Well, after listening to that Mandy Moore CD, I no longer fear death.
But, as long as we're talking about things we fear (And wasn't that a coincidence, considering I write this whole damn thing myself) we may as well talk about what I was watching two nights ago.
To be accurate, I wasn't really watching anything. Mostly I was sitting in the living room writing Stata code on my notebook computer while my big desktop computer was going through a hard-drive defrag. I find it to be useful to make this a regular part of my computer maintenance, right along with keeping my virus definitions up-to-date, and patching Windows.
When I work in the living room, though, I turn the t.v. on so as to have something in the background. Usually I try to find something that won't annoy me too much (Gilmore Girls being something that WILL) and, at the same time, doesn't particularly interest me (Sorry PBS). On this particular evening what I found was NBC's Fear Factor. If you aren't familiar with the show, the basic idea is that different individuals, and sometimes teams, compete in a variety of stunts that either inspire fear, or inspire revulsion. The prize, of course, is a whomping assload of money. Some of the stunts in the past have been things like "Hang by your hands from an airborne helicopter," and "Remain standing on the back of a swerving semi." Some of the less fearsome and more revolting stunts have been things like "Transfer as many live Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches as possible from one tank to another using only your mouth" and "eat an uncooked sea cucumber, the size of which is determined by your performance in a previous stunt." In other words, this show is a little like Nickelodeon's old show Double Dare, save that whereas Double Dare caricatured revolting and absurd stunts, Fear Factor revels in them.
Now, on this particular episode of Fear Factor we had a twist: the contestants were all swimsuit models. It goes without saying that they were female swimsuit models, which is a shame, since male swimsuit models just don't get the public recognition as leaders that they clearly deserve. For those of you out there who are thinking "Now THAT'S why Drek was watching- it was a bunch of swimsuit models!" Amazingly, you're wrong. I can honestly say I only recall one of the stunts, and couldn't pick any of the girls out of a lineup. The reason I remember it was a bunch of models is only because several previous theme shows have used Miss America contestants and Playboy playmates.
Now with such a concentration of sexualized females on the show, I find it impossible not to wonder why there is such a market to see women doing patently ridiculous things, and even eating utterly revolting substances. Is this a little like when little boys pull the hair of girls they like? Have we moved up from hair-pulling to sea cucumber eating? Does this show survive by implying that male viewers can flirt by proxy throuh their televisions with women they wouldn't normally meet? And what's more pathetic: that there's a market for vicarious flirting, or the form that flirting takes?
Of course, it gets weirder still. One of the stunts in this program involved a pool of freezing water, a boat, some buoys (For the 13 year old mentalities reading this: Just stop right there with that crack about swimsuit models and buoys, arright? Honestly), and pulling a live alligator a predetermined distance. Yeah, you heard that right: dragging a live alligator, as in the incredibly stupid, semi-homicidal lizard. I suppose that's the part of this stunt that makes it qualify for "fear" factor, since the remainder of it isn't so much scary as just uncomfortable. Let's think about this, though.
First off, this is a water stunt, which means the program has an opportunity to get their contestants into- you guessed it- swimsuits. What a shock. Then, of course, the water is COLD, which has certain effects on men and women both that have been the subject of quite a few jokes. Seems like the show has a "winning" recipe so far. Now, we get to the gator stunt. Now, first off, the gator was facing away from the contestants and was confined in a narrow tube, such that it was physically incapable of turning and biting the contestant. Not as scary, sure, but gators still have EXTREMELY powerful tails than can be used as very, very effective clubbing weapons. I would be comfortable betting a mid-sized gator could break bones, or worse, with its tail. Think about the details of this stunt, though: the stunt is outside, the water is cold, the air is cold, the ground is cold, and the gator is cold. As we all learned in school, reptiles are cold blooded, which means that, unlike humans, when environmental temperature goes below a certain point they become lethargic or completely inactive. So, in other words, this stunt required a bunch of swimsuit models to get into bikinis, contort in and out of cold water, and then get down on all fours to drag a semi-unconscious, physically restrained lizard an arbitrary distance. Oooooooo!!!! Feel the tension! They could have involved the same level of physical risk if they'd had the contestants dragging sacks of potatoes. "Look out! It's coming right for us!"
I'm not going to keep talking about the female contestants here and how they're being exploited. This post just isn't going to be about gender relations in our society, though that is an interesting topic. Certainly, I find this show a little... worrisome... in how it depicts women, but frankly I'm more annoyed by how the gator was exploited. At least the women were there of their own free will and had a chance to make some money. Gators may be fairly stupid, but they're pretty neat animals all the same.
No, what I'm fascinated by is what this show says about our society's attitude towards risk and danger. Notice for a moment how these stunts are supposed to ellicit fear, yet they're totally benign. Sure, I have to balance on a swerving semi, but I'm covered in safety equipment. Maybe a gator is an intimidating animal, but dragging a semi-passed out gator down a narrow tube doesn't even involve the amount of physical risk that bull fighting does. Not that I approve of bull fighting either, but at least the bull could get lucky. Maybe it's just because I've been to Gatorland, where wrestling live, warm, fully conscious gators is par for the course, but Fear Factor's approach to these creatures just seems like the gator wrasslin equivalent of rophynol-assisted date rape.
It's as if we want to see danger, but not the kind of danger that actually frightens us. We want to see the soft-core porno of the danger world: it's ok if we see a breast, or maybe hear some dirty talk, but as soon as things get more physical it's just too much for us. Of course, too, so long as you're just watching soft-core, you can tell yourself you aren't REALLY watching porn, just like as long as the stunts are totally safe vanilla affairs we can tell ourselves that we aren't REALLY blood-thirsty and uncivilized.
If we're going to talk about fear, why don't we talk about fear? If we're going to make entertainment out of danger, then let's deal with danger. I'm not saying we should bring back gladiatorial events (although sometimes I wonder) but, damnit, dragging an unconscious reptile a few feet and saying that it was "scary" is an insult to everyone who has to face scary things day in and day out. We in the audience aren't any better, either. If you want to talk about fear, watch the goddamn evening news. If you want to talk about disgusting, learn a little about living conditions in some neighborhoods right here in the U.S.
So, right here, right now, I'd like to propose a few stunts of my own for Fear Factor that make things a little more... fearsome. Please try to imagine these in a commercial narrated by the requisite deep-voiced announcer.
The Draft: On tonight's fear factor, our contestants try to survive one week with a U.S. infantry unit in Tikrit. These five people spell excitement I-E-D!
Night Ladies: Our five Miss America contestants will have to pick up a John in inner city Detroit, but watch out! If you get tagged by the police, beaten by a pimp, or handcuffed in some guy's basement, you LOSE!
African Medicine: Our contestants will be infected with a deadly disease and must inject themselves with the cure. But will they use the safe syringe, or will they use the one already tainted by HIV-positive blood? Tune in for this exciting tale of medical scarcity!
Kaiser Impermanente: Our five contestants must process as much paperwork as they can if they want the million dollar prize, but the ones who process the least will lose their jobs, and their health insurance.
Race Against the Recession: The losers of last week's episode, "Kaiser Impermanente," compete to find a job in a sluggish economy before their unemployment compensation runs out. Watch out for a special twist at the end, when parents can rent their children to pedophiles to stay afloat!
Black Label: Daddy's been drinking again! Can our contestants avoid his unholy wrath, as well as drunken rape? Can they resist the psychological scarring that will lead them to become abusive drunks or submissive sexual objects in adulthood?
New Age Nightmare: Our five contestants will consume mega-doses of herbal supplements! The first four to go into renal failure, or overdose due to poor quality control on substances not regulated by the FDA, LOSE!
The Cleansing: Rebels have just seized power and are cleansing our contestants' ethnic group from the national population! Can they get across the border before they're caught? Will the border remain open? Tune in to Fear Factor and find out!
The 'Hood: Watch as our contestants struggle to escape an urban wasteland of poor educational opportunities, indifferent police, gang warfare, and drugs, while confronted with a prejudiced society! Will they win that scholarship to State U? Or will they pursue the easy, but dangerous, life of a pimp, ho, or dealer?
Seems to me there're a lot of things scarier than a swerving semi, and you won't get a million dollars for doing them. Maybe we should all pay a little more attention to them, and a little less to making ourselves feel brave with manufactured, sanitized danger.
UPDATE: An interested (Or, at least, weirded out) reader sent me an e-mail with the following observation about this post:
you seem to imply some sort of honor or something to
wrestling gators, and then make an analogy with rape.
um... i guess i just feel a little obligated to point
A good point, and my apologies if anyone else found this a little... disturbing. My point about gatorland was merely that, having seen people wrestling live, fully conscious, gators, it's a little difficult to be impressed by someone dragging an unconscious one. Additionally, it isn't that there's honor in wrestling gators, but at least it's being marginally respectful of the animal to give it an outside chance to inflict some damage in return. As far the the rape analogy goes, my meaning was only that an individual drugged into unconsciousness is in no condition to give consent to sexual activity, just as a gator cooled to near-inactivity is no condition to consent to being dragged around by a swimsuit model. Now, granted, gators typically show their displeasure in somewhat extreme ways, but the point remains. I in no way meant to imply that rape NOT assisted by drugs would have any honor whatsoever.
UPDATE to the UPDATE: Of course, all that said, if you come to Total Drek for a reasonable, even-handed discussion of the issues... wow, are you ever deluding yourself. A team of hamsters could write most of my posts by scratching their nuts on a keyboard and still produce something of equal intellectual and literary rigor.