Eric Deggans, TV/media critic for Tampa Bay Times, started the new year by asking questions about Celebrity Wife Swap, the ABC “reality show” in which famous people swap partners while the cameras roll.
In a Jan. 3 commentary for National Public Radio, he points out some practical and ethical concerns about the program.
The show, a British import, began with non-famous people doing the swapping. But eventually, the network turned to celebrities to keep viewers. (NBC did the same thing when The Apprentice became Celebrity Apprentice, a practice Deggans calls “juicing” a tired reality franchise.)
Lots of people whose celebrity has dimmed have turned to the shows. This edition of Wife Swap involves ex-big-movie-star Gary Busey, defrocked minister Ted Haggard, ex-big-rapper-star Flavor Flav, ex-big-rocker Dee Snider, ex-child-star Tracey Gold, and ex-singer/talk-show-host Carnie Wilson.
As Deggans wrote: “Too often, they [reality shows] feature the same people; performers who once had the limelight and are now willing to keep their face in the public eye by enduring these exercises in public humiliation.” This one is no different; for example, Busey’s been on Celebrity Fit, Celebrity Rehab, Celebrity Apprentice, and even something called Celebrity Paranormal Project. Flavor Flav’s work on an early reality show, The Surreal Life, led to several of his own.
That leads to a second concern: Most of these celebrities have already had real, not made-for-TV, exercises in public humiliation. Gold had a 2003 drunk-driving arrest. Flavor Flav has been jailed multiple times and dealt with substance-abuse issues. Haggard was forced to give up leadership of the conservative megachurch he founded amid claims of homosexuality and drug use. Busey has brain damage.
Deggan’s conclusion on NPR is worthy of class discussion: “The only question left is whether we lose a piece of our humanity while watching celebrities forced to expose their own.”
It might be worth quibbling with the idea that celebrities are “forced to expose” themselves. Sure, the paychecks are large, and so is the attention. But then there’s the final line of Robert Townsend’ 1987′s comedy Hollywood Shuffle, in which he plays an actor asked to trade his dignity and the dignity of his race in order to earn a starring role: “There’s always work at the post office.”
Some questions for discussion:
- Is Deggans correct? Do we lose our own humanity when watching people expose their own?
- What obligation, if any, do TV producers have to show quality role models?
- What would you say to TV producers who say their service comes in providing poor role models, so people can see what not to do?
- What would Kant say about Wife Swap other celebrity shows in the context of the second part of his Categorical Imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
- Why do people watch such shows?
- It’s called “reality” television, but just how real is it?
A note: Deggans wrote a section on diversity in Chapter 5,”Loyalty and Diversity,” in Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications. Follow him on Twitter.