The Cult of Normal

The Biggest Loser (Ten, Sunday 6:30pm, Weeknights 7:30pm) and So You Think You Can Dance Australia (Ten, Wednesday & Thursday 8pm) kicked off their 2010 seasons on Sunday night, and while the rest of Australia was watching Robot Federer dash the hopes of yet another hapless human, I was watching people cry.  Loser and Dance (as they will forthwith be called, if only to avoid the awkward acronyms TBL and SYTYCDA) are polar opposites of each other, both in casting, intention and execution, but what they do have in common is the sight of people with tear-stained cheeks, inelegantly wiping their noses. It would appear that people both fit and fat, are prone to have a massive sook when confronted by cameras.

Now, I am not so dead inside that I was unaffected by the tragic souls and their inspirational journeys. I did indeed feel the prickle behind my eyes during Dance. A young indigenous man called Jessie performed a sublime and breathtaking routine to the haunting piece 'Gabriel' by Lamb (which I immediately downloaded from iTunes -- I'm so now). Afterward, Jessie relayed his story to the judges, and had them all in tears. His mother went to prison when he was six, a succession of relatives took him in, and his mother failed to turn up at a performance he gave in honour of the stolen generation. This is a tragic turn of events, but I wondered how much of the emotion of the judges was based on the young man's strained relationship with his absent mother, and how much was based on middle-class horror.

I was privy to a roomful of middle-class horror when I recently attended a screening of the film Precious: based on the novel Push by Sapphire. It is a harrowing film, detailing a myriad of abuses upon a very large teenage girl. There were audible gasps from the audience at several points during the film, as the reality of living in uneducated poverty was laid out before them. The film tackles some very difficult topics, including paedophilia, incest, physical and emotional abuse. For the audience in the cinema, these were clearly uncommon occurrences, and I began to suspect that the middle-class horror was based not on empathy or sympathy but disbelief, as if such events could not possibly occur. These kinds of evils are perpetrated by the nasties on Law & Order: SVU, not an average, everyday, family living on welfare. Put simply, in the eyes of the audience around me, the life on screen was not normal.

It is this disdain for the not-normal that brings me to The Biggest Loser. This year, all of the boombahs who have elected to subject themselves to the scrutiny of cameras and the public seem to be particularly fragile. The opening episode showed each and every member of the cast, including new host Hayley Lewis, in tears at some point, more often than not because they’d seen themselves in a mirror. Now, I am near enough to Loser proportions, being 135kg with a 135cm waistline, and while I know that my weight is unhealthy, I also know it is not unusual. That, however, seems to be the consensus on Loser, that all of the fatties are obscene and disgusting and abnormal, and should be ashamed of themselves. We, as an audience, are encouraged to cheer at their transformation, and frown if they fall off the fat wagon.

Being a fatty, I know my life is far from abnormal – I just need take wander around my local Westfield to realise that skinny bints are in the minority. Having grown up in poverty, I know that the stories of Precious and Jessie on Dance are not abnormal. For people living these lives, this is how we live. The horror for dancer Jessie was a breakdown of his fragile relationship with his mother, not the perceived horror of the producers and judges; that of growing up in a life without advantage. The horror for many of the contestants on Loser is not shallow sadness that they are too big to fit into the slutty rags at Suprè, but that their mortality is almost guaranteed by their unhealthy lifestyle, that they will too-soon leave their children without a parent.

Watching the producers, trainers and judges of Loser and Dance try to jam these very large square pegs into very tiny round holes is the ultimate tragedy, the middle-class conceit that their privileged life is better than that lived by those they deem less than normal. The poor, the fat and the disadvantaged should be allowed to live their lives with dignity, but on a television obsessed with humiliating reality, dignity is in short supply.

Cue close-up as I wipe away a tear.