. Like everyone else, I am curious and would sometimes like to find out what happened to the person; like everyone else (I hope), I feel compassion and would like to offer my sympathy, but I know it’s not acceptable, so I try not to behave in an offensive way just by looking. I have seen children stare openly at a disabled person and not being checked by a parent standing next to them. I have myself been stared and pointed at – when I had bright red hair that seemed to offend some people. When there was a possibility that I might lose an eye, fifteen years ago, I knew I would probably have to have counselling in order to help me cope with the stares that I would no doubt be subjected to.

I thought we were supposed to be a more tolerant and caring society, but we are all turning into the worst kind of voyeurs. Until recently I believed Big Brother and other reality shows had plumbed the depths of shamefulness, but then there was Extreme Plastic Surgery (or whatever that ignominious programme was called) and that went well beyond the limits of bad taste. At least the people taking part in those shows were volunteers (whether or not they were getting paid for appearing in them). Now Channel 4 has gone further and has revived the Victorian Freak Show by broadcasting a series entitled Bodyshock, advertised as ‘Extraordinary and captivating real-life stories’ and as ‘A collection of startling and shocking real-life stories’. Here are the titles of the programmes that are to be shown in the next few weeks:

The Boy Who Gave Birth to his Twin
The Man Who Slept for 19 Years
The Man Who Ate His Lover
The 80-Year-Old Children
The Two-Headed Baby

Because I don’t like to dismiss anything without at least catching a glimpse of it, I watched ten minutes of one programme, The Curse of the Mermaid (about a baby girl born with her legs fused together and no external genitals). It was seemingly about the operations that were going to be performed to make her ‘normal’, but it was just a chance for people to gawp at a poor, deformed little body. I haven’t been able to avoid the trailers for the next programme, Half-Ton Man. You can just imagine what that’s going to be like.

What Channel 4 is doing is ignoble and panders to our worst instincts. The irony is that the very first programme that company broadcast, back in the mid-’80s, was a wonderful, compassionate film about a man with learning difficulties, called Walter, with Ian McKellen in the title role. It seemed to herald an era of responsible programming.

I’ve just read Channel 4’s Statement of Promises. It says that Channel 4 should ‘foster the new and experimental in television. It will encourage pluralism, provide a favoured place for the untried and encourage innovation in style, content, perspective and talent, on and off screen. [...] We are a commercial broadcaster, with a funding structure and public service remit to provide diverse and innovative programming and services. [...] Channel 4 aims to set ambitions for innovation in British media that others aspire to meet.’

‘that others aspire to meet’ – this is only the beginning, then…



  1. Goodness. There's nothing new or groundbreaking about that at all. Sounds like that old carnival standby, the freak show, recast as modern entertainment.

    Reminds me of Ripley's Believe It or Not. And Maury Povich has done this a few times with his "fat baby" shows. He invites parents and their extraordinarily huge babies and toddlers on the show under the guise of discussing child health and nutrition -- but it's clear that the show is really about the spectacle of Baby Freaks. They're clad only in diapers so you can see every roll of fat. They're shown cramming junk food in their mouths in the green room. In one episode, a brown-skinned toddler was shown eating a huge plate of ribs (tired and offensive African American stereotype). There's a very real sense of the dignity of these children being sacrified to the prurient interests of both the host and the audience. It's cruel to do that to anyone, but especially to children.

  2. The reality show craze in the US really amazes me...not only because people are so interested in watching, but because so many people are willing to make a spectacle of themselves on TV. It is very odd.

  3. As for staring at the different, as if anyone is "normal", I think we do need to be careful how this is addressed. To tell a child not to look when they show curiosity can send messages that there is something shameful about disability, disfigurement or whatever difference is capturing them. Of course in a pleasant world we would all consider how our actions impact on others' feelings. Children are children and are learning. I suppose "don't stare" is ok as long as it's ok to notice everyone equally, and not create invisible people out of those who don't match up to a TV ideal.

    The world I know is not represented on TV and I would welcome with all my heart to see more diversity: a range of colours, sizes shapes abilities and so on. But you're right, not as a freak show. There's a lot of (perhaps)well meaning tokenism aiming to redress imbalances that end up just perpetuating ideas of the 'exotic other', doing nothing to show our shared humanity. We shouldn't need a specially marketed TV season to access more of the real world.

    Having said that, trends in children's TV seem to be promoting just this diversity, so we'll see if the world's been saved when the current small generation are in charge.

  4. What is especially odd is that when I went to their web site to see about this program, the intro for the story states
    "Why has Milagros Cerrón's condition attracted so much public attention? Though we now understand more about what causes such conditions, are the days of the freak show really over?"
    Yet they seem to be on the bandwagon of perpetuating the public attention and helping to bring back the days of the freak shows and Guinness world record statistics. I feel that the name alone, Bodyshock, implies that the intention is not for education but for more as a source of entertainment. Which is a shame, because after looking on their web site at the different topics to air, their programs have the potential for being informative.

  5. WW, I don’t know the programmes you mention, but they sound very much like what I described. I find it loathsome.

    R, everyone wants to be on TV and they don’t care for what reason. These days, if you ask kids what they want to do when they grow up most of them will say they want to be celebrities. And it’s not just kids, of course, adults too.

    JvS, I’m not talking about seeing and noticing (to borrow from Alain de Botton) but about standing and staring. I never took ‘Don’t stare!’ as meaning there was something shameful about whatever I wasn’t supposed to stare at. I was told exactly why I shouldn’t do it and understood I shouldn’t embarrass people.

    There is nothing well-meaning about that Channel 4 series. What they’re doing is extremely blatant.

    SL, you went to look at the website? You are absolutely right about their intentions. I should slap Channel 4 also for deciding not to carry on showing The West Wing and Six Feet Under (we haven’t seen the last series yet). It used to be a very good channel – very socially conscious – but they’ve gone down a lot over the years, with ever more sensational programmes. I watch it less and less. They still show good films, from time to time.

  6. PS. What happens when children are not taught not to stare? This is what happens: as I mentioned in my post, I used to be stared at when I had red hair (people also made comments when I walked by sometimes). I have naturally black hair and started getting grey very young; I used to dye it red and, of course, as time went by, my hair became redder and redder, since only the white hairs got coloured. It was very flamboyant and I decided to stop dyeing it when I was 44. Soon after, I went to Nice to see my mother and one morning I was sitting at the terrace of a café when three teenagers - two girls and one boy - turned up and sat at another table, a few yards from me. At first, they stared at me, then started talking about me, then the boldest of the girls actually called out to me, "You should dye your hair!" I said, "Excuse me? Why?" "Because you're a woman and grey hair doesn't look good. You shouldn't let yourself go like that." I tried to tell them about growing old gracefully, about personal freedom, about not conforming, etc. I was stunned. Aren’t the young supposed to like what’s out of the ordinary? I’m not sure I managed to win them over to my point of view, but we ended up being good friends – for a whole hour.

    Later, walking around in the streets of Nice, I realized for the first time that not a single woman, however ancient, had grey hair. All the elderly women I encountered were blonde. No wonder those kids had stared at me: they’d never seen a woman with grey hair.

    It doesn’t take much to turn any of us into ‘freaks’.

  7. I'm always stunned at what makes people thnk they can comment on other people in the street. I wouldn't dream of addressing a stranger with a personal remark! There's a book called Watching the English which explains that our apparent obsession with the weather is simply that it is the generally accepted ONLY safe subject with which to make contact with a stranger, at a bus stop and so on. It's good that you talked to the teenagers. I have heard disabled people say they wish children would ask them what happened to them directly, rather than staring and giggling.

    The Channel 4 Bodyshock series is being trailed so often, too - they are really proud of it and certain we all want to see. I have seen the half-ton man more times than I care to, just in trailers. And the trail for the 'mermaid girl', the one SL read about on the website, used Victorian graphics, did you notice? Black and white stills with touches of sepia, and flashes of light, like early photography, and carnival-style writing on the screen. They definitely knew what they were doing. And the romantic term 'mermaid girl' - she was just a poor baby with her legs fused together. I was going to say at least the half-ton man did it to himself, but he's probably got a metabolic disease.

    The difference between Bodyshock and the other 'reality' Channel 4 progs like SuperNanny and You Are What You Eat and Look 10 Years Younger and The Diet Doctors is that the latter at least are addressing things you have the power to do something about. Yes, YAWYE had alarming large people, but then they get healthy at the end, and the focus is on health not slimness, so I quite approve of that one.

    At least they have stopped the dreadful Ibiza Uncovered and Travel Reps and similar series about young Brits abroad drinking, throwing up and having loud unmemorable sex.

  8. I deplore the so-called reality shows in general, and this sounds horrible. Of course we are all curious about people whose appearance differs greatly from ours - that is true whether the difference is an injury or deformity, or even the happy outcome of apparently perfect genes (hence the popularity and media omnipresence of certain celebrities). But just the name 'Bodyshock' seems to proclaim that the intention is to titillate rather than educate. Shame on them! Slap!

  9. see also the channel 4 "extreme breastfeeding" or whatever it was called programme.

    i used to have bright pink hair and would welcome children asking me - it's only by learning that people are different that kids learn to accept people who are "out of the ordinary". however, like you i deplore the carny fascination with disability or accidents of birth. small person goes to a school which integrates children with down's syndrome, autism and any number of special needs into the general melee and, as such, normalises "disabilities" without detracting from the needs of kids who need individual help.

    live and let live, i say. while our mainstream tv continues to "freakshow" those who are different what hope do we have of moving forward in society?

    you go, bela.

    am i making any sense?

  10. I am a person who can view this from both ends of the spectrum -- I was not born with a disability but suffered from a spinal cord injury a few years ago -- I know for a fact that people treat you differently if you are considered not "able".
    Often people do not seem as comfortable and really don't know how to act around me. There is either ignoral as if trying not to stare or blatant curiosity with sidelong glances. And they will often sidle up to me and begin a conversation, I suppose to test if I am brain damaged or not, and much to their surprise I can formulate complete sentences. Imagine a person in a wheelchair speaking coherently... quick, get me show!
    However, I do find that the most natural acting people are children. They ask their questions and then get on with it. I don't seem to be as fascinating to them. I do believe that children take things more openly and are more acceptable than many adults.

  11. I think possibly children's reactions are not coloured by fear for themselves. For children, they are a child and healthy, and an old person is an old person and a sick person is a sick person and a person in a wheelchair is a person in a wheelchair. As adults, we have learned that anything can happen - we can be healthy and then not, fully abled and then not - and so we see someone whse life is more difficlut than ours and immediately our brain starts racing with wondering how we would cope. I am in my early 40s and I am starting to find old people a bit frightening, because I know I'm getting there.

  12. It amazes me too, L, when some person I’ve never seen in my life before comments on my appearance. I don’t mind it so much when it’s a compliment and, luckily, I’ve had a lot of those, on my hair again, over the years, still... I suppose they balance out the (fewer) nasty ones I’ve been subjected to. In an ideal world people would only speak up when they have something nice to say (in public, I mean).

    I agree about the other Channel 4 programmes: they are trying to educate the masses – in their own way.

    D, I can’t wait for the public to get fed up with reality shows, but I fear they’ll be here for a while longer. :-(

    SG, I only saw the trailer for Extreme Breastfeeding: it was revolting. One of the most voyeuristic programmes ever!

    I’m glad your kid is learning tolerance from a young age. She will be a much better person for it. That kind of integration is very good, as long as it doesn’t restrict the progress of the other children, of course.

    Thanks for the encouragement. (And, yes, you are making absolute sense.)

    I was waiting from a comment from you, SL, about how you’re perceived and treated by people. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be for you. I’m glad children relate to you on a normal level.

    I’m sure you’re right, L. So much of what we do stems from fear. I scare myself every day when I look in the mirror. LOL!

  13. there's not much I can add here except to add that I fully agree about BodyShock. Shame on Channel 4


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.