Monday, March 6, 2017

Core Post 4: The Art of Neoliberal Suffering: "My 600 Pound Life"

This week's readings deal with contemporary (I would argue a little bit outdated at this moment, but that's another story) politics of reality TV, specifically Reality Television: a Neoliberal Theater of Suffering by Anna McCarthy. This article details how reality television reenacts the neoliberal values of individualism, no government social resources, and colorblind/post-feminism society.

The reality TV show I chose was "My 600 Pound Life", another show that was, for some reason, always on my family's TV screen during winter break. The show details the story of various patients weighing 500 pounds and over (for a reference: the largest person who ever lived was John  Bower Minnoch, who weighed 975 pounds at one point in his life) who now start a weight-loss surgery. The show always features Dr. Nowazarden, a Houston-based surgeon who specialized in gasteric bypass surgery for people over 500 pounds. Each patient undergoes intensive bypass surgery and usually skin removal surgery, and the show chronicles a year in their life as they make lifestyle changes to lose weight.

The show is a pure example of the neoliberal politics of suffering, but with some caveats. In terms of being a perfect match for suffering, every show starts with the person's voice showing their (presumably sad) everyday life in order to highlight their large bodies. Almost every episode begins with the subject naked in some sort of way, usually struggling to take a shower or use a bathroom. Thus, this beginning is attempting to render the subject's body so grotesque that watching them naked becomes a spectacle rather than a violation of privacy.
In each episode, the subject must lose some weight before being approved for surgery. If patients fail or gain weight, they are shamed by Dr. Now or usually a family or friend. If a patient succeeds in the journey, their hard work is dully noted. This, again, highlights neoliberalism's obsession with individualism, as each patient's story is predicated merely on them as individuals.

Where the show slightly divest in neoliberal politics is the patient's stories themselves. Almost all the patients have a traumatic experience that explain their enormous weight gain. Dr. Now requires many patients to see a therapist as well, as almost all the patients describe their weight gain to food addiction. Here, the audience is expected to sympathize with the patients, detailing how their large life is no fault of their own, but rather a charge of a lifetime of almost extreme abuse. However, cultural factors--such as the U.S.' obsession with thinness or food deserts-- or the lack of medical care to low-income communities, are never addressed in the show.

The show also features types of interactivity, as mentioned in Oulette's reading. The TLC website features "before and after stories" after each season. Here, the viewer has control into seeing the "afterness" of the TV, creating an effect of intimate knowledge of a person's life.

Besides the point of "My 600 Pound Life", I wonder how we still argue of neoliberalism's shortcomings. I would venture to say that neoliberalism is either crumbling or at least radically changing, and right now we are in a moment of large cause or effect. Shows like "My 600 Pound Life" could mean the future of medical and person care, as we are forced to think about these people's stories in the midst of slight social change. Our sympathy can mean, perhaps, more focus on creating more accessible healthy view or changing our view of who's bodies are consider grotesque vs. beautiful. Or, it can mean demonizing people for not living up to social standards that are designed for losers vs. winners in the first place. Only time will tell, and TV will be right there.

1 comment:

  1. I love this post and I love this show. I will say that I agree with your last point about shows such as, "My 600 Pound Life" creating awareness about healthy lifestyle choices. I also think that is a great change from the normal reality narrative. Yes, it's depressing and very much goes along with the Neoliberal Theater of Suffering. However, it is informative and tells the story of the everyday person. It doesn't glamorize obesity and it showcases every racial group. I think it's one example of reality TV done correctly.