The Allure of the Strange and Unusual at Human Expense

Centuries ago, people who were "different" in any way–those with visible disabilities, facial deformities or marks, extreme obesity, or other conditions–often found "employment" in circuses and sideshows. They were ridiculed as freaks and shut out from society, and we now look back at their plights as an ultimate example of humanity’s inhumanity. We say we are too well-informed, too "politically correct," to parade people around for entertainment any longer.

Yet, we also have reality television. These days, the "freak show" looks more like documentaries chronicling the lives of little people, large fundamentalist families, people who have broken away from extreme forms of religion or cults, and yes, the extremely obese or thin again. We also have documentaries that place miserably failing restaurants, hotels, and other businesses on display, mostly so the hosts can be lauded for saving them and the business owners, who are implicitly understood to be careless or stupid.

Some reality shows are much gentler than others, doing their best to present their subjects with dignity and as real, three-dimensional people. Discouragingly though, the shows that seem to pull in the ratings and the viewers are the same ones that invite viewers to gawk and ridicule.

Why is this? Is the nature of reality TV itself to present the most unusual of humanity at people’s expense–that is, is there nothing to be done about it? What does it say about us as humans that we continue to consume and enjoy this entertainment? Discuss.

Some examples you might use:

-The filthiest and most rundown establishments on Hotel Impossible or Restaurant " "
-The shower scenes of My 600-Lb Life, which viewers and reviewers often call "the obligatory shower scene" (they’re often part of drinking games)
-The most extreme or scary-looking cults in documentaries
-The controversy and scandal surrounding the Duggar family, including the marriages of grown daughters and resulting spin-off series
-Places featured on documentaries like Most Terrifying Places in America, Ghost Adventures, etc.

  • As someone born with disabilities, and was going to see how how the disabled are portrayed in books and films, i support this topic! On Facebook and many channels on Youtube post these outlandish stories about the unusual or disabled people and ending the story with no possitive outcome. We are then to only feel pity for them before we move on and click on another video showing the same type of content with giving a couple hearts and crying emojis to show our support. – Amelia Arrows 4 years ago
  • Good topic. I was expecting mention of Hoarders! I'm not sure that the final item in the list at the end of your topic -- about Most Terrifying Places in America and Ghost Adventures -- fit with the other items in the list. The supernatural seems to me like a very different topic. – JamesBKelley 4 years ago
  • Hoarders, yes. :) The paranormal stuff probably doesn't fit, on reflection. I included it because, depending on how people feel about the paranormal, they might malign believers as strange and "haunted" places as gimmick-y or places "normal" people shouldn't be. But yes, Hoarders or Hoarding: Buried Alive would fit much better. – Stephanie M. 4 years ago
  • I really like this topic! There's something about society's fascination with the "other" and how we tend to interact with it in a one-sided relationship -- think circus freak shows. How have reality tv shows and things like YouTube broadened our awareness of the "other" and what work does it do to embrace the "other" into society, or otherwise ostracize it further? Should the focus be on integration/assimilation into society, or can folks with disabilities/abilities be more celebrated for creating their own communities? How can able-bodied people respect these marginalized groups? I'm super interested in this topic, and I would eagerly read a piece about it it. – Eden 4 years ago

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