We're Not All Exhibitionists Now, But We All Watch Them Now

What Women Really Think
Nov. 30 2009 2:49 PM

We're Not All Exhibitionists Now, But We All Watch Them Now

Kerry, I take your point, that there’s something wrong-headed and overly sympathetic about considering the Salahis , the Heenes, and their grotesque, attention-seeking ilk exclusively as an outgrowth of our perverted, fame-seeking "culture." When we say that these people are what we deserve, we’re letting them off the hook for behaving in a way that the vast majority of us still, thankfully, never would. But to say there’s not something new going on, that attention-seeking now is the same as attention-seeking always, just with the technology to amplify the seekers’ reach, feels wrong. You argue that the Salahis and Heenes are "painful to watch because they're desperate to be liked, and it's awkward to encounter that level of neediness in other people." But they’re not desperate to be liked, they’re just desperate to be noticed.

What distinguishes reality TV from other fame-making mediums is that to get famous because of it, one doesn’t have to be liked one bit. (For more on reality TV’s unique terribleness, James Wolcott has a scathing, cheekily overdramatic column on it in the most recent Vanity Fair .) Movie stars succeed because we like them-our liking them, or their persona, is what makes them movie stars. That’s still more or less true. (Just this weekend, Sandra Bullock demonstrated what a bunch of goodwill and a half-decent, cheeseball movie can get you at the box office.) But for a regular person to become a reality TV star we don’t have to like him, we just have to be interested in him. As Puck, Omarosa, Jon and Kate, Kim Kardashian, and scores of others have ably demonstrated, disturbed, bitchy, unhinged, borderline crazy, fame-obsessed, self-aggrandizing, and even stupid can all be interesting, sometimes.

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Maybe once, not so long ago, most people who wanted to be famous also wanted to be liked, because those two things were connected. They're not anymore. If the number of people who want to be noticed, who want attention and are willing to do anything to get it, hasn’t increased (and I think maybe it has), at the very least those people can now get what they want by behaving badly, with limited social stigma. How did we let that happen? And how do we stop giving them the recognition they want so desperately? Uh oh, there I went, blaming it all on us again.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.