Step (Right) Up

There’s the old saying that “any press is good press” so it’s probably reason to applaud CW for announcing that the next season of America’s Next Top Model will feature a transgender contestant, Isis. Mass media is the surest vehicle for the marginalized to find acceptance, but usually it’s one that first takes its passenger for a side trip along the toll roads of exploitation.

This has less to do with callousness on the part of the production teams than with two factors, the first being the good old bottom line. The unique is what gives the property its value and its corresponding marketability. There would be no press release if transgender were seen as commonplace by the mainstream. As soon as that allure is ripped away, the subject goes from object of consumption to being absorbed into the community of consumers, marketed to rather than marketed.

The second factor is the engine that drives all entertainment, namely drama. Since reality TV burst onto the scene with MTV’s The Real World, “reality” has been put through grueling casting sessions, makeup and wardrobe before appearing on stage. It shouldn’t really come as great surprise to the viewer to discover that what ends up on the screen isn’t exactly verité. No studio is going to wager production costs without some idea of what will end up on screen. To that end, the cast of any reality show is carefully chosen to conform to preconceived story arcs. Characters are identified in advance. While you can’t predict exactly how a person will act without a script before the cameras, the results can certainly be managed, usually in the editing room.

So a particular formula has been developed that takes advantage of the “character’s” uniqueness, even as it strips it away. I first remember identifying it years ago in an episode of L.A. Law. In this particular instance, a character with Tourette’s syndrome was introduced. For the bulk of the show’s hour running time, the condition was milked for all the laughs that could be obtained as the man blurted out “bitch” or other spontaneous outbursts at inappropriate times in front of the jury. The same held true in subsequent episodes, with a character who was a dwarf or a man who was balding and wore a wig. They are presented as objects of fun and invite the viewer to gawk and join in. Then in the closing moments of the show, they give an impassioned speech, usually to the jury, in which they implore them to recognize their essential humanity. Reaction shots of the jury members are then shown with their pained expressions. Shame on you jury. Deftly, any guilt we might have felt for our participation is transferred to the jury who really should have known better.

I’ll call this approach sideshow naturalization and while I might resist its manipulation, I do so more because it has become so well-worn than that I find it distasteful. In truth, I have mixed feelings about it. It has proved such a successful narrative to incorporate those held at arm’s length from a larger community that I can’t help but think that we all benefit from the results. One wants to applaud networks for their inclusiveness even as it is acknowledged that they are having their cake and eating it too.


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