Pop Culture

America’s Obsession with Obsession

We used to be obsessed with perfection. In the ’60s our favorite shows were Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, sitcoms that promoted a family ideal where the biggest problem was whether the Beav might mildly disappoint his mother and father by forgetting to share. Even the mold-breaking and offbeat I Love Lucy rarely showcased any real cracks in the family veneer; Lucy and Desi fought over benign things, their imperfection was perfect. By the ’80s we revered the Huxtables. Would Vanessa and Robert ever hold hands? Who would appear on Dance Mania–Theo or Cockroach? It was all very orderly, measured, sensible–the perfect entertainment for reminding us that even though we ourselves weren’t perfect, maybe somebody else was.

Today, we look to something different. Our favorite shows highlight disaster, compulsion, and trainwreckery. Ranging from the very serious: Intervention; to the ridiculous: Real Housewives, we enjoy watching people suffer. And whether the show is dark or very, very frivolous, the “characters” wander through an obsession-filled life–wanting smack or fame, either way, we bask in schadenfreude, entertained by their struggles. The perfect entertainment for reminding us that, yes, we ourselves aren’t perfect, but thankfully, someone else is even worse.

When and why did we become so sick?

The early 1970s PBS documentary series, An American Family (which HBO used as the subject of a 2011 drama called Cinema Verite) might be a good place to start looking in terms of the when. The New Yorker published an article earlier this year, “The Reality Principle: The rise and rise of a television drama,” focusing on a little blurb Margaret Mead wrote for TV Guide in 1973. In her blurb, Dr. Mead describes An American Family and its narrative, the story of a supposedly unremarkable cast of characters (the Louds, a middle-class southern California family consisting of a married couple, Bill and Pat, and their five kids) as “a new kind of art form”¦as significant as the invention of drama or the novel.” (Sanneh, Kalefa. “The Reality Principle” The New Yorker May 2011. 9 May 2011 And while the documentary purported to explore all things mundane and typical, it ultimately turned its eye to the sensational. Broadcasting the acerbic unraveling of Bill and Pat’s marriage; TV viewers were glued, unable to look away from the personal pain of strangers. The New Yorker article posits that Dr. Mead, though she seemed to see this train coming, might have been surprised at how diverse this art/entertainment form has become; MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, in particular, “hew to the “˜American Family’ formula.” (Sanneh).

But 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom focus on more than the turmoil of American family life, they focus on the obsessive nature of teenage relationships.

Nearly every girl featured on the show strives to hold onto a boyfriend not at all worth holding on to, often in disturbing, self-destructive ways. In some cases, a boy struggles to hold onto a girlfriend, though less often, it seems. If you’ve watched even one episode (or half an episode for that matter) you’ve seen a pregnant teen or teen mother dialing and re-dialing a boyfriend’s number, texting panicked messages, and even showing up at places she thinks he might be. Whether it’s the father/sperm-donor of the fetus/child or a boyfriend that will hopefully fill that role, 16 and Teen Mom seem to center not on the difficulties faced by children attempting to raise children, or on the risks of young child birth, or on the stress a teen pregnancy puts on the parents of the young prospective parents, but on the toll it takes on an obsessive teen relationship. And we can presume these shows place the focus there, because that’s where the real entertainment lies.

On Hoarders: Buried Alive, the bulk of the program is spent showing filthy, piled to the rafters houses and the desperately pained people who live in them. We hear stories from family and friends of how mental illness has robbed the hoarder of joy. We listen to family and friends debate over whether to intervene, and if so, when and how. But very little airtime is spent on actual intervention and treatment. We just want to see the shit show. We want to see the rat-pissed, rotten, filthy house and a person suffering inside of it. Why?!

Intervention similarly delves deeply into addiction and the obsessive nature of a life trapped inside addiction, in one episode even filming several interactions between a young couple in their blood splattered bathroom-cum-heroin den. The episode devotes interview after interview to a discussion of the couple’s sick relationship together, how their obsession for each other feeds their obsession for junk. And then, in the last five minutes of the show, we see each addict leaving for rehab. And an update at the end of the program reports that both are doing well in recovery. But, apparently, that’s not the part we want to know about, since a few words typed on a black screen seem to be enough to tell that story. No, what we want to see is a sick couple sinking deeply into a gripping obsession. We’re obsessed with it.

We’re obsessed with failure. Even The Biggest Loser, which is supposed to be about weight loss success, seems to get ample mileage out of going back and profiling previous contestants who’ve gained all the weight back. There’s some sort of enjoyment in that disappointment in the contestants.

TV commentators often write about how the Real Housewives series are popular because we love to watch what we can’t have: crystal clear pools, Dolce outfits for our dogs, diamond encrusted pickle forks, and professionally spray tanned lady business (which probably isn’t good for your lady business, by the way). But I completely disagree. I think people watch the Real Housewives because the people on those shoes are friggin disasters with petty, miserable lives, and embarrassing moments at every turn. If you’re feeling like a huge bitch with no friends, why not turn on the tube to see an even bigger bitch with friends who actually throw tables at her?

It’s clear to me that we are obsessed with obsession. But what I can’t figure is why, and for how long. I don’t think it’s that life imitates art. We aren’t that much worse than we were during the Cosby Show’s heyday, are we? Or, are we? For whatever reason, we seem to no longer take comfort in the idea that someone is getting in right, instead we prefer to be regularly reminded that someone else is getting it very, very wrong.

5 replies on “America’s Obsession with Obsession”

The human is the biggest (and maybe only? Never heard of lions watching alligators pulling zebras apart for funsies) disaster tourist on planet earth.

Yes, I watch some of it myself, but the lack of ‘Pick yourself up, we’re going to change your life’s path’ irks me to no end. We don’t pick puppies from the shelter for two weeks, feed it before dumping it on the street, but when it comes to humans, we’re allowed to be entertained by it (making this very black and white, ofc).

I still prefer The Cosby Show to reality tv.  Even though I’ve seen all the episodes multiple times.

I used to like watching The Real World, back when it was new and fresh – shoot, I stuck with it all the way up until Las Vegas (and by that time is was old and very crusty).  I dabbled in Survivor, but not for long.  American Idol held me until Paula left.  Now I’m down to SYTYCD and the Sing-Off.

I don’t like watching people fight, do gross things, hurt each other, or hurt themselves.  I don’t watch tv for that.  I watch for stories and laughs.  And music and dance.  For a tad more variety, I’ll watch something learn-y (history/science/home improvement/cooking), but that’s less often.  Main consumption = stories and laughs.

I know plenty of people with pain in their lives – sometimes one of them is me – so I’m not interested in inviting more of that into my mind.  I do however, watch The Soup.  So I’m aware of some of these tragedies, even if I don’t actively watch them.  So I don’t know why these things are big hits.  Anyone else?

Thanks for this! My biggest problem with shows such as Intervention and Hoarders is that I find them to be extremely exploitative. These are people who are very ill, and while they do receive free treatment from the show, they are being taken advantage of, usually when they are not in the frame of mind to properly give ethical consent. My mother eats these shows up, and can’t understand why I see her voyeuristic pleasure as unethical schadenfreude at best.

We do have an obsession with the failures of others, and I think it is to keep ourselves thinking, “Well, at least I’m not THAT guy.” It plays into a weird, oppressive mental hierarchy, as well as feeding our fascination with the “other.”

I absolutely agree.  As long as we can look at someone worse off than us, we can justify our current behavior.  I’m actually less surprised at how readily America has taken to the new type of disaster reality TV than I am to why we were so accepting of the perfect family life portrayed in the 50’s-80’s.


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