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Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 02:57 am
A sneer on the face of a judge

I don't live in Britain. I sometimes watch UK TV, though -- stuff like Michael Wood's 2007 BBC series The Story of India. What I see of more mainstream terrestrial UK TV is just glimpses here and there. But patterns emerge in those glimpses, and I want to write about one such pattern today, a scene I've seen again and again -- obsessively repeated, you might say -- in TV coming out of the UK this decade. You could boil it down to a facial expression: a sneer on the face of a judge. I want to think about this sneer, and what it means, and what part of the modern British psyche it comes from.



I think I may have traced this sneer back to its origins. It appears in a key scene in the hit 2000 UK musical Billy Elliot. This is the nerve-wracking moment when Billy, the plucky little working class dancer, is auditioning for the Royal Ballet School:



Now, what strikes me about this scene is how absurdly one-dimensional the judges are. They're snooty, tight-arsed, glacial, priggish, posh, intimidating, like governesses from the 1950s. There's a weird mismatch of representational styles here, for while Billy is drawn fairly naturalistically, the judges are straight out of a Ronald Searle drawing for a Molesworth book. To feel identification with them, or affection for them, would clearly be out of the question. They're there to be hated... but not hated enough that you go off, decide to ignore them, and just do your own thing. No, you hate them, but you also stick around to show them. You're plucky -- like Billy!

"You don't have to like us," the Royal Ballet School judges seem to say, "but you have to recognize our authority. If you want to show you're talented, we're the guardians of your hoped-for glory. We are tough, snooty, easy to dislike, but ultimately just. The full weight of a British institution is behind us, and makes you fear us. But this institution is not entirely closed to you, should you possess exceptional talent. Yes, this nation is ultimately meritocratic! Position is earned! And your fear will turn to jubilation if we suddenly switch from sneering disdain to grudging or even fully-fledged admiration, based on an extraordinary performance from you! Then your passive-aggressive working class dislike for us -- the ruling class! -- will turn to gratitude, and you will be ushered into a place of glory within the institution we control. Our recognition of your talent will lead to your recognition of the legitimacy of our power. We are harsh but fair, a school of hard truths. We are the Royal Ballet School. Above us is the queen, sovereign of the realm, and above the queen is God."



I see echoes of this scene -- this particular organisation of class and hate and opportunity -- all over UK television this decade. It's as characteristic of the British TV mindset this decade as someone tasting food and declaring it extraordinarily tasty is characteristic of the Japanese. I see this set-up, this relationship, this "license to hate", this agreement between two parties that one should judge and the other be judged, in Britain's Got Talent, Dragon's Den, The Weakest Link, Pop Idol, in house make-over shows, cookery shows, style advice shows, and interview shows like Hard Talk, which "plays hardball" with its guests, just as the dreaded Jeremy Paxman does on Newsnight. It's become a formula. How do you dramatize information on British TV? Why, give it a compelling edge of nastiness of course! Set up withering celebrity "experts", and find someone for them to judge.



I find this politically reactionary and emotionally immature. It seems to encourage -- or simply reflect -- a society where it's okay to be openly scornful, derisive or mistrustful of other people. It suggests a tolerance for hostility, a harnessing of hatred, as if negative emotions like these were the very petroleum of the social engine. It depicts a situation where "experts" (from a higher class than the people they're judging) address performers with the "dark sarcasm" and undisputed power of teachers addressing children. It also stages reaction shots and repartee in ways that look insultingly fake and contrived. The whole thing seems designed to appeal to people who want both to hate and respect their masters: oderint dum metuant "Let them hate so long as they fear".



In "the judgement scenario" social Darwinism is harnessed to a parody of Britain's existing class hierarchy, thus legitimating it as a quasi-natural force. Anne Robinson, the actress-hostess of quiz show The Weakest Link, has the kind of accent the British political overclass long ago learned to disguise with empathetic glottal stops. But Anne is playing a character who's merciless and "cut-glass posh", a cross between Margaret Thatcher and a sadistic headmistress. She's the personification of dharma -- the iron-clad law of the universe -- as it might be seen by a particularly masochistic worm about to be speared by a starling. As someone who divides winners from losers, Robinson incarnates natural selection executed by a brahmin. And yet it's all, transparently, a role-play game, like renting a prostitute to spank you. Why, when you could dream anything, dream this -- over and over?



Natural selection in a business context is played out in Dragon's Den. Here, business people have to pitch money-making ideas in front of a panel of "multi-millionaire investors" with some tough questions for them. Good ideas get the cash, bad ones get derision and the key scowl. Failing here is like getting kicked out of the Big Brother house: you lose, and life is all about winners and losers, and the winners are the ones who choose who gets to join them at the top.

These ideas don't stay tidily confined to the proscenium arch of the TV set, unfortunately. ILX, a bulletin board I used to frequent, added a "Suggest Ban" button a couple of years ago, allowing users to vote other users "out of the house", hence declaring people with unpopular opinions "the weakest link" and waving them "goodbye". It gets used to boot out anyone with a mildly divergent take. That isn't exactly pluralism, now, is it, boys? In good societies, surely everyone has something to contribute? And just what are the implications of this "eliminate the weakest link" idea for immigration, for dealing with the homeless and the socially excluded, for integrating the talentless? How do people feel about living in a society where judges sneer openly?

The awful thing is that there's no escape: since you're supposed to hate the judges and be hated by them, you're part of the basic set-up of these shows even when you criticize them. You fit right into the formula. And look, here I am judging, and sneering, too!

78CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 02:18 am (UTC)

It's crap TV, it's everywhere now not just Britain. There seems an endless cycle of American version of British shows as well. The thing with X factor is that it seems to be the losers who go on to have better careers. JLS who lost (2nd place) are currently 1 in UK charts and of course Subo will go on to be more successful than the winner who's name I've forgotten already. Sadly the people who watch TV these days lap it up, Ignorance is bliss has never rung so true.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 02:39 am (UTC)

I've never heard of any of these shows. Did I escape? Or am I merely a draft dodger of 'the noughties' culture wars, feigning illness.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)

(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 03:16 pm (UTC)
Re: Money, money, money

That's funny, they had tried this Secret Millionaire concept here in the states on Fox and it flopped. I didn't even remember it until you mentioned the UK version. I wonder why it didn't do well? Maybe because that sort of economic reversal doesn't thrill anyone here; we'd rather see people coming from the bottom and ascending their way up.


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jdcasten
J.D. Casten
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 04:52 am (UTC)
Peer Sneers

A very thought provoking post Momus… I think the “gatekeepers” are vilified out of (a possibly justified) resentment, of creative types and others: Who wants to “submit” their work for approval, even if it is a peer review?

Although such contest shows are probably older than “reality television” – the two genres seem related in that “ordinary people” (or “B” celebrities) get a shot at fame and fortune (and class is just as much about fame as it is about fortune, imo)—usually for jumping through contrived hoops and rings of fire (which hardly seems like real life).

Some of the shows (like “American Idol”) have public voting—which seems a bit more fair (like direct democracy), but then again, “American Idol” winners are usually not singled out by discriminating critics (sometimes snooty) for their ground-shaking talent—and tellingly, the contestants must pass the show judges before getting public exposure.

Many of the “real world” gatekeepers (editors, talent scouts, etc.) are probably creative or critical types themselves… sort of like a representative democracy, where gatekeepers try to establish and maintain their “brand’s” reputation, while finding something “sellable” to their audience of narrower or broader niches.

On second thought, maybe many “contest shows,” “reality shows” (and sensational “guest” shows like the Jerry Springer Show) are more like reality than I believed they were (at least showbiz reality): A lot of goofballs looking for attention (or a job), moderated by cynical critics (or bosses) who can give them their lucky break… but ultimately judged by the public (utilitarian pragmatism) as to the scale of their success.

An either/or between critical peers and a democratic public seems a false dichotomy though when it comes to determining merit, especially artistic merit: but who needs that much merit when you’ve got friends?

I think your right Momus, if I get you, that that constructed sneer may be more than (script writers’) resentment of critical review— it’s about the class snobbery where the Snidely Whiplash of economic demand (which has its own form of democratic natural selection) determines your fate. Maybe it’s also about putting a “price-tag” on people (can we sell you?)




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guessbook.wordpress.com
guessbook.wordpress.com
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 12:34 pm (UTC)
Re: Peer Sneers

The one observation I'd make about this - and which for me is absolutely what drives me to despair regarding Britain - is the extent to which the attitudes you describe here so well have permeated into other areas of the national psyche, and behavior, where what's really needed is an openness to having one's mind changed. Away from the TV I guess its manifested in the 'rockist' attitudes you've gone over before, but the clearest broadcast example of this (seen admittedly during one of the few attempts I've made to watch TV) is the BBC's 'Culture Show'. Despite not declaring itself as a gameshow by any means, and supposedly still somehow ticking the cultural-affairs box required by BBC2, it fits the model you describe perfectly... yet the artists who are routinely torn apart by a bunch of sneery, forced-ironic fuckwits (who often openly declare their contempt for 'most of this art stuff') are not even there to argue back. If they're interviewed, as in Jeremey Deller's recent appearance during the Manchester International Festival coverage - it's recorded elsewhere, at another time. They have their moment, the cameras 'follow' them working, talking about the project, and then it's back to the panel for some 'down to earth' responses, ignoring for the most part everything the artist has just said.
What's more insulting than anything is how these panels are usually comprised of people staking out their working class bases as being fundamentally incompatible with anything involving an artist asking them to change their minds. (This is actually an interesting contrast to the 'ruling class' model above, Anne Robinson et al.)

The idea of someone on these panels pausing for a moment and saying 'I hadn't thought of that' seems so radical, so exquisitely transgressive in the current environment, I can't help but wonder if it wouldn't make headlines and end up by boosting the ratings enormously. If only they'd give it a go.

best, Ant (http://guessbook.wordpress.com/)


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 06:11 am (UTC)

Momus, with an ugly sneer disfiguring his face, declares Britain to be the weakest link, kicks Britain out of the Big Brother House - why don't you go against type and tell us what you love about the country? Also, I think you're missing the camp aspect of some of these sneering judges.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 06:14 am (UTC)

Also, although its origin is British, you don't mention that this "judge" formula is one of Britain's big cultural exports of the noughties - there are versions of 'Weakest Link' etc. in many if not most European countries, so it seems to have resonance outside the UK as well.


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directbetween
directbetween
Dr. Oktober
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 07:00 am (UTC)

Indeed, I think that one can escape the sneer of the judges, and pity them and their station. Your assessment may have been too populist in its conclusion, for there are always contestants on these shows that sneer right back at the judges and walk off confident in their business model, singing ability, dancing ability (go Billy!), or body. Those people are more or less immune to the dichotomy of "winners" and "losers," and while the average viewer might listen to the "loser" contestant proclaim that Simon is just wrong and snicker--thinking, "You wouldn't be saying that if you won "--they are simply feeding back into the social phenomenon that makes the shows popular in the first place. Namely, that people want to see other people judged as they perceive themselves being judged. Hence, these shows have spawned so many clones catering to different areas of social acceptance: beauty, talent, business acumen, general knowledge, etc. My fellow readers are pointing out that this is not merely a British phenomenon, because these judgment shows resonate in many other cultures. They are the modern embodiment of the hallowed charivari and "rough music," which, historically, were as much popularity contests as the Salem witch trials, and sometimes just as deadly. So, perhaps you are mistaking a British class-hierarchy phenomenon--the snobby Anne Robinson--for a very real natural force: fuckability. And while Mrs. Robinson is no spring chicken (highly fuckable), in her pitiful little soundstage world, she is the alpha female. Yet, with a little self-confidence and compassion, one can easily see the petty tyrants for what they are, because life seems to be full of them.

Now watch Heidi Klum embarrass herself as she uncannily picks women that will never be as beautiful as she is.


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directbetween
directbetween
Dr. Oktober
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 07:22 am (UTC)

Meanwhile I sit here reloading the page, thinking, "Oh I hope Momus replies to my post!"


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meme_machine
meme_machine
Sarah Newton
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 07:06 am (UTC)

It's the lottery psyche writ large - the tacit collaboration of the oppressed with their oppressors, chasing rewards which are tantamount to being allowed to wag your tail in the master's presence.

You can trace the tendency back to the early days of the internet and the proliferation of alternate media and even TV channels. Cheap TV became the corollary - the "big" TV companies had to compete, churning out hour after hour of empty trash created for juvenile minds by minds only slightly less juvenile. When content retreats, emotion and cheap sentimentalism take to the fore - it's the Daily Mail-ization of TV Land, introducing a Goldsteinian 2-minute Daily Nark as an established component of lowest common denominator TV.

The flipside of this fear and loathing is the earnest need for all popular science programs to boil down to "how dangerous is this personally to you?" - the what-would-happen moment if a black hole appeared in your back garden or an asteroid fell on your mum. Pop science doesn't seem to be able to manage without this cheap fearmongering - a terrible condescension that says "if we don't put it in your terms, you won't understand".

Ultimately TV has become reactive, a Baudrillard simulation of what TV was originally for, with TV execs hysterically trying to second-guess their assumed and implied audience. A cheap "addiction response" is only one of the tricks to keep audience's emotionally dependent when there is no other substance to do the job; we *have* to hate, resent, just to one day see those Arbiters admit that - yes! - people like us do matter. And so we ultimately kow-tow to their law.

It's symptomatic of a medium where overt and tacit censorship is becoming more common. Where there is no substance, there can be only form. Bread and circus-TV. Manipulation as a form of masochistic eroticism - I tune in to be screwed about.

I often think about your "I was a Maoist intellectual" song at moments like these ;-). 20-odd years on, you don't need the word "Maoist" any more...


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krskrft
krskrft
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 07:22 am (UTC)

While I can't speak for our British counterparts, very few people in America watch "American Idol" without feeling that it's at least part-way tongue in cheek. In America, we really like the British dickhead character, because he helps us recall our revolutionary past, and hence our American-ness. We definitely do not feel that he is worthy to judge us. That's the entire allure of Simon Cowell. He is constantly boo'd by the audience, because he's the stick-up-the-ass Brit who always wants to rain on the parade of individual talent and hammer people into these cynical industry roles.


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krskrft
krskrft
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 07:12 am (UTC)

I think it's one thing to be treated meanly by a bunch of assholes who nonetheless are qualified arbiters of talent in whatever field they're part of, and quite another to be treated meanly by a bunch of assholes who aren't. I mean, Simon Cowell's big industry coup is supposed to be that he put together the hit "popera" group Il Divo. Give me a Brian Epstein and maybe there will be some credibility there. I don't give a fuck about the guy who discovered a "popera" group. And Paula Abdul? I mean, come the fuck on. And whoever the other dude is who calls everybody "dawg." I've never even heard of that guy. Fuck him.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 07:23 am (UTC)

Just a section of the wealthy-classes taking care to portray themselves as villian-ish, so that the lower classes root "against" them, and never aspire to achieve a similar level of wealth or success themselves.
It's the same sort of shrewd move as when the Catholic Church tells its followers that poverty is virtuous, or when Disney runs a film in which the good guys are poor but happy, and the bad guys are all rich and cruel.
And of course, with the reality show-format, the judges are effectively saturating the public with this ideology that undermines social mobility, ambition (outside of that apparently sanctioned by tv judges), responsibility... (would it be hyperbole to add democratic thinking and morality?)


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jermynsavile
jermynsavile
jermynsavile
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 08:30 am (UTC)

The behaviour you describe is everywhere, not just on crappy British television programmes. How about the dance school scene from Flashdance? Pretty much every American aspirational TV series from The Paper Chase onwards. That desperate need to fit in, the hope, as so clearly and movingly expressed by Sally Field at the Oscars that the judges will "like me". But as soon as one has to acknowledge that this type of programme is a feature of British and American television - then the whole "patterns emerge" thing starts unravelling a bit...

What the TV stations haven't realised yet - which is not surprising as TV is now staffed almost entirely by privileged stupid people - is that no-one cares who the judges are (Simon Cowell has realised this, replacing his cast of micro-celebrities with ever increasing regularity). It's the desperate longing on the faces of the nonentities we - the general public - want to see.


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krskrft
krskrft
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 11:01 am (UTC)

I think you're really overshooting the extent to which the "American Idol" appeals to aspirational values, rather than that of "rooting for one's team." The vast majority of the hubbub surrounding it, after all, is not of the "Oh how I wish I were them" variety, but of the "Who's going to get thrown off this week? It better not be my so-and-so!" type.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 09:54 am (UTC)

So, what can you tell us about contemporary mainstream German culture, Momus?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 10:20 am (UTC)

NOTHING! One of the great pleasures of living here is existing in a childlike state of grace, ignoring the local news and local TV entirely. The result? Blissful happiness! After all, it's been proved by science that TV viewing makes you unhappy.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 01:28 pm (UTC)

I think you're right about this phenomenon being Anglo/American, certainly 'northern Atlantic', but I reckon that underlying it all is the fact that these countries are also at the vanguard of atheism (possibly as the next stage on from protestantism).

People who genuinely see themselves as fragile mortals subordinate to a higher all-knowing power - and I'm not talking here about the religiously insane - would not have the arrogance to sit in judgement over other people in this way.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 01:59 pm (UTC)

You mentioned the homeless and other outsiders typically judged by society. Check out NYC mayor Bloomberg's solution. Ripe. Spread the love. And hopefully the love will find a job back home. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/29/nyregion/29oneway.html?_r=2&ref=nyregion


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qscrisp
qscrisp
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 02:08 pm (UTC)

Spot on. I hate all these shows.
...

That's why I don't watch them.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 02:50 pm (UTC)

Brilliant post. QED. This is one of those cut out and keep Momus broadsides that makes this site worth checking every day.

The despair I feel when my evenings are sullied momentarily by the kind of largely-avoided TV programmes you describe is so dark and cloying that I've thus far eschewed mulling the implications of what I've seen to a point of elaborated cultural diagnosis. But it's clarifying (and oddly consoling) to have my reflex responses drawn out and delineated so acutely. Thanks.

Many thanks.


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eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009 02:13 pm (UTC)

At the end of the day, these tv shows aren't about anything else except the judges themselves and the corporations they are a part of. For they are the 'stars' who maintain a public profile over many years, whilst 99% of the participants in the show fade after fleetingly making lots of cash for the media corporations.
In short , they're just another outlet for the hegemonic ruling class discourse.


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