Guest Post: Please Vote Me Off the Island!

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Here’s another post from my friend, “Anonymous”…

The nature of life is such that all species are in constant competition from birth to death.   In nature, there is competition for food, shelter and dominance, to name a few.  This competition, along with genetic mutation, is what basically drives natural selection and evolution.  Humans are no different, but their competition is more complex—it involves numerous other factors, such as grades, acceptance into college, friends, jobs, buying a house, and just about everything up to and including wars.  It seems that virtually every step to get through life is a competition at some level.

So it strikes me as odd that we compete every day, and yet we choose competition as a major theme in a lot of our entertainment.  There has long been competition in entertainment, such as radio quiz shows.  On TV, we have seen many game shows such as Password, Jeopardy, The Price is Right, Let’s Make a Deal—the common theme is coming out ahead, and we all like to win or to watch others win.  Nothing wrong with that.  These shows seem mostly friendly, and the winners take home prizes.  Often, the losers get consolation prizes.  Both are somehow compensated, and they seem to have some fun in the process.

But the advent of reality shows has taken competition to an even higher level.  Survivor, Big Brother, Hell’s Kitchen—we see people put into difficult and tense situations, and how they scheme and plot against each other.  In other words, we are shown the seamy, nasty, dirty sides of contestants—there isn’t a lot of smiling or handshaking going on, and it’s not very pretty.  While I have seen some of these shows out of curiosity, I don’t watch them anymore because they are so distasteful and unpleasant.

Let’s take cooking shows.  I can remember The Galloping Gourmet, The Frugal Gourmet, and Justin Wilson.  In these shows, a host demonstrated how to cook one or more dishes—they were informative and somewhat humorous.  There are still lots of cooking shows that are instructive, such as Good Eats or America’s Test Kitchen.  But there is a new species of cooking show that is extremely competitive.  Amateur chefs are pitted against one another, often with unrealistic or ridiculous constraints, and harshly judged by professionals.

A scenario might go something like this:  three average people are asked to use two turtle eggs, a kiwi fruit, beef jerky and some goat cheese to create a restaurant-quality dish in 16 minutes—not a second more.  They will be judged on taste, presentation and originality.  A scramble (Ha! I made a funny!) begins as the chefs rush to prepare their offerings for the judges.  As they labor, there is an announcer who describes their feverish activities, and this seems to add to the tension.  When the time is up, the dishes usually look horrible—go figure.  The chefs then face the judges one at a time and receive criticism.  Sometimes there is praise, but, more often, a judge (aka food snob) will say something like “Marjorie, your dish looks and tastes like wildebeest feces—I can’t imagine that you have ever eaten in a restaurant, let alone can cook in one.”  The winner seems to win by default rather than superior results.  After all, who can take those ingredients and come up with something palatable in that time frame?  And under what circumstances in the real world would one have to try?  So the “competition” has artificial conditions and is basically meaningless.  And most of the participants are chided or humiliated, then eliminated.  Viewers don’t really learn how to cook anything.  So we are really watching losers, not winners.

And that’s the take home lesson—our society seems to thrive on competition and enjoy watching people fail.  It’s not enough anymore to compete all day—we need to watch competition when we get home.  It’s not enough anymore to see someone win on a game show, and to watch the loser be a good sport—we need to watch people stab each other in the back, or be embarrassed.   I have no objection to entertainment that contains violence, intrigue, debasement or conflict.  These shows or movies that I enjoy have actors portraying characters.   But the people in the type of show I describe are real people—they sell their dignity, and the producers exploit their willingness to do so, and the desire of the audience to see it.   For cryin’ out loud, change the channel!

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