I went to a bar last week. To say goodbye to a young friend of mine going to start her new life in Paris. At the bar, there was a TV playing without sound, some reality show about cooking. I need to admit that I don't watch TV...have never seen a single episode of Cheers, Friends, Seinfeld, American Idol..well, you get the idea. I don't even know how to turn on my TV as there is now something called... Input 1 or 2 or 3 and I have no idea what to do.
There I was trying to celebrate with my friend when my eye kept being pulled to the set on the wall. There were some chefs on the screen, all standing with their hands clasped behind their backs, at attention, as a panel of people (who are they?) told them mostly bad things about, I assume, their food. I knew they weren't nice supportive comments as the camera was close on the chefs' faces and they looked scared and sad. They were then marched in and out as a group until one woman was asked to leave. She was crying, packing up her knives. It made me so sad and sick to watch. Why was I drawn to this? I didn't want her to lose...did I? Do I? I don't even know her. Why would I wish her harm?
I understand there are many of these shows now. All "elimination"-based and faux reality. Real like a firing squad. I understand there is a good side, a jubilant winner getting their shot at fame and fortunes, but the bulk of the watching, I gather, is some communal elimination where the audience gets a hand in the stone-throwing. It begs the question of why we feel the need to watch this. Are we all so unhappy in our own lives we need the fix of watching another human go into the gladiator ring and come out a bloody, eviscerated mess? What does Russell Crowe scream in Gladiator -- "Are you not entertained"?
I am not entertained and neither was that red-faced, tear-stained woman who was told she wasn't good enough. I was raised by parents who said there were only winners and losers. That the winners were good and the losers bad. The winners hard working and for the most part thin and attractive and the losers slovenly and unkempt. I don't believe them. I think the world is filled with people. People who try and dream and risk and stumble. Heavy, light, rich and poor and all who just seek to be seen and heard. Not judged and eliminated. When did life become Boot Camp? I understand that a screaming drill sergeant and the subsequent training prepares a young soldier as they go into battle but we have turned everything into a battle. Is that what life is? I don't think so. I hope this trend gets eliminated. That we return to telling stories that are written by great writers, rather than manipulated into looking real, but really are scripted and cast and controlled. What other human experience can we marginalize? What are the costs to our national psyche? What does this tell our children? What is this saying about us?
In my latest book for children, Is There Really A Human Race?, I pose the question: Is life nothing but a giant competition? It ends with these simple thoughts as the mother tries to reassure her young son:
"Shouldn't it be that you just try your best and that's more important than beating the rest? Shouldn't it be looking back at the end that you judge your own race by the help that you lend? So take what's inside you and make big, bold choices and for those who can't speak for themselves, use bold voices and make friends, love well and bring art to this place and make the world better for the whole human race."