Friday, July 30, 2010

The reality virus, ctd: warriors and catches, deadly or otherwise

OK, here's a telling glimpse into the working of my mind, and further evidence if you like for a mild case of attention deficit disorder ... or at least my fairly spectacular talent for tangents. You see, today's post is the one I had in mind when I sat down and wrote what became my rather long reality TV post of a few weeks ago (technically, two and a half months ago ... but who's counting?). The opening preamble there was meant as a lead-in to the observation of how reality television has sort of split itself into three or four sub-categories, and I was going to talk about one specific one. Except that then I didn't, and ended up talking about reality TV more generally.

That being said, I was pretty pleased with the way the post turned out, and now have some decent raw material should I pursue it as an article. Sometimes distractions can be fruitful ...

ANYWAY ... what initially prompted my televisual musings was that the previous Sunday evening I had been treated to several episodes in a row of my new guilty pleasure, Deadliest Warrior—a show that posits hypothetical battles between soldiers and warriors from different historical periods and places. Drawing on contemporary combat experts, medical science and computer simulations, the weapons and techniques of a given warrior are variously tested on dummies made of bones and ballistic gel, pig carcasses, and other, rather gruesome hybrids, and the results plugged into a computer. While parts often feel contrived, the show is like crack to military history geeks like myself. I have so far watched showdowns between a Maori warrior and Shaolin monk, Viking berserker and samurai, ninja and Spartan hoplite, Commanche and Mongol, and Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun.


Afterward, I reflected that the explosion of specialty cable stations catering to niche audiences has really facilitated the growth and spread of reality TV, though generally speaking a different species than you find on the major networks. The networks are generally attracted to the Survivor / American Idol form I discussed in my previous post on this subject, i.e. the competitive elimination show. Specialty cable tends to be all over the place, to the point where what has become known as "reality TV" shades into what I think we still term human interest—cooking shows, design shows, mini-documentaries, and the like. One only has to look at the Food Network however (as I do, frequently) to see the influence reality TV has exerted. When I started watching the Food Network some ten years ago, when it was in its infancy, it was principally cooking shows hosted by well-established chefs, with a handful of endearingly gimmicky shows tossed in for good measure (I really wish they'd rerun Two Fat Ladies). While some actual chefs remain, more often than not the shows have moved from straightforward this-is-how-to-cook shows to shows with a novelty basis or a competitive edge. Perennial Food TV favourite Bobby Flay is exemplary in this regard: one can chart the trajectory of his original show Grilling and Chilling, a straightforward cooking demonstration, to the most recent Throwdown, in which he travels around challenging chefs to a contest in cooking their signature dishes. Throw into the mix Top Chef, The Next Food Network Star, Iron Chef America, Chopped, The Ultimate Food TV Challenge, among others, and you have an impressive array of competition/elimination shows.

All this, incidentally, is not to complain. I'm still an avid Food Network viewer, and certainly will be as long as Alton Brown has a home there. This is just an observation of reality TV's rather invidious influence.

To return however to Deadliest Warrior ... watching that show, I had two big thoughts: (1) I lose interest rather quickly once the warriors involved employed firearms (such as in the Jesse James vs. Al Capone episode, or the Waffen SS vs. Viet Cong), and I wonder if I am not alone in this regard. Perhaps gunpowder is too contemporary for the military history geek in me; or perhaps the necessary distance between warriors that guns introduces makes the exercise less interesting. After all, and this was thought (2): the grim skill set required for the hand-to-hand combat that was the standard for the vast majority of human military history makes the differences in weaponry at points in the past more acute.

I must admit that there is something fascinating about the up close and personal warfare that predated modernity, and that's not merely my own vaguely creepy predilection—I'd argue that a great deal of the appeal of fantasy fiction derives from the appeal of sword-and-armour warfare. However, the more I've watched Deadliest Warrior, the more I've thought that it is of a piece with a significant sub-genre of the kind of reality TV one sees (most frequently) on the Discovery Network.

There have been a relatively small but still noteworthy number of series that feature a particular brand of working-class jobs. What kind of brand? The ├╝ber-masculine, of course. The most popular of these is Deadliest Catch, which is now in its sixth season. For the uninitiated, Deadliest Catch follows a group of boats fishing for crab off Alaska. There is a limited window each season for Alaskan King Crab, and it happens to be during some of the worst winter weather, which is a recipe for crews working up to thirty-six hours at a go in freezing, dangerous conditions. A frequent theme deals with which people (that is to say: men) have the strength and stamina to do the job, versus those who do not. Just for good measure, many of the boats have a little father-son drama thrown in as well, usually with the boat's owner agonizing over whether his son "has what it takes" to take over the family business, or whether it should be bequeathed to the loyal first mate who has showed his chops over many years of service.


Deadliest Catch is however just the most popular example. There is also American Loggers, all about the manly profession of treecutting; Salvage Code Red, which follows the dangerous lives of people who salvage ships on the brink of sinking or being broken up in a storm; Oil, Sweat, & Rigs, whose description reads in part "Oil riggers work at the limits of human endurance, in difficult and sometimes terrifying conditions"; Black Gold, another oil-rig based show; and the one with my favourite title, Ice Road Truckers, whose tagline is "Take an adrenaline-pumping ride on one of the most dangerous roads in the world."

To be sure, these shows comprise a tiny fraction of the reality television on offer, but there are enough of them to now constitute their own sub-genre. And they are striking enough in their representations of a particular form of masculinity to raise the question of just what kind of lack they symbolically address?

The machismo on display in these shows is a specifically working-class version: the manly men populating these shows are not pretty or attractive, and care nothing for that; they are more often than not family men, away from their wives and children for the express purpose of supporting those wives and children; they are defined by their work, which is itself defined as the intersection of extreme physicality and extreme competence; and while they are not "elite" in the common sense the word is used lately (i.e. brainy Ivy League Easterners), they are elite in their unapologetic meritocracy, in which you are only as good as your ability to get the job done.

Now, I should add the caveat that (a) I don't mean to suggest that these jobs are mere artifice—whatever the sensationalism created by making them the subject of reality TV shows, the abilities and skills on display are real, and (b) I could never do any of these jobs (being "elite" in the milquetoast sense). Nevertheless, the shows exhibit a romantic and idealized conception of working-class labour and blue-collar ethic in a culture that has almost entirely devalued working-class existence. There was a time when there was a certain respect accorded the lunch-pail labourer (however much that respect was itself illusory), and the blue-collar individual had a place as a common character in popular culture. While that may be the case these days for the occasional sitcom (King of Queens, for example, or Roseanne), what working-class figures make it onto the small screen usually embody something more than a nine-to-five, simple and honest paycheque ethic—cops, for example, or firefighters (Rescue Me, Third Watch), whose jobs are who the characters are. When a character's career fades into a series' background noise, it is usually something white collar or vaguely office-related and well-paying.

I can't figure out if these manly-job shows simply express nostalgia for straightforward, "honest" work, or reflect a deeper anxiety. They do seem to be of a piece with the various crises of masculinity that infected the 1990s—presumably, Tyler Durden would approve of any man making a living on a crab boat or ice road truck. But they are also symptomatic, I would argue, of a uniquely American schizophrenia for which Sarah Palin is the most extreme example: that is, a valorization of "ordinary," "real," or "authentic" America, typically defined in contradistinction to "liberal," "elite" America (which is presumably inhabited by snobs with Ivy League educations sipping their lattes while scheming about how to tax "real" America). That this figuration is nativist and deeply anti-intellectual is obvious, and nothing new. But it also manages to celebrate this illusion of ordinary Americans at the very same time as it expresses contempt for anyone earning less than six figures. Just four posts ago, I commented on Ben Stein's dismissal of those thrown out of work by the current recession as "people with poor work habits and poor personalities"—whereas in reality, it is the "ordinary" Americans whose corner Sarah Palin and the Tea Party are ostensibly who suffer most in the current economic climate, and who potentially benefit the most from letting the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy expire.

I don't mean to suggest that Deadliest Catch is therefore a pernicious expression of American conservatism, but rather that it is symptomatic of a flawed attempt to imagine a sort of "authentic" American masculinity. Which doesn't mean I won't watch it when it's on. Or Deadliest Warrior, for that matter.

2 comments:

Shaun said...

I too find Deadliest Warrior a guilty pleasure, and have seen every episode to date. With regards to the firearms I find it interesting to see how each group projects their variant of whichever firearm they use as better, yet the real key when watching is never the gun, but the skill in which it is used, which reminds me, the horse archers in Mongol vs. Comanche were insane! Those guys had mad skills! Personal favorite episode, William Wallace vs. Shaka Zulu.
But like the historian in you, I find interesting the little facts that the people bring up not only about the weapons, but about the people, military, tactics and such. Those little tidbits remind me of the show History Bites, little nuggets of knowledge that stand out in your brain. Skill mastery in hand to hand combat is at the heart of the show, and if you watch any of the more modern combatants (I suggest Seals vs Israeli Special forces) the knife techniques are just amazing. Skip the guns portion, and just check out what they can do with a 3 inch blade.
With your inference to what Deadliest Catch may represent, I have to agree, that it seems to demonstrate the original masculinity that built America beginning with World War I, and continuing until after the Vietnam war. Those shows depict an America that was raw, traditional and almost always dangerous, driven to keep themselves and their families afloat (the families of the loggers and fishermen represent the American people and the men the government trying to support them) no matter the dangers to themselves.
Whether or not this is a reflection of the current situation in America or a hopefully cast in the waters of the future is hard to tell, but sufficed to say all the shows you have mention are worth watching.
One last note on your appeal to hand to hand combat. It just makes sense to handle your battles man to man, toe to toe so to speak, without the use of long range weapons. I wrote several papers on Just War Theory and its mandate that no long range weapons be used. Of course, it also states that there should be a single piece of terrain that both sides can combat on with no innocent victims, and short of using Antarctica, we haven't found a spot yet for that to be viable. Whats your take on Just War theory and its proper function (when used) in warfare?

Shaun said...

I too find Deadliest warrior a guilty pleasure, and have seen every episode to date. With regards to the firearms I find it interesting to see how each group projects their variant of whichever firearm they use as better, yet the real key when watching is never the gun, but the skill in which it is used, which reminds me, the horse archers in Mongol vs. Comanche were insane! Those guys had mad skills! Personal favorite episode, William Wallace vs. Shaka Zulu.
But like the historian in you, I find interesting the little facts that the people bring up not only about the weapons, but about the people, military, tactics and such. Those little tidbits remind me of the show History Bites, little nuggets of knowledge that stand out in your brain. Skill mastery in hand to hand combat is at the heart of the show, and if you watch any of the more modern combatants (I suggest Seals vs Israeli Special forces) the knife techniques are just amazing. Skip the guns portion, and just check out what they can do with a 3 inch blade.
With your inference to what Deadliest Catch may represent, I have to agree, that it seems to demonstrate the original masculinity that built America beginning with World War I, and continuing until after the Vietnam war. Those shows depict an America that was raw, traditional and almost always dangerous, driven to keep themselves and their families afloat (the families of the loggers and fishermen represent the American people and the men the government trying to support them) no matter the dangers to themselves.
Whether or not this is a reflection of the current situation in America or a hopefully cast in the waters of the future is hard to tell, but sufficed to say all the shows you have mention are worth watching.
One last note on your appeal to hand to hand combat. It just makes sense to handle your battles man to man, toe to toe so to speak, without the use of long range weapons. I wrote several papers on Just War Theory and its mandate that no long range weapons be used. Of course, it also states that there should be a single piece of terrain that both sides can combat on with no innocent victims, and short of using Antarctica, we haven't found a spot yet for that to be viable. Whats your take on Just War theory and its proper function (when used) in warfare?