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.

9 thoughts on “Which Is Worse: Reality TV or the commentary on it?

  1. Thank you for this. I read Jezebel fairly regularly- but this piece made me very uncomfortable, and I think you crystallized all the reasons why it did.

    It is especially galling that a site that has done some truly excellent pieces on the dangers of victim-blaming in rape culture would take the stance that an ill person isn’t worthy of the care she’s getting because we don’t like the way she expresses her emotions.

  2. Gosh, I wonder why I don’t tell people what my mental health condition actually is. Could it be because people like me are regularly the staple of “reality” t.v.?

  3. I read that – I felt uncomfortable, because I was like, I’m just a person with depression/possible bipolar and even I know that things are interrelated. Like if somebody flushed my pain pills to “cure” me of my addiction (I’m never watching Intervention – just thinking of the ads (we used to watch the true crime things in the late afternoon) makes me feel guilty, like I’ll be on the show soon.) and I wasn’t grateful. I’d probably have them in a headlock. (I saw my doctor a few days short of 30 days and insurance balked! Grr.)

    If I remember correctly, a number of commenters pointed out what you did, and disagreed with the writer (who is new). I don’t feel like rereading it, because some did not.

    Jezebel is still my go-to site. They sucked me in with the weekly bit where they talked about YA and childrens’ books… bibiophile over here still reading YA books. However, I e-mailed the main person asking if they’d consider putting up transcripts or descriptions for the videos a couple weeks ago and still haven’t gotten a response.

  4. Full disclosure: I watch Hoarders. Additional full disclosure: I fucking hate Jezebel and their continued unapologetic ableism under the guise of “snark.”

    I think Hoarders is fascinating–even though 90% or so of it is EXTREMELY problematic–but the thing that bugs me most about it are the reviews like the one at Jezebel, if only because the emphasis is on “OMG HOW CAN ANYONE LIVE LIKE THAT??11” instead of, y’know, compassion and/or critical thinking. Certainly, reality TV is not set up for either of those, and by admitting that I watch the show, I am probably setting myself up to be called icky names. I can’t totally justify the sort of “emotional tourist” aspect that those shows bring out, either. All of this is just a long way of saying that I watch the show regularly and still have very mixed feelings about it.

  5. I just want to say thank you for calling them on that. I had just watched the show for the first time last week, and I saw one where they did seem to help a man organize his life and discussed his goals and needs. He, however, lived in an efficiency and had a situation that could be worked on in the ridiculous timeframe they set out for this show.

    Then I go and watch this episode and there were so many things that horrified and upset me – not about Augustine’s house, but about how the show and the professionals seemed to handle things. I’m not appeased by a 5 second flash of a sentence about what did or didn’t happen after the camera crews left; it was clear they didn’t set out to help this woman, and were merely paying lip service to the concept. I don’t see how the makers of the show could defend it.

    I didn’t know about the Jezebel article but to me that’s certainly disappointing. Not as disappointing as the exploitation, since the people who run the show do have seemingly an opportunity to actually help, but disappointing all the same.

  6. Ew, the part about resources better spent on people who want to change is eerily similar to what institution staff said about me (only instead of want to change they said “people we can actually help”). Some of the same staff later tried to kill me through medical neglect while repeating similar sentiments. If someone hadn’t intervened and demanded they treat me I wouldn’t be here.

    This was at a place where they liked to patch people up and send them home in three days and they harbored deep resentment towards anyone who stayed for months and/or kept coming back. Often like me these were people with long-term neurological issues that made it much harder than “keep them a few days and send them home for counseling”. I can remember hearing them scream at a boy who in addition to depression had a brain injury. It was rare that they liked any of us at all. After all they could be using our space to help someone while we were just wasting it.

    And that same sentiment is what I see in that comment about people who actually want help.

  7. Thank you so much for this. It just blows me away how easily abled people (currently-abled?) seem to forget that we are human beings, actual living, needing, thinking, feeling people.

    I’m astounded at how unpopular the basic tenet that “every single person deserved at least the basic level of human dignity” – whether they are abled, or not, or anything else. Thanks so much Abby 🙂

  8. Amanda – I spent time at a place like that.

    One of the things they did was blame me for the amount of time I was there (not enough to change anything – well, I didn’t make the rules!) AND for the time I arrived.

    I have it written on my blog, under the label “psych ward” if it’s not too triggering. (Too triggering for me to reread too often.)

  9. Additional full disclosure: I fucking hate Jezebel and their continued unapologetic ableism under the guise of “snark.”

    Oh, OK, then I don’t have to say it, then?

    Quoted for emphasis.

    I cried reading this post, abby jean. I can’t even click through to read the actual post. Dis. Gust. Ing. I fucking hate the way the world treats people. Jezebel fucking disgusts me. Excuse me while I go hate myself because there will always be people like the kind folk at Jezebel to tell me how fucking worthless I am.

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