Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Culture Wars - Mean-Spirited Family Values

An articulate, "must-read" New York Times editorial today for anyone interested in the so-called culture wars....

Family Values on Fox

The news that "American Idol" has started a new season with ratings even more enormous than last year's reminds us of an old query. In a nation with a disquieting surplus of moral arbiters, why isn't there a call to clean up television programs that specialize in humiliating the weak?

People devote untold hours to worrying about the sexual orientation of cartoon characters, but nobody seems disturbed that more than 30 million American households watch a "family" show that picks out hapless, and frequently helpless, contestants solely for famous and powerful judges to make fun of them on national television.

"American Idol" is known, even among those who have never seen it, as a talent show in which a dozen or so young pop singers compete to win a recording contract and a national profile. But it begins every season with several weeks of early elimination rounds in which judges pick the handful of contestants who will make it to the finals from a preselected mixture of very talented and very terrible singers. The very terrible have reason to hope that, having come so far, they might actually be as good as they imagined in their dreams.

Most of them are extremely young, naïve and deluded. Many appear terribly vulnerable and some seem to border on mentally impaired. The fun is supposed to come from seeing the celebrity judges roll their eyes, laugh, and tell them that they are tone-deaf, fat, funny-looking or, in the case of one young man, "atrocious" and "confused." (The cameras followed him out of the audition room, the better to make sport of him crying with his family.) The producers so treasured the comment of one judge, Simon Cowell, who said an overweight woman would require a bigger stage in Hollywood, that they used it to promote the segment.

In many ways, all this is just a much more expensive, glittery version of the old "Gong Show" from the 1970's. But the targets of that less hypersuccessful program were generally older and frequently more cynical. And, of course, the whole thing happened in a different era, when family values was not an overriding obsession.

No one wants to censor Fox's money machine, but it does seem peculiar that a nation so torn apart over what message gay marriage or prayer in school will send to impressionable youth is so unified in giving a pass to a program that teaches young people that it's extremely cool to be mean.

(Also read US Liberals at

No comments: