Friday, August 05, 2005

MTV's True Life: "I'm Dead Broke"

MTV: you know it, I watch it. I am even known to mention some of its more notorious programs in my courses. For all its faults, both historical and current, which are numerous and worthy of strong critique, the station often ventures where few other TV channels go, even if for obviously commercial and very possibly cynical reasons. Some of its shows are utter dreck (Date My Mom); some are basically extended commercials or infomercials (Pimp My Ride); some take the current standard of narcissistic voyeurism to nauseating levels (Diary); many are politically, socially and economically retrograde and reify the worst aspects of capitalist consumer culture (Cribs; MADE); some are so avant-garde and bizarre (Jackass; Andy Milonakis Show) while being simultaneously infantile and you have to wonder if they're not subliminally converting you to right-wing Republicanism. In all cases, though, MTV strives to entertain.
MTV show
Yet MTV also was among the first stations, I believe, to portray in a regular series not only a self-empowered, out gay person--in a cross-ethnic relationship, no less--but a self-empowered, out person living with AIDS, his struggles with the disease and his activism; even if one discounts its video spectacles (and after overcoming its reluctance in the 1980s at running Michael Jackson's videos, it was a pioneer in promoting commercial hiphop, which is now the dominant popular music form in the United States), it regularly presents more racial, ethnic, gender, and class diversity that the rest of TV (I'm speaking comparatively here, and yes, MTV's The Real World (whose first season included a Black male poet, a Black female rapper, and a White gay male artist), which is hardly "real" and regularly traffics in stereotypes, has never featured an Asian male house member, or any Arabs, as far as I can tell); it not only colludes in the insistent marketing of sex, but runs ads for condoms, PSAs promoting HIV testing, and programs that show the social contexts and consequences of (youth) sexual activity, without much of the bad faith or moralism of other TV channels. (I can't recall if MTV has portrayed the reality of abortion in recent years, but I seem to recall that it has done so at least once.)

And I could say more but I want to get to my main point, which is that I watched MTV's True Life, episode 702, "I'm Dead Broke." Certainly, this show and this episode had their problems--the lack of critical commentary, which is not part of the show's framework, I do understand, being chief among them--but I have to say, it was one of the rare moments I can think of when I have been staring into the ocean of constructed "reality" being passed off as "reality" and actually saw difficult, ugly, messy, saddening, but "authentic"--at least to a degree that differs from the excessively mediated and constructed realities of the "reality TV" genre-- "reality" staring back at me. By which I mean, the episode's title really is a throwaway, since the show wasn't about not having money, but about THE POOR--three VERY poor young people in the United States. THE POOR--those millions of people who are never shown, discussed, addressed, engaged, in so much of our culture, politics, society. The poor: DeMarlon (pictured above), a 19-year-old Black man living in Pemberton, Illinois, in desperate conditions that numerous other Americans share yet which are rarely treated in our mass media; Alexa, an 18-year old White woman living in West Plains, Missouri, who had dropped out of high school in her native Indiana, moved west, and found herself without the means to work and complete her high school education; and Sandra, a 22-year-old Latina from East Oakland, California, who was struggling to make ends meet and facing homelessness as she worked at a low-wage service job and lived with her boyfriend, Armaan.

In fact, all three of these young people faced homelessness, which basically is not discussed in the public discourse any more, except as a "choice" or pathology. They also held very low-wage jobs which did not or barely paid enough on which to survive, and though such jobs are the main growth sector in our economy, this fact and the structural transformation of our economy are not discussed in our public discourse either. The three protagonists all seemed not to have gotten very good high school educations, though each of them made clear they valued education, to the extent that the young man was trying to remediate himself in order to qualify for the military, which he saw as his only employment option (he was on open probation, though, and thus not permitted to serve), while the young woman from Indiana stressed constantly how much she wanted to finish her final year of high school and graduate. Public education, and our educational system in general, which is increasingly stacked against the poor and working classes, and even the middle classes, however broadly construed, don't receive enough discussion in the public discourse, except as soundbites during campaign time or as pawns and straw people in ongoing cultural wars. In fact, most of what this one MTV episode portrayed isn't dealt with almost anywhere else in our media, except as elements of the standard, controlling narratives that replicate and reinforce the hierarchical, unequal social relations and confirm the fantasies and projections of the ruling classes, as in Hustle & Flow, with its Black pimp who aspires to be a rapper blah blah blah, or Crash, with its false pieties and hollow depictions of racial and class differences, and so on.

At any rate, the episode angered and provoked me (as opposed to leaving me in a comatose state, or enraged, or anesthetized, or wanting to rush out and buy something or burn something down), and it also made me wish that some executives somewhere within the vast media system that constitutes television, the most powerful mass medium we have today, would take the revolutionary step of telling more such stories, and exploring them in greater critical and analytical depth. They would all have to be framed in such stark and reductive economic and class terms, though a greater attention to economics and class would be excellent, but through the complex lens of the diverse positionalities and social relations that characterize our, and every, society. Of course I am asking TV, as we know it, to take a scalpel to itself. MTV, I think, took at least a little slice with this one.


  1. John, I don't know if I've said this before, but I'm so glad you're blogging. True, most of your blog goes over my head, but I realize that my feeling intimidated by its density is something I need to get over. So I see it more as a snack bar; I come and go, nibbling and picking over entries and absorbing what resonates and nurtures. I learn so much from your blog; it makes me what to learn (and do) more. We are so lucky to have you in the blogosphere and in the world. Thank you!

    Okay, enough gushing! MTV/Viacom as programming with any sort of consciousness? I can't say that I'm buying that, even in the most minimalist of terms. Maybe in the early 80s when conceptual works of art like the Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" dominated the airwaves while showcasing what could be done with video and imagination (okay, and maybe that new record deal didn't hurt), but at least I felt like my brain was being nurtured in some way by those images. And, well, Annie's sumptuous voice. Now, whenever I happen across MTV either by television or online, I feel like something very detrimental is happening to my brain. Okay, maybe that's called nostalgia, but I wonder if MTV would still be perceived as some sort of stalwart of HIV/AIDS PSA programming if Pedro Zamora (and his boyfriend) weren't so photogenic. I imagine the cronies at Bunim/Murray collecting in conference rooms asking questions like "Who's the hot minority? What's the hot topic? How can we program these into our shows to increase sales?" More than anything, I wonder if there's anything there to inspire a new generation to actually create art - not just to salivate over the material things these 'artists' may 'have' at the moment.

  2. hey john, thanks for stopping by. i think that to invoke any centered idea of consciousness, misses the point, see one consciousness. theirs isn't mine, but it does seem that they are somehow trying to program to some corporate, commercial, audience specific, broadcasting and ratings aware that end, i suppose, good for them.

  3. Donald and Ruth, I appreciate your comments. I think what struck me about this particular episode was that it sort of cut through the general capitalist bourgeois fantasy that MTV--and the media in general--promote so relentlessly, showing, in its flawed way, another aspect of American life that is far more preponderant than some people might ever imagine. It was also fascinating that they featured not just poor people of color, but a poor white woman who was struggling, economically and socially. The show broached, again, in its minimal way, the profound isolation and alienation of these young people, which our political and economic system simply refuses to address. But Ruth, I agree, MTV's goal is to reach a certain consciousness--and to shape consciousness as well--but this episode, I felt, sort of slipped outside their usual aims. Donald, I can't say if there's anything on MTV in general that might provoke anyone to create art, or even to question the system we live in, but as I note to Ruth, I do feel like this episode might have made even one person say, "Whoa!" MTV isn't in the business of then provoking that person to get up and do something about it--"Rock the Vote"? talk about a joke--but sometimes that flash of recognition has value too.

  4. Hi Paddi!! Brilliant. Just Brilliant

  5. John,

    It won't surprise you that, with my deep love of all things pop, I adore MTV, it's something I couldn't do without. To put it simply, it's becoming nearly impossible to conceive of a sensibility outside the corporate, extreme capitalist matrix; I trust that folks understand this (and, if they don't, oh well). Within the lines, then, MTV is able to open up the culture and expose it--it's up to the spectators to think for themselves.

    (Plus, hell, it's so beautifully designed.)


  6. As for DeMarlon it has now been 2 years and he still isn't doing much better. His father that was on the MTV show has now passed.