Melodrama and the carnivalesque
Sensationalist moral discourses dominate the tabloids’ approach to celebrity scandals and emerge on television in the more popular styles of factual programming, such as daytime talk shows or primetime news and current affairs programmes, in which the intermittent potential for scandal afforded by celebrities is supplemented by the exposure of ordinary people’s deviant behaviour. The story convention through which they are told is melodrama, a popular form of culture that has, in modern societies, largely remained on the unrespectable side of the division between high and low culture (though it can cross over this boundary in its more excessive, parodic forms). Characteristically, melodrama embodies morality tales of good versus evil in which stereotypical characters enact excessive, unrestrained behaviour that elicits a strong emotional reaction from the audience. The melodramatic potential of scandal is enhanced by the graphic visual evidence of wrongdoing gathered by secret cameras in investigative reports, or the staged encounters between wronged parties on talk shows, and studio audiences’ noisy involvement in the process of passing moral judgement.
As argued above, these morality tales are not simply normative but are also an outlet for fantasy and wish fulfilment, and a way of coming to terms with our own fears and anxieties. Elizabeth Bird (1997: 108) emphasizes the way in which the scandalous forms of melodrama are embedded in oral culture, and involve the audience in speculation about how such shocking things could have come about. ‘The narrative must speak to issues or emotions that engage readers and viewers in speculation, fascination, and downright relish in the melodramatic excess of it all’ (ibid.: 117). The openness of scandal narratives – no one knows quite how each will end – encourages audience involvement. It is often not clear who is the real victim in the affair and whether guilt will be proven. ‘As people speculate they tend to look for answers from within their own experience’ (ibid.: 110). It is the degree to which scandals connect with that experience that determines the level of audience interest.
But the nature of our engagement with scandal also depends on the tone and the point of view from which the story is told. Melodrama is potentially both serious and comic and particular instances or phases of the drama will have different emphases in this respect. ‘Once something becomes an over the top melodrama the people caught up in it begin to seem less like real human beings and more like cartoons or symbols’ (ibid.: 116). Excessive displays of shocking behaviour inviting harsh moral judgements can equally provoke ribald laughter and joking. As the joking increases so does the distancing effect, enabling us to withdraw our empathy with the suffering of the victims. Jokes also allow those who tell or share them to feel superior, thereby adding a further layer of enjoyment for those who partake in this ritual humiliation. Patricia Mellencamp (1992), in her study of scandal and comedy, regards this ‘doubling’, in which seemingly contradictory responses are simultaneously evoked, as the defining characteristic of contemporary television. ‘Television embodies contradictions rather than an “either/or logic”, one of “both/and”, an inclusive logic of creation/ cancellation’ (ibid.: 5). Morally, this enables us to enjoy indulgent consumption of dubious pleasures without sacrificing a sense of our own, superior respectability. As viewers we are typically positioned as respectable, middle-class conformists who jeer and humiliate those below or above us in the social hierarchy, who enact the sexual transgressions denied to us by our normative codes of behaviour.
The most notorious example of this tendency is the globally syndicated Jerry Springer talk show (1991—), which is based on a gladiatorial, confrontational structure culminating in a moral judgement meted out by the show’s host in a piece to camera at the end. It is designed to heighten the melodramatic division between the victims and the villains, and between our condemnatory position as viewers and the transgressors on display. For many commentators the programme works to reinstate cultural norms as a result of its moralistic tone and closed narrative structure, and the low social status of the participants. These features, and the frequently violent encounters it displays, encourage condemnation of the show, and the people who appear on it, as ‘trash’. Jane Shattuc (1997) argues, however, that it also provides a spectacular display of polymorphous perversity in a carnivalesque array of sexual transgressions among the least powerful in our society. As a consequence, younger viewers especially have read it through a trash aesthetic, as a subversive display of excess and bad taste.
The radical potential of carnival in Bakhtin’s (1984) analysis is only realized where everyone participates: the high and the low, the indigenous and the foreign. Irreverent parody is used to subject dominant norms and conventions to subversive laughter, a process in which the boundaries that categorize our everyday experiences, and the social hierarchies they maintain, are thrown into question. Carnival holds the utopian potential to imagine a world not yet in existence. It is this version of carnival that informs the staging of scandalous events in queer activism, where the struggle to gain respect is pursued through a refusal to accede to dominant notions of respectability. Television has participated by exposing this transgressive sexual behaviour to view. On mainstream networks this is as likely to be in ‘respected’ genres (arts programmes, quality drama) as in ‘trash’ genres (daytime talk shows, late night docuporn). But, as Kathleen Rowe (1995) has pointed out, there is a difference between the inclusive, participative rituals of carnival and the spectacle of modern media. On television the unequal power relations of voyeurism and its sexist and racist visual conventions mediate these performances. This works to position the audience as outside and superior to the spectacle they are witnessing unless great care is taken to destabilize these ways of looking.
The use of satiric parody to challenge dominant sexual norms in ways that genuinely disturb everyday ways of categorizing the social world would need to implicate us all in its critique. This was achieved, I would argue, in the comedy series Brass Eye (Channel 4 2001), which included an episode on paedophilia. It caused hundreds of complaints to the BSC, who subsequently reprimanded Channel 4 for causing offence (BSC 2002). The programme satirized the media’s portrayal of paedophilia using a parody of the sensationalist style of populist journalism that had dominated reporting in the 1990s. The moral panic surrounding paedophilia is sufficient to make it risky to joke about these scandals without causing offence, but celebrities such as Michael Jackson have been subject to running gags over several years (see Hinerman 1997). Catholic priests
are a similar target, with knowing references recurring in newspaper cartoons and television sitcoms. What made the Brass Eye case different? Why did it cause such a strong negative reaction?
I would argue that it was because it was the media coverage itself and the public reaction to it that was subject to condemnation, not the actions of the demonized paedophiles themselves. This implicates the television audience for its complicity in a consumer culture in which ever-younger children are being targeted in advertising, drama and music videos as a market for beauty products, fashion, toys and pop star imagery, in which a sexualized image is promoted as an ideal (Jenkins 1998). Further, as avid consumers of the paedophile sex scandals, whose sensationalist structure is exposed by the satire, we are complicit in the processes by which our culture promotes, then disavows, the child as sexualized image (Kinkaid 1998). In Valerie Walkerdine’s (1998) view the ideological commitment to childhood innocence and purity requires a repression of any conscious acknowledgement of this process although an increasing number of newspaper articles now make this point (see Walters 2003, for example). It is this hypocrisy that was being exposed by the satire. The scandalized reaction also returns us to the psychoanalytic discussion of shame at the start of this section. The figure of the demon paedophile, which dominated the news media in the 1990s, successfully displaced the widespread evidence of family incest that emerged as a public issue in the media during the 1980s (Kitzinger 2001; Critcher 2003). It is far more comfortable to project our shame on to these notorious perverts than to admit to the possibility within our own homes.
The ‘epistemology of the closet’ has been identified by Eve K. Sedgwick (1990) as a binary structure organizing sexual discourses in Anglo-American societies, a legacy of Puritanism rather than, as Freud believed, an inevitable feature of the processes of repression involved in achieving adulthood. In this binary structure one side of the dichotomy lacks sexual legitimacy and is therefore subject to concealment and the threat of scandalous disclosure. Women and homosexuals are particularly vulnerable in this respect, as when their sexual activities are exposed in the public sphere they are subject to moral condemnation and in some cases criminal prosecution. When it comes to children, the binaries are based around a belief in childhood innocence and abstention, which makes sexual knowledge dangerous and a possible catalyst for sexual initiation (Epstein and Johnson 1998: 92).
Debbie Epstein and Richard Johnson (1998) offer a critique of this legacy in the belief that we need to undermine the power that scandals exert on the popular imagination. The closet, they argue, ‘implies a kind of knowledge that is never fully conscious or critical, a suspicion, a half spoken assumption, a nudge, a wink, a leer’ (ibid.: 92). It is the opposite of the explicit knowledge promoted by education. They advocate a more general ‘coming out’ in the culture at large, thereby making the censorious morality and prurient curiosities promoted by scandal less potent as the primary means by which children come to learn about sexual relations in the public sphere. Where one of the main sources of knowledge about sexuality is news reporting of sexual scandals, they argue, prurience and ignorance are two sides of the same coin. Sexual discourse on television might usefully be evaluated in these terms, and in relation to adults as well as children. If this were the case, the educative, public service role of television in bringing sexuality ‘out of the closet’ would be recognized and welcomed, so that certain forms of sexual explicitness would be a positive recommendation for family viewing, rather than the reverse.
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