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Boys Being Boys: Don’t We Love It

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Would anyone like to make a sporting bet that Germaine Greer is kicking herself for unloading her vitriol on Steve Irwin’s barely-cold corpse when, if she had waited a matter of days, she could have laid into the critically injured body of Richard Hammond? Considering the macho tenor of his show Top Gear, she could have dressed such an attack up as feminism and so contributed something besides her recent call to pederasty to the movement.

What a crop of boys being boys and tragedy ensuing we’ve been having for television lately. The wildly popular show Hammond co-hosted for the BBC, Top Gear is great television. 

For a feminist who doesn’t drive or have a television, it was a miracle of production genius that the twenty-seven objectified-Pirelli-Girl featuring minutes of a Top Gear I saw at a friend’s house meant anything to me, let alone entertained me. But it assuredly did. In some television contexts, long shots of beautifully pneumatic women interspersed with car assembly/racing/breathless semi-sexual description make sense.

Steve Irwin, unwatchable as I found him and hard as I laughed at South Park’s parody of his animal anal manipulations, also made television that made sense. Thousands of viewers developed a new relationship with the grosser, more forbidding animal species, which probably did conservation efforts some good.

Top Gear, if anything, makes more sense. Exciting wet-dream cars and suggestions of the macho culture that goes along with them are interspersed with demonstrations of middle-class market models. The combination brings in a wide audience including thousands of self-respecting women who get useful consumer information and are amused in the process.

Despite Irwin and Hammond’s shows making sense and being helpful, good television, tragedy has struck twice in almost as many weeks. How? Who do we blame for what has happened to these men?

Media parasites like Greer crawled out of the woodwork to point the finger at the body when Irwin died and more will probably come out now. Irwin, the rant will run, died out of his own ambitious yobbishness, but at least he had a cause. Hammond, however, wasn’t helping anything except his own pocketbook, and in the process encouraged unsafe driving, dismissive representations of women — well, I’ll let the people who want to make such arguments think up more themselves. But if Hammond survives the accident, he will live to survive such censure.

Here’s the problem, though. Irwin and Hammond both had spectacularly stupid jobs and obviously made a poor decision in taking them. The people who love them the most may have a hard time forgiving them for that. But we the viewers, who enjoyed the context of their shows, are the ones who gave them their spectacularly stupid jobs.

In a very practical, direct sense we pay the salaries for those jobs because advertisers measure how much we watch such shows and buy ad time accordingly. Make no mistake. We viewers aren’t television’s customers; we’re television’s commodity and at the same time its director.

One doesn't measure a television channel’s success by its number of viewers; one measures the quantity of ad revenue generated in an effort to reach viewers. Television networks make every effort to get huge numbers of viewers or smaller numbers of viewers with specific spending patterns — those who are likely to travel abroad or those in the market for a new car.

They go to absurd lengths coming up with the exact programming to please us and draw us in. They spend millions of dollars a year on hundreds of pilots they’ll discard overnight if it doesn’t engage the right demographic. Once the channel has the right viewers, it ‘sells’ them to the companies who purchase advertising time on their programmes.

Seen from that perspective — which, I assure you from industrial experience, is the perspective television executives and media buyers see it from — we the viewers are very powerful people. Powerful enough to give Steve Irwin and Richard Hammond the spectacularly stupid jobs that now cause their families so much pain.

We enjoyed the events that led up to their tragedies the same way Romans enjoyed gladiatorial combat. We created the market that encouraged them to ever-greater foolishness. But where the Romans took advantage of the gladiators’ slave status, we’ve taken advantage of Irwin and Hammond’s media ambitions and recklessness.

We haven’t stopped there. We watch reality shows by the dozen featuring progressively more outlandish or dangerous tasks performed by non-professionals. We scorn the people who appear on them and mock their obviously overweening desire for fame, but we give them that fame and so encourage others to chase it.

First Irwin, now Hammond; inevitably someone will be seriously hurt or killed making one of the more extreme reality shows and no doubt we’ll be quick to condemn them for their own tragedy, too. And probably have to hear to what Germaine Bloody Greer thinks she has to say about it.

Alternatively, we could embrace the power that we have over the television market and stop watching it for cheap vicarious thrills. But then we might have to, god forbid, read a book or talk to our loved ones or something while network executives desperately search for something to broadcast that doesn’t involve people being seriously hurt or worse.

In the meantime, we could do the families of Irwin and Hammond a favour by thinking of the pain they’re going through and not loudly blaming their men for the tragedies our voyeurism pushed them to.

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About Melita Teale

  • Wow

    what a perspective. really made me think. thanks

  • Adrian

    A minor technical point about your comments, the BBC has absolutly no adverts on it and is funded via the TV licence sytem in the UK. The BBC has already made one attempt to remove Top gear from the TV listings but due to public support the programme was re instated. lets hope that this is not used as an excuse to axe the series, as it is probbably the most entertaining programme on UK TV at the moment

    The BBC are usually maticuless about health and safety. For some reason the risk assesment process appears to have failed, Richard has paid a very high price for that failure

    My thought are with Richard and his family

    Adrian

  • http://mrbounce.blogspot.com/ Mistress La Spliffe

    Thanks, Wow.

    Adrian, you’re right to point that out. However, in Canada and in the United States we get international versions of the BBC which I believe are ad-supported, and increasingly popular. ‘Top Gear’ is one of the most popular shows on them. But then after the rather protectionist broadcast licensing fees charged here I don’t know what the profits are off that.

    What you say about viewer support resurrecting the show is also interesting. I understand ‘Top Gear’ has been around since the 70s, started as a consumer guide, and changed radically with the advent of Clarkson as a host, who added a new humour and excitement to the series.

    I think that ‘Top Gear’ can continue to be a popular and useful series, and that none of its fans can abide something like this happening to one of its hosts.

    And when the show (hopefully) continues, I hope it can both retain its loyal fans and have a format that doesn’t involve serious brain injury. If not, those loyal fans may be due for some self re-examination.

  • Adrian

    Somthing positve has come out of all this. The air abulace that took richard to hospital (12 minutes instead of 40 by road) is a charity. Richards family requested that rather than flowers people should donate money to the said charity. by lunchtime yesterday £140,000 pounds had been donated and the fiure was rising at a rate of £40 a minute, This will enable the charity to run a secund air ambulace for the next 12 months!

    some positive out of a disaster!

  • S.T.M

    If you can judge Irwin by his own standards, the truth is he never really flirted with danger … no more than, say, an airline pilot does each time he or she takes off.

    If you know a bit about the animals involved, it was pretty tame stuff, despite their fearsome reputation and how it looked on screen – and as the writer has capably pointed out, he at least did raise awareness of conservation and wild animals in general.

    Most of his work was charity work aimed at raising money to help animals, including those orphaned in Australia by road accidents (one of his latest ads on Aussie TV prior to his death). But the fact that his death occurred well out of his comfort zone is hugely significant.

    Irwin was in the water, not on land, and filming on the barrier reef when he was stung and killed by an animal he probably didn’t know a lot about. In reality, he probably didn’t have a lot to fear in relation to the ray: there have only been four similar deaths recorded in Australia.

    It was indeed, as we all know here, a freak accident. While plenty of Australians are stung each year by stingrays, it’s usually as a result of stepping on them.

    Had Irwin been filming a croc or a snake, it’s unlikely he would have been hurt … he knew them.

    Hammond, too, knows his stuff. Watching him pilot the latest Ford or Ferrari around the track, or taking the latest Citroen out on the road for a bash, is pretty entertaining TV fare and if it Top Gear is anything more than a TV show about cars, it is just a show about having fun (hardly dangerous, for the most part, either).

    In this instance, he was piloting a dragster: not the type of car normally featured on Top Gear.

    Once again, the key to the tragedy is that Hammond had moved out of his comfort zone, and despite the fact that he probably had little to fear even in an accident given the protection afforded drag race drivers, it was a freakish piece of bad luck.

    I have been a surfer for over 35 years, and each time I enter the water there is an inherent risk. However, I generally feel safe. I love riding big waves, but I’ve never been towed into one. I have stuck with what I know. However, I would like to try it and have been invited on a number of occasions to do so. One day soon, I probably will. I am told that it is easier and safer than paddle-in surfing in big waves, where your safety depends solely on your own physical abilities and acquired knowledge in a hostile, dangerous and constantly changing environment. Tow-in riders have the advantage of a buddy on a jet ski watching out for them. For all that, it will still be out of my comfort zone.

    You can apply this reasoning to all kinds of situations (a new job, for instance, although the risk is not neccessarily physical). So does that mean we should all stick with what know, without challenging ourselves?

    Probably not, as life would become pretty bloody dull and boring. At least Irwin and Hammond were doing things they loved, TV or not.

  • Mohjho

    “We created the market that encouraged them to ever-greater foolishness.”

    Ah come on Mistress, young men have been killing themselves attempting stupid feats far longer than television has been around. At what age did you give up admiring boys being boys?

    These guys are not doing anything more dangerous that professional race car drivers do on any Sunday. Its one thing to die doing something stupid, its another thing to do it in front of an audience. The least we can do is buy a ticket and watch. We owe it to them.

  • http://mrbounce.blogspot.com/ Mistress La Spliffe

    I’ve heard about the air ambulance. That’s really sweet!

    S.T.M., I don’t disagree with anything you wrote. But the nature of the kind of television Irwin and Hammond starred in eventually pushes one out of one’s comfort zone, perhaps well before one is ready, in an effort to keep fresh, novel, zany . . . keep the ratings viable, essentially. I can’t really buy “tragedy but at least they were doing what they loved” when I don’t think either of them “loved” selling Palmolive or whatever the fuck advertises on BBC International and the Discovery Channel.

    Mohjo, for me it’s more a case of circumstance than age. That is, I give up admiring boys being boys when it involves death or dismemberment. If you don’t . . . well, luckily for people like you, we live in voyeuristic times.