Last updated: January 4, 2011 2:50 pm
TV illness is voyeuristic entertainment: prof
Media, mental disability and our culture of voyeurism
OTTAWA (CUP) — Are you one of the millions of people caught up in the Dexter craze? Can’t wait for United States of Tara to start airing again? Or perhaps reality TV has you up watching Hoarders late at night?
You’re not alone; serial killers, multiple-personality-plagued women and compulsive hoarders have taken over television, earning Golden Globes, Emmys and many obsessed viewers along the way.
“We have a fascination with the perverse and the unusual — the ‘freaks’ and the ‘outcasts,’” said Michael Strangelove, a communications professor at the University of Ottawa.
He’s referring to society’s fascination with uncommon afflictions and inexplicable phenomenon. He is currently teaching courses about pop culture, new media and media industries.
“We’ve got a long fascination with that which does not fit. This is the high age of voyeurism.”
This fascination is perhaps best shown by the characters on these shows. Dexter, Tara and the hoarders all present stereotypical and hyperbolic portrayals of people with uncommon mental disorders. Dexter is a “nice guy” serial killer who only kills criminals, Tara is a mother of two with multiple personalities, and hoarders have an obsession with keeping absolutely everything that enters their houses.
Strangelove believes media explorations of people with uncommon mental illnesses stem from our obsession with knowing the business of others who are very different from us. He noted that humans have a history of this kind of behaviour, citing the freak-show circuses of the 1800s and French asylums that sold tickets for patrons to interact with patients.
This history of voyeurism — the act of deriving pleasure from watching another person — as entertainment has been rebranded for the modern day. Today, a new breed of outcasts entertains audiences, in the form of basic cable TV shows. These characters fuel viewer obsession with society’s outcasts.
“People have suggested that these shows represent our concern for the breakdown of society,” explained Strangelove. “We’re looking at things that don’t fit into what’s supposed to be a highly-ordered society. We’re looking at symbols of our anxiety over the collapse of order.”
These shows might prey on society’s anxiety, but U of O psychology professor Steven Arnocky argues it’s their portrayal of the mentally ill that makes them so interesting.
“That’s the thing with all of these obscure disorders — they’re the most entertaining for us to watch shows about, but in terms of research available, they’re often the most understudied,” he said.
Of course, there’s a risk involved with producing these shows: People often feel as though they’re learning the realities of mental illness by watching them. Dexter fans at the U of O, for example, felt that the show gave them an introspective view of the mind of a psychopath.
“I think [Dexter] sheds light on [mental health],” said Nicole Iantorno, a third-year student. “You’re looking into the reality of this person. You don’t see them as the monster they’re portrayed as; you see them as the monster living inside of them, that they can’t control.”
Chris Kiehn, another third-year student, agrees.
“It does glorify illness a little bit, but you come to love Dexter as a character. You see their struggle — they can’t control it.”
But women’s studies major Allysa Olding is disappointed by the way shows like United States of Tara portray mental illness.
“I think that these shows simplify the experiences of many different people into a narrative that has little or no basis in reality,” she said. “There are underlying assumptions: You are not the norm, you are possibly dangerous and you are defined by your mental illness. It makes me pretty damn angry.”
Strangelove says that although he loves these shows as forms of entertainment, they can’t be expected to accurately depict mental health patients.
“It’s fascinating to see,” says Strangelove. “You don’t learn anything. They sensationalize everything. There’s no depth to it; it’s pure voyeurism.”
Television, he says, is a form of entertainment designed to give viewers what they want.
“To ask night-time dramas to teach us something is a bit much — it’s not their role,” he explained. “Education and consciousness-raising is something that isn’t entertaining. It’s something that’s more akin to work.”
But, Arnocky believes education is the most important aspect when it comes to perceptions of mental health.
“Ultimately, the most positive thing that we can do is educate individuals. These shows are created first and foremost as a form of entertainment. It’s something that has to be taken with a grain of salt.”