The Rise of the Voyeur

Article excerpt

Forget about television as education, writes Ziauddin Sardar, the name of the game is reality TV and it has made us all barbarians

Hellis other people, said Jean-Paul Sartre. He could have added that there is no escape from other people determined to show just how hellish they really are -- on television, on the web, in the video store, on every security camera. Everywhere, they demonstrate how banal and dumbfounding they are, how unthinking and how willing to be manipulated for deplorable ends. The hell they are creating is called voyeurism. Or, if you prefer, life, the universe and everything as The Truman Show.

Voyeurism was once a minority pastime: the sad men in dirty raincoats who visited strip joints, the village "peeping Toms", the perverts gratifying their perversions. But technology has redefined voyeurism. Give a man a video camera and see his voyeuristic instincts bloom. Your most private moments could this very instant be playing on someone's VCR. if you have a penchant for exposing yourself, you can, without much bother, get on voyeurcam.com or mybedroom.com. That man in the restaurant with a new miniature camcorder could be shooting up the skirts of the waitresses. If you have made a particularly saucy video, or have a freaky tale to tell, you can always get on television. There is a burgeoning market out there. If medium is the message, then the message is voyeurism. The pandemic of voyeurism reaches its peak on television. In the US this summer, I found myself immersed in Survivor, a CBS show that is a cross between Big Brother and Castaway 2000, with survival and interpersonal duplicity presented as a game show. The episode I watched had the contestants eating squirming live grubs. When I returned home, I found the BBC's A Life of Grime which provided more insight into the repulsive nature of one's fellow citizens than is strictly desirable to maintain a civil society.

All this is in addition to the regular, overgenerous diet of freaks, deviants and sad losers one meets on imports such as Jerry Springer, Sally Jesse Raphael or Ricki as well as home-grown rubbish such as Esther and Trisha. These shows are sacrificial baying fests. The guests present their grotesque character traits -- women who marry transvestites, men who sleep with their mothers, this sort of thing. The studio audience ritually responds with gasps, guffaws, hoots and hollers, mixed with some chosen questions. It is not a narrative event, it is a stream of consciousness interlude; the angrier it gets, the more inarticulate and confrontational, the nearer to chewing the scenery and throwing things, the better the entertainment.

It is all so distant from the 1970s, when daytime talk became established in the US as the fillerpar excellence. In the hands of a Phil Donahue and, often enough, an Oprah, ordinary people discussed issues that affected their daily lives with genuflection towards educative purpose. The sleaze and voyeurism came stealthily to attract audiences, and then became the only reason for the existence of such programmes. Donahue left the industry, publicly expressing disgust (he is currently working for the presidential campaign of Ralph Nader). Where the discussion programmes just occasionally brought bizarre, dysfunctional behaviour before the cameras, now it is only by being bizarre, and lacking in of any ordinary kind, that one can get in front of the cameras at all.

The success of sleaze talk whetted our appetite If or a more overt form of voyeurism. It arrived in the form of reality television. In Britain, the documentary tradition has always been strong. It was a structured and controlled way to meet, observe and be engaged by various types of people. Then, by an amazing trick of dissembling, the fly-on-the-wall style was born. Instead of prepackaged stories containing messages, coded or explicit, the entire panoply for making programmes was supposedly swept away. We were to take an unvarnished look at people, being -- well, people. …