Monday, May 24, 2010

The Real Circus Sideshow of New York City

Have you ever seen the movie “Freaks?” It’s a horror movie from the 1930s about circus sideshow performers. The movie caused a lot of controversy when it was made; the director cast real people with deformities as the sideshow performers instead of just using makeup on regular actors, and this horrified audiences, evidently. But while the movie was received poorly at the time and even banned for 30 years in the UK, it made a huge comeback in the 1970s and 1980s and has become a cult favorite, so much so that lines from the film appear in TV shows, pop songs, comic books, and other media. Now, people just love watching the conjoined twins and the legless man on screen. I mean, what’s more entertaining than watching someone suffering from “bird-headed dwarfism” dance on a table, right? It’s gross – not the film, but the fact that people love to watch it. You know what else people love to watch? Reality TV.

Before I get into my rant, let me first say that I am not comparing a set of conjoined twins to the cast of “Jersey Shore.” The former was born with a physical disability whereas the latter chose tanning over school and drinking over everything else. While it might warrant discussion that we pay people to flaunt their stupidity, that’s a separate issue. Rather, I am reminded of “Freaks” by the seeming psychotic split Kelly Bensimon suffered on last week’s episode of “The Real Housewives of New York City.” A few columns ago, I suggested that people stop watching “The Housewives.” I won’t get into my reasons again (you can read the column, “When Girls Attack,” in the archives), but in case you read that one, I want you to know that I did stop watching it. I removed all “The Housewives” from my DVR queue. Yeah, yeah, I used to record them. All of them. Orange County, New York, New Jersey, Atlanta: it was coast to coast, beautiful madness, people. But I quit them all, and I was doing just fine living my life without Ramona, Tamra, NeNe, and the rest -- until Friday morning, when I woke to find the internet ablaze with “Did Housewife Kelly Have a Breakdown on TV?!” and “Kelly Bensimon Unravels On ‘The Housewives!’” and “OMG KELLY IS ONE CRAZY B**CH!” I’m not a hypocrite, so I didn’t watch the actual episode. But I watched a few clips on the internet, and my first reaction was, “OMG Kelly is one crazy b**ch!” And I’m not talking crazy as in the mixture of narcissistic personality and diet pill dependence with which all The Housewives seem afflicted. No, no. I’m talking crazy as in mentally ill and needs medical attention. To wit, a number of times during dinner, Kelly accused Bethenny of trying to kill her. She wasn’t being figurative, like, “Oh you’re trying to kill me with your nonsense." She thinks Bethenny is literally trying to kill her. So there we have paranoid delusions. Even more telling was her inability to carry on a conversation in any logical way. When Bethenny responded to Kelly’s accusation with “Nobody knows what you are talking about,” Kelly came back with, “Okay. Satchels of gold.” Satchels. Of. Gold? Right. Later, when Bethenny told Kelly that she was ready to listen, that she was ready to “hear the truth,” Kelly screamed back, “Al Sharpton! Oh my God, Al Sharpton!” Now, look, I love a good Sharpton shout-out as much as the next girl, but, um, WTF? In addition to the paranoid delusions and the cryptic crazy talk, Kelly also cried, screamed, laughed, and skipped – all in a 2 minute period. All I’m trying to say here is, the woman seemed unstable to me, and I really don’t think she’s a good enough actress to fake it.

I realize I’m making fun, and I shouldn’t be, since my point is that it’s not really funny. The woman does seem to be unraveling, and someone – or a whole network of people – has decided the best thing to do is film it. It’s like the old Sam Kinison bit. If you don’t know who Sam Kinison is, he’s a comedian. Well, he was. He’s a dead comedian now. He’s been dead for a while. But when he was alive, on his first appearance on David Letterman, he did a six minute bit in which he made a joke about the TV commercials that ask you to donate money to feed starving children. He said, “I see the same commercials, these little kids out there, hungry. I watch this on TV at home and I go, ‘How sad. How cruel!’ Because I know the film crew could give this kid a sandwich.” Ha ha ha, right?! He has a point. Are the people at Bravo at all concerned about KBen? Because I am. And it isn’t only Kelly whom I worry is being exploited in a “Freaks” sort of way. There are Heidi and Lindsay, too. These women are losing their minds, for real, and people are profiting from it -- without trying to help. It’s one thing to enjoy watching people act like fools (I’m talking about YOU, “Jersey Shore” cast). It’s another thing to televise someone’s descent into mental illness for no reason but fun and profit. No one is getting anything else out of this. The women aren’t getting help, and we aren’t gaining any insight into mental illness. It’s just a freak show. And I’m not even blaming those of you, (okay, fine, of us) who watch the stuff out of curiosity. It’s human nature to be drawn to oddities. But when I see that someone is actually unwell or mutiliating her body or drugging herself to death, I have to wonder why it’s being broadcast. And I have to wonder if I am making it worse by contributing to the profit being made from the exploitation.

Look, maybe Kelly isn’t crazy. Her response to the horror over her behavior was to say that the editing made her look crazy and it makes for good TV. Both of those things are probably true to different extents. But then she also said that she is important to the show because she brings a “stagnant, frenetic energy” to the cast. I’m going to cut her a break on that word jumble, though, and chalk it up to the fact that she skipped a few vocab lessons rather than to the whole crazy thing. And maybe I am underestimating her; maybe she is a talented actress who doesn’t care about her image. I’m skeptical. I think she’s unwell. But regardless of the undetermined diagnosis for Ms. Bensimon, I know that we seem to be growing dangerously desensitized to reality TV’s lack of mercy.

One thing about the film “Freaks,” which is ironic at best and tragic at worst, is that the real moral of its story was pro-freak. In the movie, the “freaks” are portrayed as trusting and honorable people. The villains, who are the only two “normal” members of the circus sideshow business, try to murder one of the “freaks” to steal his inheritance. While the message is lost on most of the people who watch the movie simply to marvel at the cast, it is eerily relevant now. If Kelly isn’t sick, great. I hope she isn’t. But Heidi is. And Lindsay is. And I know someone in the camera crew could give those kids a sandwich.

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