South Africa’s commodification of trauma for entertainment
As an unashamed fan of unscripted television, there isn’t much that shocks me. Being a genre of TV known for exposing the good, the bad, and the ugly, it gets away with a lot under the pretence of depicting raw, unfiltered reality. There is, however, something deeply unsettling about the wave of shows on South African TV that make entertainment out of supposedly mediating people’s deeply personal struggles, potentially re-traumatising them in the process.
This isn’t to say that television has no role in confronting difficult topics. There is value in holding up a mirror to the dark underbelly of the reality faced by everyday people. In fact, South African television has a rich history of edutainment, where the medium is used to spark debate or raise awareness about the issues of our day. From HIV/AIDS to gender-based violence, there isn’t a social phenomenon that hasn’t been explored on our screens.
From this history we’ve arrived, well, here.
Having gone from educational to exploitative, we’re at a disappointing moment in how South African television engages with the people and realities it purports to reflect. Several unscripted television shows have emerged that claim to help participants find forgiveness, closure, justice, you name it.
The formulaic drivel goes as follows: we are introduced to a sympathetic protagonist who is facing some kind of crisis; maybe someone or something they wish to confront or reveal. We watch as tempers flare, fingers are pointed, and grievances are aired, a clash guided (and often provoked) by the presenter. Usually, that’s it. If there is a resolution, it’s flimsy, driven not by a genuine desire (or ability) to correct fractured relationships, but rather to neatly tie up the episode.
Aside from being, in my view, just bad television, it is also glaringly irresponsible. Many of these shows deal with troubling subject matter, such as infidelity, rape/sexual abuse, and addiction. It is not the place of television hosts without mental health training to act as interventionists and mediators, ‘helping’ people correct traumatic relational dynamics. This is not only dangerous but, from an entertainment perspective, also disturbing.
There is something incredibly dehumanising about the way we have commodified trauma for profit. Where is our empathy, as creators or viewers of television?
Ironically, we’ve forgotten that these are real people experiencing genuine pain; by uncritically consuming these shows we are engaging in their exploitation. With World Suicide Prevention Day having passed on 10 September, it’s a good time as any to confront why we enjoy television where those on screen are seemingly suffering, not to mention the jokes and judgement that follows on social media. Public figures, such as filmmaker Mmabatho Montsho, have gone as far as to say this kind of entertainment should be “illegal.”
It is also telling that the demographic of people most featured in these spectacles of human emotion are Black and working class. While they themselves may apply to appear on these shows, do not discount the powerful way these series are marketed to target vulnerable people. “Let us help you confront your loved ones.” “Get justice from those who’ve done you wrong.” The inaccessibility of quality counselling and mental health services only exacerbates the perception of these shows as an alternative to the kind of help applicants are actually seeking. After all, it’s not fame or notoriety that entices one to expose their darkest secrets for the country to gawk at or memeify – it’s the possibility that doing so will help relieve their pain.
When I’ve watched these shows in the past, I’ve been left with one question: what happens next?
When the cameras come down, participants are un-mic’d, and the episode airs, do these television shows live up to the promises they make to the individuals on screen? Do we as viewers even care?
What is the mental health support offered, if any, to people and families now left to deal with what comes after our voyeuristic curiosity has been fulfilled? Re-traumatisation is a massive risk in the fallout from these shows. Families are left to navigate healing from what has just been exposed or uncovered, on their own. We were there to witness the climax of their story but are seemingly uninterested in the denouement. We’re already watching something else.
There is surely a more ethical way to create television that confronts reality. Let’s start off with not allowing media personalities to play psychologists. From there, let’s depict reality, responsibly. If there are shows that can’t be made without exploiting or humiliating those on screen, maybe they shouldn’t be made at all.
Author: Mbali Khumalo