The modern freakshow

Is reality TV turning into a freakshow?

A general rule of life is that someone, somewhere, is doing worse than you, and that can be comforting to know. I couldn’t get Wi-Fi this morning, but somewhere a small child’s starving at the side of a filthy, smog-clouded road, so he’ll be yukking it up while I deal with the real problems, that jerk.

TV figured out the fun of looking down a while ago, and so every reality programme contains elements that could be construed as “freak-showy”, like a few flakes of fox in a sandwich. Usually it’s just “Who’s Father To Your Baby? Me Or My Dad?” on Jeremy Kyle, or deluded folks who think they can sing getting up on a stage, but it’s Channel Four who are the masters of the art. This week they gave us The Undateables, followed by documentary The Secret Lives of Dolls.

The former’s been on before, and the concept’s exactly what you think it is: lovelorn singletons with interesting medical conditions go internet-dating with Channel 4, and we see the result. Meanwhile, Dolls looks at the phenomenon of “masking”, where men slip on anatomically correct woman skins made of rubber and walk around in them, like a PG-rated Buffalo Bill.

Of the two, it’s Dolls that has the bigger lumps of fox to ha-cha-cha-cha-chow down on. To assume your show can contain a 70-year-old man lovingly explaining how the hairs on his silicone vagina came from his own scalp as the camera pans down it in detail, and not attract an audience tuning in for ghoulish fascination is wilful naivety.

But OK, it calls itself an educational programme, and this is what maskers do in their lives: we must leave no vagina unturned. So what did we learn from all this? We did learn they exist, which most of the wider world hadn’t before. What about “why do they do it?” Damned if I know – we learned the men weren’t transgender or gay, and in fact sought to emulate and “own” the beautiful women they were unable to attract, but that’s as far as that disconcerting train of thought went before it was back to drawers full of breasts and rectum installations. We were also repeatedly told that the dolls were harmless (true) and totally normal. That second point, of course, rings a little insincere when you’ve made a show about it.

(Of course, I was hoping for some sort of robotic masker with a camera hidden inside it to follow them around and get defecated on, but maybe BBC documentaries have spoiled me.)

Onto The Undateables, which could probably have its title swapped pretty seamlessly to CONTROVERSY STOP HERE (or disabled comedian Lee Ridley’s suggestion – Would You Shag A Crip?) First impressions looked slightly dubious: one of the participants had the kind of Tourette’s that makes you swear at random intervals, because that’s obligatory at this point, and we got knowingly bizarre footage in the intro of dwarves playing football. After that, however, focus shortly shifts over to the personalities and lives of the participants, rather than their illnesses. We see the problems they face due to their disabilities, but most of the emphasis falls on the near-universal experience of looking for love. By the end, we’re willing them to succeed, and the programme manages to prove what it set out to – after some obligatory rocky starts, all three of the first episode’s disabled contestants seem to find promising relationships (at least after the first date).

Is either of these shows entirely exempt from the “freak-show” accusations? Well, no: both take real people and use their abnormality as a selling point. The difference is how the participants are portrayed, and in that respect Undateables comes off better than Dolls. And of course, through their intentional courting of the usual debate over “barrel-scraping”, both did a good job attracting attention and publicity for Channel Four from both gawpers on Twitter and moralizers in newspaper columns. Speaking of, see you next issue!

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