The Normalization of Degradation

I would like to focus my first post on a brief but intriguing (and disturbing) reading from week two of this term’s Gender, Race, and Popular Culture course called We Are What We Watch by Susan J. Douglas.

Douglas begins her article with an examination of popular North American reality television shows, stating that fear and public humiliation are used as agents for the success and popularity of shows such as Extreme Makeover, Fear Factor, The Swan, The Apprentice, Are You Hot?, and American Idol; that viewers are meant to partake in an unthinking and mindless enjoyment of these shows without seeing any flaws to their approaches. Most people who participate in contemporary North American culture have an idea as to where fear and humiliation is derived for those featured in reality TV shows. “In the early episodes of American Idol […] we were invited to laugh at those pathetic tone-deaf pop star wannabes,” and in Fear Factor and The Apprentice, “perpetuating degradation and terror is the premise” (Pearson Learning Solutions 2). People’s appearances are dissected by judges.

Take Susan Boyle’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent, for example.   Much like American IdolAmerica’s Got Talent, and Canada’s Got Talent, this show has a tendency to scrutinize contestants’ physical appearance before allowing them the chance to demonstrate their talents, and humiliation was anticipated with her performance. Scrutinization begins when she enters the stage, evident in Simon Cowell’s tone, a cat call from the audience following the first signs of nervousness, and laughter from the audience at the discovery of her age. It is clear that not much is expected from Susan at this point. But within seconds of beginning the song, countless audience members stand to cheer, and the judges appear to be pleasantly surprised by her abilities. Near the end of the video, one of the show’s hosts remarks, “You didn’t expect that, did you? Did you? No.”

As Douglas points out, “humiliation [has become common] in what passes for daily entertainment” (Pearson Learning Solutions 2).

Following this introduction, she then compares the mentioned reality shows to the horrors of Abu Ghraib – a prison in Iraq that gained notoriety during the Iraq war due to “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” and human rights violations initiated by the U.S. army, including “[b]reaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee” (M. Hersh). Douglas is adamant that reality television did not necessarily cause what happened at Abu Ghraib, but “she argues that it help[s] create an environment in which something like Abu Ghraib could be such a media sensation,” (Pearson Learning Solutions 1) focusing specifically on the misconduct of Lynndie England.

This photo shows Lynndie England with a naked prisoner at the end of a leash. More offensive images can be found online.

This photo shows Lynndie England with a naked prisoner at the end of a leash. More offensive images can be found online.

In her writing, Douglas seems concerned primarily with the idea that Lynndie England’s actions have caused negative repercussions for women and feminism, explaining that “both reality television and the cultural conversations about Abu Ghraib are rife with anti-feminism” (Pearson Learning Solutions 1). My understanding is that she believes England’s actions during her time at the prison were detrimental in the sense that they advanced anti-feminism through the criticism and discussion that followed her actions; that she may have given women in the military a bad reputation with “‘no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show'” (Pearson Learning Solutions 3). According to Douglas, “Linda Chavez suggested that the presence of women in the military ‘encouraged more misbehaviour’ in the prison,” and “George Neumayr of the American Spectator summed it up this way: ‘The image of that female guard, smoking away as she joins gleefully in the disgraceful melee like one of the guys, is a cultural outgrowth of a feminist culture which encourages female barbarianism'” (Pearson Learning Solutions 3).

In an article from Marie Claire (, author Tara McKelvey has  a more empathetic approach towards Lynndie England’s story. Personally I feel that criticism against Lynndie England was justified in the sense that her actions were immoral, but not justified in the sense that Chavez, Neumayr, and others seemed to target England specifically for being female. Why should her actions be treated any differently than the actions of participating males?

With regards to reality television, Douglas believes that it is anti-feminist because it perpetuates the “ideal” image of femininity, “keep[ing] women in their place and encourag[ing] a retreat from citizenship and world affairs into consumerism and the domestic sphere” due to its “obsession with women’s appearance, sexuality, [and] ability to please men” (Pearson Learning Solutions 3), among other things.

Susan Douglas concludes her article with the following: “In these shows, the inevitability of female narcissism is rendered utterly natural, almost genetically determined. But so is a culture of surveillance, voyeurism, and demeaning exposure. Post-feminism – the insistence that deep in their hearts women really want a return to 1957 – is thus deployed in the service of a culture of humiliation. People may dismiss reality TV as mindless. But when they simultaneously naturalize misogyny at home and shamelessness abroad, we need to take a pretty hard look at what our society finds entertaining- and why” (Pearson Learning Solutions 3).

Douglas brings light to a parallel between popular culture and the realities of the world that is often overlooked or unrecognized. Complacency in a culture of humiliation is an example of how pop culture can have adverse effects on people’s actions. It’s important to consider pop culture when thinking about news events because pop culture is a reflection of the way that people think and vice versa; it can also have an affect on the way that people think.

In the interest of creating discussion: Do you think that media affects the outcome of a culture, or that culture affects what is presented in the media? (Media → culture, or culture → media?) Is one more prominent than the other? Given the complacency in humiliation and harm that is created through popular culture, is Lynndie England at fault for her actions? What do you think?

I’d like to finish on a positive note by quoting Anita Sarkeesian from the Youtube series Feminist Frequency: “There’s often a lot of hostility towards watching TV, like it’s this big, bad, horrible thing that’s gonna warp our brains. But I don’t think that’s true. […] I think it’s important to critically engage with [media] because it’s a reflection of our society” (Sarkeesian).

Works Cited:

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