As I watch The A-List: New York, a new reality series on the Logo Channel, I think back to a talk I once heard by an activist who spent his life advocating for the poor of Rio’s favelas. ‘Please don’t fight for the poor,’ he said, ‘because you think you should like them. Many of the poor I’ve met are not especially pleasant.’ If I extend that lesson to the The A-List I’m forced to conclude that vapid, self-absorbed, fashion-obsessed gay men should have as much a right to make me want to disown my species as anyone else.
And yet I watch. I watch.
It’s very pre-postmodern of me, but I always look for the moral center in works of art, whether high or low. In the case of the The A-List, this appears in the form of an avuncular figure, Mike Ruiz, a fashion photographer who wears tight tee shirts emblazoned with words like “Love Muscle.” Mr. Ruiz is kind enough to give modeling advice to the beautiful young men who seek his help. After criticizing one model’s portfolio for being “too Miami,” he sets up a photo shoot to give his oeuvre more of a New York edge. This involves smearing the young man’s face and arms with grease and photographing him while he evinces looks of world-weariness. I assume from this ritual that no one can make the A-list in New York unless he still manages to look alluring after having been run over by a cab.
Austin Armacost, aged 22, a “model turned fashion connoisseur” whose antics upend the other characters’ attempts to behave like self-contained professionals, reminds us that “We’re in the middle of a very fireblazing human rights movement right now, so it’s time that people see we’re not freaks or molesting young boys—we’re regular people too.”
Art, he suggests, should function as a mirror held up to Nature. For a man like me, a man not aging especially well, the mirror thing has gotten pretty old. Each morning as I stand at my bathroom vanity, I inspect myself and see my Human Nature just barely concealed by my age spots and thinning hair. At least on The A-List, the characters’ Human Natures spend a lot of time in the gym and look rather fetching parading about in yellow Speedos.
And so I watch, I watch, careful not to let this fireblazing human rights movement pass me by, as so many others have: the sagging pants movement, the tiny little backpack movment, the-rising-inflection-at-the-end-of-your-sentence? movement. I watch as I might watch a train wreck: awestruck, horrified, but still unable—OK, unwilling—to avert my gaze.
Population Communications International, a New York-based nonprofit organization, has, for the past twenty years, pioneered the use of telenovelas in the fight against poverty, AIDS, and other social ills. The organization has politely rejected every socially conscious script I’ve sent them, including this latest, titled, La Flor Apolonia:
(Apolonia is a beautiful woman with big beauty-parlor hair and long nails. Her dress makes a small “X” across her chest, barely concealing her breasts. Marta, her closest friend, wears a white mini-skirt, a bright blue Spandex top, and long, bangly earrings. She has applied her makeup with unmatched zeal. The two women speak in quick, unaccented Spanish.)
Apolonia: Enrique told me that his parents had disowned him. I pitied him, Marta—you’ve seen those big brown eyes of his! (Apolonia juts out her chin defiantly.) The barbarian repaid my kindness by forcing himself on me. (The orchestra swells, heavy on the strings, as Apolonia clenches her teeth.) Now I’m pregnant with Enrique’s baby and I’m afraid I might have AIDS! (Music sting.)
Marta: You were clearly born to suffer, Apolonia! Listen, I know a woman who works at the local health collective. Just the other day she was telling me how they had convened diverse community stakeholders around issues relating to the sourcing of positive health outcomes for economically-challenged persons of female. Let’s go see her …
What’s the secret of seamlessly integrating the preachy earnestness of poverty-fighting messages, say, into melodramas starring sexy Latinas and hunky vaqueros? Apart from being one of the greatest playwrights of the last century, what made Bertolt Brecht so good at using theatre as a forum for political ideas?
Those whacky subversives at Kontraband have served up another delicious FOX News satire, very much in the spirit of an earlier offering by our colleagues at Last Days of a Great City. And yet, is it fair to have a laugh at the expense of a news product® so perfectly suited to our times? It’s been years since the French theorists successfully deconstructed the pabulum/non-pabulum binary. We’d be ungrateful if we didn’t admit we felt lighter on our feet, much better able to tolerate hours of shopping.
Two new British reality shows transform the lived experience of poverty into a spectacle we can all enjoy in prime time:
On ITV’s “Fortune: Million Pound Giveaway,” needy—and sometimes not-so-needy—supplicants have 60 seconds to persuade a panel of five wealthy panelists to give them money. The other show, “The Secret Millionaire” … features self-made millionaires who go undercover and spend 10 days in a poor neighborhood looking for people who could use their charity. At the end of the show, the millionaire reveals him- or herself and writes checks to the winners.*
Neither of these shows would, I believe, require much adjustment for American television audiences already fed on a steady diet of loutishness and self-abasement. An American version of “The Secret Millionaire” would be especially appealing to some, leaving unchallenged the larger forces that drive people into poverty, and celebrating the playful beneficence of the more fortunate among us.
So grab a bowl of popcorn. There are valuable lessons for the whole family in the humiliation of the poor.
*“Philanthropy TV” by Robert Frank in the April 13, 2007, issue of the Wall Street Journal Online.
You will have heard by now from Uncle Sergei that I have taken new clients. You cannot blame me. You did not like idea of car chase and shootout in lower Manhattan, or my sketches for new foundation couture. I warned you about my friend Noël Godin, but you wouldn’t listen. You are chicken-hearted little man with lousy haircut, and I mean this only in nicest way, but I couldn’t wait for you, my darling golubchik, to choose from among Apraxina’s many brilliant ideas for improving image of philanthropy.
I am now helping Oprah with her new philanthropy reality show. I must tell you, Alyosha, I am never forget the day I first meet the great Oprah Winfrey. She became thinner and fatter in front of my eyes, one moment airbrushed to within inch of life, the next with pores as big as Chernobyl smokestacks. She reminded me of strange quantum fluctuation once described to me in agonizing detail by my cousin Vanya, nuclear physicist. (I will introduce you to Vanya one day. Like you, he can bore paint off walls. Just kidding, my little zaychik.)
Yesterday we finished filming opening credits for show. First you see enormous effigy of Andrew Carnegie covered with sparklers rising out of depths of Beverly Hills swimming pool. Camera pans away to hundreds of wealthy debutantes wearing gold bathing caps swimming around Mr. Carnegie’s trousers and, at climactic moment, linking arms to spell words, “Tax Reform Act of 1969.” Is brilliant, yes?
Oprah wants put on film “most powerful, sensational, emotional and dramatic ways to give to others.” Her staff once made her distribute major appliances to poor people from big truck. This is idea worthy of pinheads who work in cubicles. Apraxina is planning delivery of double-wide trailers to tsunami victims using aircraft carrier (think “Mission Accomplished”). Next week we will use giant aquarium to move entire lake from Minnesota to arid region of sub-Saharan Africa.