Which Is Worse: Reality TV or the commentary on it?
I’d heard mentions recently of the show Hoarders, on A&E. (I’m not going to link to their site.) The show, from what I gather, is a series with episodes focusing on individuals who compulsively hoard possessions. I’ve never watched it and do not plan to, as I’m extremely uneasy about television shows that focus on people in crisis to, well, entertain other people. I have the same issues with Intervention (also an A&E show) and the Celebrity Rehab/Sober House/Sex Addicts shows with Dr. Drew. I understand that on some level, they could be useful or educational or contribute to diminishing stigma and demystifying therapy and counseling, but mostly it just feels like taking advantage of people who are dealing with addiction or disability.
This is especially true as the core of all reality tv is, of course, drama – so the shows focus on people in absolute crisis, at proverbial rock bottom, relapses and failures. And the drama is heightened when the person’s disability or addiction is as extreme as possible. So the Hoarders show focuses on people who are extreme hoarders, having lost friends and family because of their compulsions, not someone who has a drawer in the kitchen filled with old takeout menus. This extremely heightens the message that the person in the show is an “other,” a “freak,” to be gawked at.
And that’s the problem – even if I never watch these shows, there are still people who watch them and then talk or write about them. I’ve managed to avoid the worst of it, but commenter Penny, catastrophe discovered this “gem” at Jezebel and sent it my way as an example of the ableism at its extreme. It’s bad enough that before I go any further, I should warn you that some of the quotes are truly horrifying and you may not want to read them. We start off on a great foot with the title: “Sometimes, A Hoarder Just Can’t Be Helped.”
The very first sentence of the post informs us that the author found Augustine, the woman who is the focus of this episode of Hoarders, “frankly, very hard to empathize with.” Red flag! You are not watching this television show to determine whether the person with a disability is worthy of your empathy! Or rather, if you are, you should turn the tv off immediately. This is a real woman, a person, a human. The premise of the show, indeed the title of the show, indicates that she has a disability that has had a monumental effect on her life and functioning. If you are watching a show about her without empathy, then you’re just pointing at a sideshow freak.
The post then goes on to applaud the professional counselors who come to help Augustine, “who miraculously remain positive and chipper throughout the entire ordeal” even though there is stuff in the hoarded material that the author clearly considers to be super duper gross. But in the author’s eyes, Augustine’s biggest sin is not hoarding icky things, it is that she “has no remorse for what her actions have done to her family and her community … and absolutely no gratitude toward the people who are trying to help her stay in her home. She only blames other people for her situation.” This is the point in the post where my jaw actually dropped open. Yes, the woman who the show profiles specifically and explicitly because she has extreme compulsions to hoard … has strong compulsions to hoard! The author seems to think that Augustine has been hoarding out of spite or stubbornness and now that these people are helping her, she will just “snap out of it” and repent. But that’s not how a disability works. And blaming Augustine for not being magically cured of her disability during the course of taping is cruel and ableist.
But wait – it gets even worse. We are not done applauding these saintly folk who have taken time out of their days to help this woman with a disability who does not even appreciate all that they are doing for her. “Watching this episode, it’s impossible not to be struck by the generosity and caring of the people who are helping Augustine, and to wonder if their resources couldn’t be used helping other people who actually want to change.” Yup. That’s a direct quote, really. Or, in other words, Hey, we sent a counselor down there, and she didn’t immediately change her entire life and patterns of thinking. So fuck her. We’re done with her. Because this woman with a disability didn’t act the way we wanted her to. “Augustine seems less like a person with a compulsion caused by feelings of loss who desperately wants to get her life in control, and more like the clinical definition of a sociopath.” Or, because she wasn’t disabled in the way the author expected her to be disabled, we should give up on her.
So for me, the commentary is worse than the show itself. The show just places the person with a disability in the public eye – it takes a member of the public to do the pointing and laughing.