In 1951, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451, a futuristic novel in which books are burned, and the citizenry occupies itself by watching hours of TV on wall-to-wall sets. Contrary to popular belief, Bradbury says Fahrenheit 451 wasn’t about censorship or McCarthyism. It was about how TV undermines interest in reading and learning.
In 2006, Mike Judge released the film Idiocracy, in which the main character, Joe Bauers, undergoes a suspended-animation experiment and wakes up in the year 2505. He’s unable to communicate, because “the English language had deteriorated into a hybrid of hillbilly, valley girl, inner-city slang and various grunts.” The degenerate morons who occupy this brave new world amuse themselves with vapid, vulgar reality shows like “Ow, My Balls!” (Which, by the way, is exactly what it sounds like.)
Are you laughing? You probably shouldn’t. Fahrenheit 451 and Idiocracy aren’t dystopian fantasies—we’re already there.
In case you’re not convinced, Oxygen just announced* a new reality show featuring rapper “Shawty Lo,” his eleven children, and his ten “baby mamas.” According to ABC News, he “refer[s] to his children’s mothers with nicknames like Jealous Baby Mama, Baby Mama from Hell, and Shady Baby Mama. The show also introduces viewers to Lo’s 19-year-old girlfriend.”
Thankfully, some groups on the left and right protested, with the Parents Television Council deeming it “grotesquely irresponsible and exploitative.” Still, the fact that Oxygen believed there was an audience for a show with such a tawdry premise (and a star who calls himself “Shawty Lo”) is depressing enough.
The main consumers of this garbage? My generation, the 18-to-29 set. We have more opportunities for cultural and intellectual enrichment than any previous generation, but we don’t take them. As Mark Bauerlein revealed in his aptly named book The Dumbest Generation, less than 10 percent of young people attend plays, ballets, or musical performances, only 23 percent visited a museum in the last year, and a record low number of us read for fun.
So where are America’s teens and twenty-somethings? Parked in front of the TV, watching Jersey Shore.
You know, the reality show that added “smushing” and “gorillas” to our vocabulary. (Shockingly, the latter is not a reference to the cast members’ IQs.) In the 90s, the casts on early reality shows like The Real World had candid, intelligent discussions about everything from racism to gay rights to AIDS. They look like Rhodes scholars compared to the cast of Jersey Shore, who talk about…well, I’m not sure what, because the only episode I watched was a series of bleeps. The show doesn’t address any current events or any ideas—it’s a steady stream of drinking, fighting, and cussing.
And if you wonder where the increase in girl-on-girl aggression is coming from, tune into any of the Real Housewives series. The entire show revolves around materialistic, shallow women with bad plastic surgery cat-fighting and back-stabbing. As Ann Coulter put it, “Real Housewives is white trash pretending to be jetsetters.” And yet millions of viewers still tune in every week, admiring them, emulating them, and imagining this is how the wealthy and fashionable really live.
In August, more people tuned into TLC’s abomination Here Comes Honey Boo Boo than the Republican National Convention. In case you’ve somehow missed it, the show follows the adventures of “redneck” mom June and her four daughters (allegedly sired by four different men). This show is especially exploitative. In a recent episode, June’s teen daughter gave birth to a baby with six fingers. Instead of feeling sympathy for this poor child, the audience was supposed to snicker—all that was missing was the laugh track in the background. Laughing and leering at other people’s pain and misfortune is par for the course in this genre.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that researchers at the University of Michigan found today’s college students shockingly lacking in empathy, especially compared to their 1970s counterparts. They partially blamed the rise of reality TV for this trend.
“These shows may be profitable, but the primary basis for many of them seems to be to put people in painful, embarrassing or humiliating situations for the rest of us to watch — and, presumably, be entertained,” James Key wrote in USA Today. “This assault on our intelligence is not healthy for the soul.”
Not to mention it’s taking the place of activities that engage the mind, rather than rotting it.
If you don’t want America to become the country we saw in Idiocracy, turn it off.
* Editor’s note: On January 15, 2013, as a result of public pressure, Oxygen Network decided not to broadcast “All My Babies’ Mamas.” Read about it here.