I visited my local county fair last weekend. Being one of the largest county fairs in the world, it generally offers something to appeal to all types of people, so any individual can expect to be intrigued by some things and perplexed by others. There may not have been any bamboo retailers yet, but there were other natural and agricultural exhibits, and plenty of other things to keep me pleasantly informed and entertained.
However, a friend with whom I attended set her sights immediately on finding something the appeal of which I just can’t comprehend. Her brother is apparently a great fan of a reality television show called Lizard Lick Towing. As a birthday gift to him, my friend sought out the fair’s installation where she could purchase a piece of memorabilia and have it signed by the stars of the show, who had come all the way from the North Carolina location of their business to make this public appearance
While I waited for my friend to make her way through the substantial line of people who were seeking an audience with a bunch of vehicle repossession professionals, I took the time to reflect on the bizarre culture of reality television that we’ve built over the course of my life. While Lizard Lick Towing is broadcast on TruTV, which is essentially dedicated to that culture, the show has plenty of competition from similar day-by-day documentaries of ordinary businesses.
I know I already indulged this nostalgia in an earlier article, but I fondly remember a time when Mythbusters was the least educational thing on the Discovery Channel. But soon afterwards, I saw the popularization of Dirty Jobs, and the floodgates seemed to open for a powerful trend of encouraging audiences to spend many hours watching ordinary people do run-of-the-mill things on television. Now there are multiple shows dedicated to showing people running pawn shops, and selling cakes, and profiting off of repossessions.
I should have already realized this a long time ago, but it took standing aside while my friend got a bunch of towing guys to sign a fifteen dollar photograph for me to see that we haven’t just made a cultural experience of watching randomly-chosen people do their jobs – we’ve actually turned those randomly-chosen blue-collar workers and small business owners into overnight celebrities. The Lizard Lick towing people are no longer just guys who tow cars; they’re also the guys who play the parts of guys who tow cars on TV. Am I off base in thinking there’s something bizarre and kind of surreal about this?
Celebrity culture has always been problematic, and it seems to be getting worse. I feel as though in the decades that preceded me, society took an interest in movie stars and others who resided in the public limelight because they were glamorous, and because the lifestyle that they enjoyed was something to aspire to, something for Americans to believe in. But gradually, fascination turned into idolatry, and fame became a commodity unto itself, which led the public to admire those who possessed it regardless of how they wore their privilege. Now we have a certain subset of celebrities who are esteemed by the public not because of their glamor, but specifically because of their trashiness.
I’m not saying that towing and recovery is trashy. I’m thinking more of the Jersey Shore. But in either case, the people responsible for popularizing such shows and turning their stars into celebrities are missing some essential facts about the cultural impact of the things we put on television. If virtually everything can make a person famous, virtually everything will tend to be seen as having the same cultural value. But it doesn’t, of course, and it shouldn’t.
Media raises awareness of everything it depicts. Unless it’s an exposé of some kind, it makes the subject a little cooler than it was before. But we don’t need to raise public awareness of the towing business or the benefits of being a wealthy, empty-headed jackass. Not when there are so many things that have the potential for a more positive social impact. Shouldn’t that be considered cool? With all the potential that exists to solve social and environmental problems on a large scale, the public ought to appreciate how that can be done, even if they aren’t participating directly. Awareness is participation, after a fashion.
If we really are hopelessly obsessed with watching ordinary people do everyday things, why not focus on the jobs that are somehow extraordinary in their uniqueness or potential impact. How about we take some of the shows that are basically duplicates of the exact same dull, pointless content, and replace them with a show featuring someone who farms bamboo in America, or a company that turns that into bamboo clothing? How about asking the viewing audience to watch people fit buildings with solar panels, or build wind turbines?
Perhaps I’m just being elitist in my environmentalism, but I can honestly say that I’d rather be part of a society where people stand in line to meet green manufacturers and professional recyclers, instead of tow truck operators and ripoff-artist retailers. The way I see it, if that was the case things we get put on television because they’re cool; they wouldn’t be cool just because they were put on television. Wouldn’t everyone prefer to watch that? Am I just completely out of touch?