“The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things — bread and circuses!” – Juvenal, 2nd century C.E.
The status of a society or civilization is based largely on their attitude toward self-absorption and indulgence.
While the Romans saw asceticism, sacrifice and gravitas as civic virtues, their imperium could withstand any obstacle imaginable. Yet their downfall can be just as swift, according to the Roman satirist Juvenal. Get them into circular arenas to watch animals and people disemboweling each other, usually after gorging on dormice and buggering slave boys, and the barbarian hordes saw just another bunch of saps in bed sheets.
The British ruled the waves with a stiff upper lip, a love of “king and country”, and a host of underdeveloped countries that couldn’t fight back. Yet get them in a fight with European powers (You know, the ones that DON’T use spears and arrows), especially in the 20th century, and they slog through a morass of self-doubt and defeatism. No wonder we had to bail them out of two world wars.
Unfortunately, it is the inevitable fate of the United States to suffer the fate of all great civilizations. I have been loath to admit the decline and fall of our great society, especially since I had hoped America would learn from the mistakes of Rome, Spain, Britain, Russia and the like.
Yet American society has become soft. Instead of dormice and slave boys, its fast food and online pornography. And our gladiator games? Reality television.
You heard it here. Reality television signals the demise of American society.
If you look even more closely, the more popular reality programs are, in fact, shaped almost exactly like a day of games at the Roman amphitheater. Where Spartacus wielded his gladius against men and beasts, well-coiffed men and women now wield microphones, chef’s knives and sewing machines against their foes, to the thrills of the people. Let’s take a look more closely:
(1) Opening Act –The Freakshow/Execution of Criminals:A day at the games usually began with opening acts like women, midgets or small children fighting each other, usually accompanied by the execution of criminals—later Christians—in cruel and unusual ways. Today it’s the freakshow early auditions for American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance or America’s Got Talent. The judges get a good laugh, the viewers get to see the lack of talent in most of America, but most are cast to the proverbial lions rather quickly.
(2) Second Act—The Beast Hunt: This is the part of the games most people remember. By mid morning, lower-level gladiators are hunting all sorts of wild beasts in a freakish safari conducted on the sand of the arena. The modern version includes the “theme shows” on American Idol, ridiculous immunity challenges on Survivor, the quick challenges in Top Chef or Project Runway, or that weird skills challenge Gordon Ramsey does in Hell’s Kitchen. They force contestants out of their element, and further cull the weaker challengers from the herd.
(3) Third Act—The Group Stage/Mid Level Gladiators: Later in the day, close to noon, the mid-level gladiators, mainly local boys, come out in quasi-choreographed set pieces often based on real battles. Usually squads of gladiators face off all around the arena, providing a cornucopia of blood and gore. Those who can’t hack it are killed fairly quickly, often by their own team members. The team aspects of shows like Survivor, Project Runway or the Apprentice bear this out. In each, the worthless members are ignored, cast aside, or openly sacrificed for the betterment of the stronger players.
(4) Fourth Act—The Main Event: By this stage in the games, the day is scorching hot, and the arena stinks of rotting flesh and blood. This is when your top-flight talent has their bouts, usually one on one or in pairs, before a crowd that hungers for more blood. There are obvious modern examples: the fights in The Ultimate Fighter or The Contender come to mind. The final rounds of the talent shows like American Idol also evoke a mano-a-mano ethos. Yet the essence of this is the tribal council of Survivor. Here, two people are fighting verbally for their lives as the council votes to extinguish one of them, much like Caesar appealing to the crowd to judge a fallen combatant in the arena.
(5) Toss Up—Surprise battles/Sea battles: It isn’t just the reality competitions that often add a “twist” at the last minute. Due to the fickle nature of the Roman audiences, games promoters had to come up with new gimmicks almost constantly. One of the more popular “twists” was the sea battle, where the amphitheater was flooded to allow warships filled with gladiators and ordinance to have at each other.
The modern reality program, especially the competition, offers many other similarities to the great bloodfests of millennia past. For one, there is an acute sensory overload. Roman audiences were on top of each other in the roasting heat, with the smell of B.O., blood, rotting flesh and excrement all around them. Today’s television viewer is barraged by graphics and lights that pound the retinas into oblivion. I’m convinced the opening credits of American Idol cause seizures somewhere.
Furthermore, there is an emphasis on the “fine kill”, the slow death, the drawing out of the effusion of blood. Roman crowds hated quick deaths: it spoiled the entire show. A truly great gladiator could keep his victim suffering for a long time, drawing out the agony until the crowd yelled “hoc habet!” (“He’s had it!” in Latin) and the death blow finally struck. Take a look at any judgment segment of a reality show and you can easily spot the similarities. It may not be a literal gore fest, but it is truly an emotional bloodletting. The constant commercial breaks, the open weeping, the judges lashing into their hapless victims—all meant to draw out the inevitable “elimination” as long as possible for the public’s amusement.
The insatiable need for this visceral entertainment feeds on itself. Go to any part of the Mediterranean touched by Roman civilization. Most of the ancient buildings have disappeared completely save one—the local amphitheater. The arena did a big part in pacifying far-flung provinces and extending Roman control over these vast areas. Turn to any channel nowadays and there is at least one, often multiple, reality programs on its schedule. Remember back when MTV’s The Real World was seen as this weird show about people living in a loft in New York? The newest season of the old warhorse just started and no one cares, thanks to the vast array of up-tempo reality schlock to choose from.
Finally, these two institutions share an ominous distinction. They both work to make their societies reject the very values that make them great in the first place. The games were such a drain on Roman economy, society and government that more and more of the empire’s resources were spent on entertainment, to the detriment of more important matters. This did not get lost on the tribes along the frontiers of the empire, who sought to exploit the weaknesses in the imperial system to infiltrate and eventually subsume the empire itself.
I’m going to sound like an old crank, but reality television is but the apex of a constant drive in our culture of consumerism and greed. The constant need for instant gratification, immediate fulfillment and emotional stimulation over intellectual growth has spawned this explosion of programming. In all this hubbub about Jon and Kate, the American Idol voting controversy, etc. we have become attached to what amounts to a society within a society, outside of the events and institutions that actually affect our lives.
Take my better half, for example. Whilst I was watching coverage of the unrest in Iran and the Michael Jackson death, she was downstairs watching another show on Bravo for the umpteenth time. It wasn’t until bedtime that I actually told her that Jacko was gone. If there’s no ticker feed on the bottom of the screen, she’d be cut off from the world–and I don’t blame her, the poor thing. With the amalgam of crap on television, it’s no wonder she seeks the comfort of other people’s misery.
Sacrifice. Respect for law and order. Respect for government and its institutions. Working for the betterment of all. Protection of individual liberty. These ideas are being flushed down the toilet in our society–and Mark Burnett, Simon Fuller and the rest of those bastards are running to the bank.
It won’t be long before we see fights to the death resurface on TV. Once the UFC starts arming their fighters and going to the death, we as a society have officially checked out of existence.
I’ll be saving the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech for a society that has grown a pair and can say no to its own implosion.
2 responses to “Bread and Circuses: Reality TV and the Decline and Fall of American Society”
I like what you’ve said here and entirely agree but I think you missed a critical element in the story. In addition to what you’ve described, there’s a deviation (I think) from the pattern. While Gladiators provided entertainment for the masses, the masses only responded by supporting the show. In our society, people are responding not only with the patronage but with emulation as well, creating a compound problem. Society deteriorates as people barricade themselves in their homes to absorb the constant flow of easily digested information while other people are out mixing with each other and with those who don’t participate in reality programming. The people who watch reality tv don’t realize that reality isn’t what they see on the shows but behave according to what they presume to be norms. The hyper-reality of reality tv replicates itself as a meme in this fashion, creating reality rather than demonstrating it. As long as the portrayed “reality” on tv mirrors the psychotic bloodlust atmosphere of the Coliseum, so will pop-culture.
It is a process as insidious as any cancer.