Why We Should All Watch A Bit Of Crap TV

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Nelly Thomas makes the case for wading into free to air television, if for no other reason than perspective and an education.

Dear New Matilda Readers, I’m writing to implore you to watch some shit telly.

When I say “shit”, I mean the kinds of TV shows (and movies, blogs, podcasts and radio) that are easy to lampoon. You know the ones – Married at First Sight, Bride and Prejudice, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Gogglebox and Q&A. They all may make you want to scream at the television, but I think they could be good for you and if you try hard enough, you might even learn something in the process.

Knowledge is power people.

Being New Matilda readers – and, I hope, subscribers (if you don’t subscribe, don’t bitch to me about the decline of quality journalism) you probably ingest a heady diet of Insight, The Guardian and The New York Times. You know how to vote below the line, you’ve read some Foucault, you tune in to SBS and the thought of watching Steve Price in the jungle makes you taste a little bit of vomit in your own mouth (as an aside, I think the best joke I ever wrote was “you know Foo-co about Foucault.” I gift it to you for your own personal use).

It’s good to be informed by quality media, but I would suggest that it’s not enough to gain a full understanding of the world. That “bubble” that The Right use to dismiss The Left (like they don’t have one) does have some truth to it. We can be smug. And snobby. And just a little bit too quick to dismiss the views of others. We can be oblivious to what’s happening outside the inner-city (not so inner any more) and then find ourselves genuinely surprised when Pauline Hanson makes a comeback.

If you want make change in the world, you need to know how it actually is. A hint: on Thursday the 9th February 2017 I’m a Celebrity get Me Out of Here attracted 230,000 more viewers than the 7.30 Report. It’s good to know what people – and voters – are doing with their time.

Before you despair, please remember that everyone loves some sort of shit. One person’s Housewives of Orange County is another’s Top Gear. You might like to relax after a day of work, news, opinion and activism with a bottle of red, I might like to do so with an episode of Ellen. We can pat our heads and our tummies at the same time.

Then there’s the limbic system. That’s the thing in your body that kind of regulates your emotions. It can get very tired. If it’s spiked too much by death, destruction, worry and fear – that is, by The Newsit wears out. When that happens things like depression and anxiety can take hold. Just look at our fearless editor, he did so much informing and being informed that he lost his marbles. Sure he went surfing to recover and that’s all healthy and great and stuff, but he could have been eaten by a shark (just something to consider next time big guy. Ed’s note: There are definitely worse ways to go!). What I’m saying is, the fact that shit TV is mindless drivel is the point – it can be a brief relief from an otherwise difficult world.

Then there’s the added bonus that by consuming some shit TV in small doses – don’t go in too hard, too early or you’ll end up with a stomach ache – you might get a broader idea of what’s happening outside your own social circle. Most of the people on the shows I mentioned above aren’t living 5kms from the CBD (the cooking shows being a possible exception – “foodies” are allowed to live anywhere) and they do sometimes offer some insight into why things are the way they are socially and politically.

Take, for example, Married at First Sight (please, someone take it). I am shamefully addicted to this show and can only justify watching it by telling myself it’s a learning opportunity. And it is. For all those who think we’re post-feminist and that gender norms have been eradicated, I challenge you to watch one episode of this show and not rush out to get a Rosie Tattoo. Even the “experts” (I have to put that in inverted commas because I honestly can’t see how they retain their licences) seem perfectly content to reinforce gender roles that make Sam Newman look progressive: women need protection, men will protect them; men must be big and women small (men being tall is apparently the new women being slim); dominating behaviour by men is masculine, assertive behaviour by women is manipulative.

Most disturbingly, clear red flags for potential abusive behaviour are not only ignored, they’re minimised and usually remain unchallenged. One gentleman in the current cast was described by the experts as “very rigid” and in need of someone who would “bend” to his way of thinking. The same man also insisted his prospective bride weigh less than 60kg at all times and when invited to a group dinner literally asked her to pretend everything was okay in their relationship. When she began talking to other “brides and grooms” about her experience he glared at her and became extremely agitated.

There have been similar matchings in previous series’ where anyone with even the most superficial knowledge of Family Violence would be jumping off the couch and yelling nooooooooooo.

On the upside – and I mean this sincerely – this is a show a lot of young people watch and it does provide an opportunity to talk about these issues. My kids are not old enough for this stuff, but if I had teenagers I’d relish the chance to point out signs of controlling behaviour, to challenge body shaming (of both the men for being “too small” and the women for being “fat”), to decry the use of sarcasm and putdowns between partners and, just as importantly, to talk up instances where the couples are kind, respectful and just plain lovely.

I won’t bore you with the details, but this season, the most adorable and happy couple are not the young hotties with heaps of money and lip fillers but rather, the dowdy middle-aged country folk – him a single dad, her a worker on the mines – who seem to genuinely respect and like each other.

You probably won’t see that on Home and Away.

Then there’s I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here. If you haven’t had the pleasure, it involves entertainers and a few other “celebrities” living in the jungle and agreeing to do stuff like eat fish eyes.

It’s as boring as hell and yes, they have chucked a deadly mix of firebrands, wall flowers and mentally fragile peeps in there, purely in the hopes that they’ll crack. But – and this is no small thing – the cast is one of the most diverse you’ll ever see on Australian television.

There is an Aboriginal woman (Casey Donovan), a Muslim man (my friend and colleague Nazeem Hussain), a Samoan Kiwi Australian (Jay Laga’aia), an orthodox-ish Jew (Tziporah Malkah) and a shock-jock (Steve Price). There’s fat people, married people, single people, childless people and people with a range of political views – that they often discuss; sometimes even respectfully! If only Australian drama was similarly diverse.

I can’t for a moment defend the ridiculousness of encouraging/bullying two women to lay in an underground crypt of water and snakes (this week’s “challenge”), but I can say that it prompted me to talk to my daughter about peer pressure, power and how to say no.

I can also say that seeing a young Muslim man be the joyful, sensitive peacemaker and diplomat of the group – while still standing firm on his beliefs – warms the cockles of my heart. Of course, there’s plenty of joyful peace-loving Muslim men, but for some of the audience, dear Nazeem may be the first they’ve ever encountered. (Incidentally, you can vote to keep Naz on the show here and in the process you support his charity – InTouch, the Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence).

Nazeem Hussain and Steve Price on I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.
Nazeem Hussain and Steve Price on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.

And, as an aside, Steve Price is almost exactly as you’d expect, but a little shorter.

When you are really ready to scrape the bottom of the barrel, there’s Gogglebox. Gogglebox is a show where you watch other people watching television. I know, it sounds like the end of the civilisation.

But again, I beg to differ.

As a political and cultural studies junkie, I love this show – again due to the diverse cast and also, because I’m often pleasantly surprised by most of the cast’s reaction to things. You see hard-core “bogans” scoff at the sensationalizing on Today Tonight, you see the Sri Lankan Dad has jokes just as bad as every other Dad in Australia, you see a gay couple lovingly sit on the couch together and cry when a story about homophobia comes on the news.

Best of all, you see Anastasia – the biggest, most gorgeous bogan wog chick – yell “fuck off dickhead” any time she sees a politician skirting around the truth in an interview. The idea that “the masses” have group-think and are uncritically seduced by fake news and The Bachelor truly is challenged by this show. And it’s funny. Like, really funny.

I could go on, but you catch my drift.

On a light-hearted level, shit TV can offer a brief reprieve from an otherwise difficult world.

On a more important note, I really do believe it can offer some insight as to how people different from us – whoever “us” is – are thinking and living. We do live in a “social media internet age” where we can too easily get stuck in a self-perpetuating bubble of like-minded opinion and outrage. Reality TV is confected and contrived, but it does challenge.

And what’s the worst that can happen? Watch an episode or two of some guff and feel smug about how noble your leisure time activities are. I’d like Anastasia to see that.

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Nelly Thomas

Nelly Thomas has been described as one of Australia’s most natural comedians. An award-winning performer, she was listed as one of Australia’s “most innovative thinkers” in The Age Newspaper’s, The Zone and was featured on the ABC’s Big Ideas: The Smartest Stuff on TV, Radio and Online. Nelly is a regular guest on ABC Radio and writes extensively in the print and online media. In 2012 she published her first book. Nelly has performed in over sixteen festivals and directed shows by the likes of Maria Bamford and Stella Young. She’s also grown two humans of her own.

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