all you need is hate
June 12, 2009
On Sunday, I recorded Rod Blagojevich’s appearance on Huckabee, Mike Huckabee’s self-titled talk show on Fox News, which is not a show I exactly have a Season Pass for, you know, but I was flipping through the channel guide to find Soapnet’s weekend Gilmore Girls reruns and I noticed that Blagojevich was appearing on Huckabee and I thought that if Blagojevich was appearing on Huckabee, there might be important insights into I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here and, as you can tell, I’m nothing if not devoted to causes which I find important to life and society. Yesterday, after it sat untouched on the DVR all week, I finally watched the appearance, or, at least, I tried to watch it. The interview segment began normally enough with Huckabee offering a thirty second summary of who Rod Blagojevich is (“will go on trial to fight corruption charges next year…Meanwhile, he’s having to play Mister Mom while his wife is in Costa Rica doing a reality show”), playing some clips of Patti eating bugs on I’m A Celebrity…, and then welcoming him to the show. As soon as he appeared on the screen, Blagojevich smiled, nodded, and proceeded to rapidly deliver this insane monologue (in the clip above, it’s at :40):
“Thanks for having me, Mike, I’d like to begin and tell you that you and I have at least five things in common. First, we both come from humble origins; second, we’ve both been governors; third, you and I both run marathons; fourth, you and I both voted for Ronald Reagan; and fifth and most important, you and I are both huge Elvis fans and I want you to know and all of our fellow Elvis fans that I’ve got nothing but a whole bunch of hunka hunka burning love for all of us.”
During that last part, he also waved his hand violently at the camera to try to convince the audience of his “hunka hunka burning love” for them, and then, after the speech, sat there smiling awkwardly, waiting. The interview proceeded on more normal grounds after this and, as it did, I found it harder and hard to keep watching it. It’s not that it was boring (although it was boring), it’s that I found these two people so unlikeable that it was difficult just to have them on my screen talking in front of me, talking to me; it just made me feel unpleasant and gross. I’m not a person who’s particularly interested in politics or the political fates of Blagojevich and Huckabee in particular, but I couldn’t shake this feeling for some reason. I tried to fast forward so that I could get right to the I’m A Celebrity… soundbites without having to watch these unlikeable people any longer, but even seeing their sped-up faces jerking around didn’t seem to help, I was so overwhelmed that I had to stop the recording and delete it. I’m always annoyed by the reflexive, easy hatred of Heidi and Spencer and other “worthless reality stars” which espoused by almost everyone who knows who they are, but if it’s a visceral, gut hatred like I was feeling for Huck and Blago, then maybe I can understand it.
One of the interesting things about reality television as a form is that it engenders and in fact depends on mass quantities of hatred: hatred between the contestants on the shows in order to create drama and narrative, of course, but, perhaps more importantly, hatred between the audience and the characters that they’re watching, so that watching reality television often involves a great deal of hatred both inside and outside the screen. To be clear, I’m not talking about experiencing reality television through the lens of irony; I’m not talking about people who presume themselves to be too good or smart or interesting to care about reality TV yet deigning to “ironically” consume mass quantities of it with the excuse that, even though they “hate this show,” it’s “just a guilty pleasure.” What I mean is that sincere, unironic enjoyment of reality television very often involves sincere, unironic hatred of at least some of the characters being watched.
This virtual hatred, unlike real life hatred, is not a cause of stress or pain for the audience — instead, it’s a source of joy and entertainment. The characters that we hate on reality shows are characters that we “love to hate,” even if our love isn’t something of which we’re completely conscious or proud. On I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, Heidi and Spencer initially fulfilled the role of hate receptacles — Spencer himself very self consciously stated in the first episode that he was going to be taking the role of villain and quickly fulfilled that promise, creating in himself a focal point for viewers’ hatred, and, thus, the show’s narrative, since if hate is what captivates viewers and connects them to the show, producers eager to make their shows a success will stock their programs with potential targets for that hatred and will devote more screen time to those who are hated. This is often the difference between reality shows which are popular and successful (America’s Next Top Model, with its over the top catfights and drama) and those which are not (TLC’s touching and lovely but totally declawed A Model Life or Bravo’s simply boring Make Me A Supermodel). Without Heidi and Spencer for the I’m A Celebrity… audience to hate, there would’ve been no real narrative in the entire first week of the show and, with no real stars, exciting challenges, or other appealing features, it likely would’ve done even worse ratings than it has. When Heidi and Spencer left the show on Monday’s episode, Janice Dickinson quickly stepped in as the new villain and, therefore, the new star. On the Wednesday and Thursday episode’s of the show, she progressed from her usual behavior, which involved basically being lazy and making bitchy comments, to new levels of hateability, doing things like stealing food won by other contestants in challenges and, in her most hate-worthy moment, urinating on the ground in the middle of her camp, just feet away from her teammates.
This hate watching of reality television is different from the way audiences experience other forms of contemporary narrative art. One major function of modern literature is to enable readers to virtually empathize with the fictional characters they’re reading about. Despite their flaws and misdeeds, you can’t hate Raskolnikov or the Underground Man because, as you spend time reading about them, you imagine what it’s like to actually be them, you “put yourself in their shoes.” Reading fiction in the first person involves virtually conflating your self (your “I”) with the fictional protagonist’s self (the story’s “I”). This is a function which is both formal (the immersion caused by the reading process/point of view) and moral (the ethical benefits of empathy and accessing other human selves). This idea of humanizing characters and creating virtual empathy has been carried over from the novel to our highest-brow and most august television dramas. On shows like The Wire or The Sopranos, there are none of the simple “black and white” heroes and villains of comic books and genre fiction; there are only “shades of gray.” In these shows, a murder is not (or is not only) an “evil” act; instead, it’s an event which is explainable as a result of human psychology and society’s ills and a host of other things. As viewers, we’re supposed to recognize that characters like Tony Soprano or Avon Barksdale are not villains but instead are complicated human beings responding to a variety of pressures and forces as well as the weight of their backgrounds and history. In realistic literature or television, if we find ourselves truly hating a character, that’s just the fault of the author, who has failed to adequately render his or her characters so as to reveal the essential humanity which is contained in all of them, which is contained in all of us. The popular critical shorthand for all of this stuff is that the “best” characters in narrative fiction are those who are are “complex,” “rounded,” “lifelike,” and, in the most commonly used descriptor of all, “three-dimensional” (for example, Michelle Slatalla in the NYT on Wednesday praising a television show: “intricate story lines and three-dimensional characters who grow and change in such real ways that they feel like friends,” and Janet Maslin in the NYT on Thursday praising a novel: “Ms. Sullivan introduces strong, warmly believable three-dimensional characters.”). The best realistic fictions, therefore, seem to involve an audience taking a series of representations offered by an author and using those images to create a vision of a “three-dimensional” world populated with “lifelike” and “complex” human characters with whom the reader can identify (in other words, a kind of moral fiction mimesis).
Is all this empathizing and humanizing which fiction creates necessarily a good thing, though? Most people (including myself) would argue that yes, it is, that many of the world’s problems are caused by a lack of empathy, an inability to understand people who are different than you or recognize their humanity, and so if the experience of fiction is a process which creates more empathy and understanding, that’s a positive and good thing. The literature classes in American primary and secondary schools are as much about ethics as they are about aesthetics; by reading novel after novel about social issues like the Holocaust and Sexism and Racism and Poverty and putting themselves in the shoes of fictional characters who are oppressed by these things, students learn proper models for life in real society. This is a good thing, right? Yet at the same time, this process can have its faults because by the distortions of narrative and character and all the other false processes of fiction, there can be such a thing as over-humanizing or false empathy (I believe someone on Fox News might call this “the meaninglessness of postmodern morality”). I recently read American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld’s fictionalized memoir of Laura Bush, and, by the end of the book, which was not even that great of a book, if still enjoyable, I found myself kind of love with George W. Bush, a person who previously I had felt no affinity for and on many occasions had in fact passionately hated. Yet based on this novel that I read which included a fictional version of him, suddenly I seemed to think that I liked him, that he was, oh God, “a guy I would want to have a beer with.” There’s a scene in the novel where the Karl Rove character is talking with the Laura Bush character about the self-indulgence of Rabbit Redux and I found myself thinking, just for a moment, about how funny and smart Karl Rove was. Are you sure empathy is always a good thing? (Or do you just think I’m stupid and shouldn’t be allowed to read books?)
For all the hatred it creates, reality television can also make us empathize and love, of course. Thursday’s episode of I’m a Celebrity… involved the latest in a series of setpieces which seem structurally engineered and fine-tuned to humanize Patti Blagojevich and, by extension, her husband Rod. Thursday’s installment began with the celebrities involved in a roundtable discussion of their “big breaks,” the moments when they truly became famous (these discussions, which are becoming a regular feature, are meant to seem impromptu but are obviously producer driven, although they do seem heartfelt and authentic.). After recitations from the other celebrities, Patti was asked to speak about when she became famous and, instead, she broke down in tears and walked off the set (of course, “off the set” means “to another set where yet more cameras are taping.” As sad music played in the background, Patti Blagojevich vented her feelings “privately” to Lou Diamond Phillips. Holding her to his chest as she cried, he said, “I don’t think anyone can really imagine what you’re going through. I don’t think anyone in America can imagine it, not on a personal level. They read the headlines and they, you know, form opinions, but they don’t know, not until they know you.” This speech, which was of course true in some sense, was, ironically, taking place during a scene which had the ultimate effect of letting viewers feel that they truly “know” Patti, that they know her on “a personal level” and “can really imagine what she’s going through.” This scene was directly followed by another scene in which “villain” Janice Dickinson harassed Patti on her way back from the confessional, inciting even more empathy in the viewers. Later in the episode, she talked to Rod and her children via Skype and we didn’t see her as a power-hungry politico, a modern day Lady Macbeth, no, we saw her as nothing more or less than a caring mother who missed her daughters dearly. Watching these scenes, as well as witnessing the general portrayal of Patti Blagojevich as a reasonable, likable and hardworking person, it was hard not to feel love for her.
Yet as I’ve said, reality TV often works the opposite way, to create hatred instead of love. If the experience of reading fiction involves the reader taking a representation and, through the process of empathy, turning that representation into some simulation of a “real” person, a three-dimensional human being, the experience of watching reality television often involves the reader taking a real person, a three-dimensional human being, and, through the process of hatred, turning them into a representation, a symbol. When Spencer Pratt called Patti and Rod Blagojevich the “Heidi and Spencer of politics,” I was reminded of Sarah Palin who of course has in the last couple of days been angling for more screen time after a brief hiatus. During the election, there were numerous think pieces and discussions about Sarah Palin relationship to reality television — how her candidacy represented in some ways the primacy of reality television, with all its popular and populist stupidity. In my own thing, “The Fauxdacity of Soaps,” which started with a bit of fictionalized empathy for Bristol Palin, I compared Sarah Palin to Heidi Montag and wrote:
one of the republicans’ big talking points against obama is that he’s a “celebrity.” while i don’t think that’s a bad thing, i don’t disagree with them on one count: obama definitely is a celebrity. he’s the classic hollywood kind of celebrity, the dashing, dapper george clooney or cary grant style leading man. he’s a celebrity because of what makes him special, what makes him exceptional, what makes him better and different than all the rest of us. he’s a movie star. sarah palin is a celebrity, too, but she’s the new kind of celebrity, like heidi montag or carrie underwood. instead of being famous for what makes her special, she’s famous for what makes her normal, the girl next door who wins a date with tad hamilton. she’s a TV star. while twenty years ago that would’ve have made her no competition at all for obama (reagan hollywood blah blah), in today’s cultural climate, i’m not so sure. she’s a TV star and that’s what scares me the most about her.
It turns out, though, that I didn’t need to be so scared, because even if Sarah Palin became a vice presidential candidate and briefly captured the public’s attention by way of the mechanisms of reality television, they were also her undoing. Her character in the election narrative quickly became the focusing point for the audience’s hatred that a complex and rounded character like John McCain never could’ve been. Instead of voting for her, the populace voted her off the show, so to speak, decided that she was so worthy of their hatred that they didn’t want to watch her anymore. Most of us stopped loving to hate her and proceeded to just hate her, loving our favorite contestant, Barack Obama, all the more for it.
Rod Blagojevich’s number one appeal to ethos, the most powerful rhetorical gambit he can offer, is Elvis. He wants to tell us that he’s got a “hunka hunka burning love” for all of us. In other words, the way he tries to make us like and understand him is via a shared taste in pop culture. That Elvis reference that I quoted earlier from his monologue on Huckabee isn’t an anomaly — apparently he litters his speeches with references to The King, who is something of an obsession for him. When was the moment that Patti Blagojevich fell in love with Rod? According to her, it was when he performed a medley of Elvis songs for her while they were on a date. When the news of his corruption surfaced, before making a statement, Blagojevich quoted Elvis, telling reporters to “hang loose.” When I was looking up all these Elvis references, I found a description of Blagojevich’s love of the Tennyson poem “Ulysses,” which he read aloud at numerous press conferences and in several interviews during the scandal.
The governor said he first heard the poem recited during a football game sometime around 1980.
“I’ve known that poem since I was 15 years old,” Blagojevich said. “I learned that — I wish I could tell you I was in a library reading it, but I was watching the NFL in probably 1980, roughly,” he said.
An announcer “who had this great voice” recited the poem over film of running backs during a halftime feature, and a young Blagojevich heard “this voice reciting this motivating, inspiring poem, and I said I want to get that poem. So the next day I went to school and got a copy of it and memorized it.”
Reading that anecdote, with its defamiliarized poetry and pop culture power, reminded me of certain similar moments in my own childhood, time spent watching grandiose pro wrestling montages or reading self-important science fiction novels and just being bowled over the power of words and images. Reading that anecdote and reading all of the other stuff I had to read in order to write this post, this pile of representations of a person’s life, I have to admit that now I find myself kind of liking Rod Blagojevich, I find myself connecting with him, seeing him as a human being who is worthy of my love and trust and empathy, someone who I can and should care about. I find myself feeling like that but, God, I don’t want to feel like that. It doesn’t feel right.