I was reminded of this quote a few weeks ago just like many of you when Denzel Washington challenged a journalist about their responsibility to tell the truth. He questioned the need for the media to put out information with immediacy. Nowadays the prize is given to whoever puts out a story first whether or not it is true. The challenge with this mantra is, those stories are about people. And regardless of how fast both the viewers and the media move on to the next story, those people are left to pick up the pieces or their lives.
As a mother, wife, physician, sibling and friend I am haunted by the people whose stories and illness are exploited by the media and our culture for entertainment purposes. I do not want to blame the media but I want to examine how news outlets like TMZ came into existence and how they managed to build thriving successful businesses.
Prior to the 20th century, ogling people with birth deformities was a socially acceptable form of entertainment and it was even considered appropriate family entertainment. People were willing to pay to come see what they called “curiosities”, “cretins”, or “rare creatures”. Back then anything was fair game; severely disfigured, conjoined twins, dwarfs, giants, congenital disease. It was all permissible and people came to these freak shows in droves to be entertained. P. T. Barnum was one of the most successful businessmen at exploiting these people who were often unwillingly coerced into the industry as children. Here are a few classics he gave us:
Here is ZIP “ a different race of human found during a gorilla trekking expedition near the Gambia River in western Africa.”
He really was William H. Johnson, born to freed slaves in New Jersey. He was born with microcephaly which is a neurological condition where children are born with a head circumference significantly smaller than the mean for other children of the same age and sex. He was kept in a cage and ordered not to speak but only grunt for entertainment pursposes.
Meet the “Siamese” or conjoined twins
Chang and Eng were born in a Siamese fishing village and were connected at the torso. They were paraded for entertainment for decades in Europe and America. The duo is credited with the term “Siamese twins” which was first coined by a physician who watched them perform.
“The dog faced boy”
He was actually Fedor Jeftichew and after his father’s death, the 16-year old a former ward of the Russian government was adopted by a shrewd businessman. He was bought by P.T. Barnum in 1884 and advertised as “a boy who was raised by wolves in Siberia” eventually he was transformed into “Jo-Jo The Dog-Faced Boy” likely due to the American public’s infatuation with dogs.
While the American public has stopped being entertained by the “FreakShow” business they have a new obsession and that is “Show Business”. Our evolved society no longer gawks at people with congenital defects or birth “curiosities” but we have moved on to more subtle defects “mental illness”.
The “Fedors”, “Zips” and “Siamese Twins” of the 19th century have been replaced by “Charlie Sheens”, “Carrie Fishers”, “Robin Williams”, “Amy Winehouses”, “Jim Carries”, and “Britney Spears” of today.
Who cares if Charlie Sheen rages and rants about tiger blood and other such nonsense? After all he is being handsomely compensated. Well that same argument was made by the “FreakShow” business after Carol Grant a 16 year old with a deformity was deeply offended by a sideshow. She wrote a letter to the Agricultural Commissioner stating that “Handicapped people are seeking more in life than being stared at in a sideshow”.
Bobby Reynolds a businessman involved in the “FreakShow” business responded with the following statement: “If you’re a mutation of sorts, the biggest thrill you get is opening the mailbox and getting a check from the government. Or you get put in an institution. People say ‘Oh, you took advantage of those people!’ We didn’t take advantage of those people. They were stars! They were somebody. They enjoyed themselves.”
Ultimately the “FreakShow” business died in the 1950’s once these “curiosities” and “freaks” and their fabricated backstories were debunked by science when physicians started speaking out and curing these so called “freaks of nature”.
As I physician, a nurse, a mother, sister and most importantly as HUMAN, I am greatly disturbed by these stories. I am perplexed by a society who is willing to sentence a man to jail for dog fighting on one hand but is entertained by watching celebrities denigrate publicly in front of our eyes.
I wonder how many of the millions entertained by Amy Winehouse’s song Rehab took a minute to reflect on her untimely death from alcohol poisoning. Many of us were impressed with Heath Ledger’s role as “The Joker” in the Dark Knight. Here is what Heath Ledger said about preparing for that role,
“I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices – it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh. I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath – someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts. He’s just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown.”
His father would later reveal that at the end of shooting, he wrote “Bye Bye” on the back of the last page of his diary. Ledger died from an accidental intoxication from prescription drug intoxication.
I am sure he was well compensated for his role in the Dark Knight and I was “entertained” for a “couple of hours” while I watched the movie. However, in my opinion the price to pay is just too high a price. I would gladly sacrifice the 2 hours of entertainment I got from watching the Joker or his other movies so that he could have an opportunity to raise his daughter.
I am not blaming “Hollywood” for the problem of objectifying patients with mental illness and using and abusing them until they finally crack. And when they crack, we the viewers fanatically watch and like the videos online as we grotesquely gawk at them “losing it”. But once they lose it we “the entertained” show up in droves to memorial services, candle lighting vigils, we flock to social media outlets to show our outpouring of love and support to their surviving families and loved ones. I wonder if anyone else is plagued by this feeling of guilt that plagues me.
After pondering the facts for several months, I have come to the following conclusion; Hollywood exists because we allow it to exist, the Papparazi have jobs because we allow their industry to exist and thrive. At the end of the day they are not the problem- WE ARE! It is simply issue of demand and supply; we provide the demand and they provide the supply.
I for one am sick of it, I am sick of being part of the problem. I refuse to provide the demand for an industry which leaves parents childless and children parent-less. The price are just too high to pay.
As a mother and a physician it is imperative that I speak up and say this is wrong. I have members of my families who are suffering from mental illness and I hope that if they had a public meltdown and someone happened to capture it on camera. I hope that my fellow humans would not watch, laugh, comment, like and re-tweet the video. Unless we affect their bottom line nothing will change. The only way to affect their bottom line is to stop providing the demand. When the “FreakShow” was at its height in the 19th century, several people spoke up about the dangers of using humans in these circus shows. The very people who so eloquently supported the abolishment of slavery were entertained on weekends by children with birth defects kept in cages and used as a commodity.
Denzel Washington asked – Is there really enough news to warrant a 24 hour new cycle? I am asking – Is there really a need for outlets reporting celebrity gossip? I am saying ENOUGH! Today I am making a decision to take away the demand. I want to invite you to take a pledge with me to abstain from providing Hollywood and media outlets reporting celebrity gossip with the supply that keeps them in business. I am calling on mothers, fathers, the middle aged, the elderly, the teenagers and last but not least the millennials. I am calling on my generation to stand with me and take the pledge to abstain for 1 month. Join me as I abstain from all the following for 30 days; NO- Movies theaters, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Video, TMZ, E-News, Wendy Williams show, Hollywood Rag, People, OK Magazines and the list goes on and on. To a see a more thorough list check out this article from Forbes.
I know it is a lot to ask and I know our decision may have negative financial repercussions on the very people we speaking up for but somebody has to take a stand. Let’s abstain from having someone else’s privacy invaded just so that we can be entertained. The goal is not to punish the artists but rather to remind the media that we control the DEMAND and we would like better moral standards established in this industry.
Let’s start our pledge on Martin Luther King day (January 16th 2017) and end on Valentine’s Day (February 14th 2017). What better gift to show to the people we LOVE than to say NO to Human Exploitation for Monetary Gain.
What is the worst that can happen? We save some money, we talk to our families more and we gain some time for introspection.
What we will miss out on? Celebrity divorces, drug overdoses, fights, custody battles, Celebrity arrests etc. Show you CARE and join me in saying ENOUGH.
TAKE THE PLEDGE here. 30 days too long? Consider joining for just ONE day!
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Here is the link to an excellent article by Susan Ruth on this topic.