Touched by an Idol

[This is a longer post, more of a mini-essay. I’m interested in how medieval and early modern beliefs endure in, for instance, modern moral dramas like so-called “reality TV.”  I’d be interested to know how anyone might (dis)agree.]

In 1554, Sir Thomas Wyatt led an armed revolt against Henry VIII, and on 11 April was beheaded and then dismembered. This was only one creative way that early modern executions happened.  Heretics (and especially in the early modern period, witches) could be burnt, drowned, or pressed with stones.  Thieves were hung, which was not a quick death, since hangmen had not yet invented the “drop.”

Punishment was not the only way that Tudor (or medieval) monarchs exhibited power, though: pardon was just as important. According to Kesselring,

pardons permeated Tudor political culture. In 1485, Henry VII began his reign by offering his forgiveness to all those “disloyal subjects” who had fought for Richard III at Bosworth; in 1603, at the end of the Tudor period, James VI of Scotland freed felons from the prisons he passed on the journey to claim his new crown.1

“The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away,” said Job. In its perfect form, this power is inscrutable, speaking from the whirlwind. Favor is random, as in the chance passing of a monarch during a procession, when one might receive a touch, or a coin.  The power to pardon defined royal power as the converse of punishment. And so did generosity; when a noble was promoted, or during holiday celebrations, the monarch dispensed largess. These powers need a credible hierarchy to be legitimate. Their origin is the King–not just a mortal, but also blessed with the power to rule by divinity.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what bothers me about a couple of popular “reality TV” shows (what an oxymoronic phrase), and I think that it’s because they envision a world governed by just this Tudor use of the pardon or gift.  Undercover Boss, for instance, provides a very moral vision of a rather creepy, and top-down, universe: the gimmick is that the boss of a successful mid-sized or large company goes undercover for a week, posing as a kind of day laborer to work at–and, basically, spy on–various low-level jobs in his company: packing boxes at a shipping company, working on a garbage truck at a garbage and recycling firm, mucking out bathroom stalls, and so on.

The show is not most importantly a lesson in being an employee, but in how to be a good boss. He (it’s always been a he in the episodes I’ve seen) meets employees, works with them, talks to them about something personal, learns how great they are and (often) how difficult their lives have been. He sometimes even gets fired. The fantasy is that our boss may be just as good a guy who would (if we’re lucky enough for it to happen!) be just as responsive to us.

The show begs a lot of questions:  how are these employees vetted?  What fable is made up to explain why a camera crew is following this clueless worker around the factory floor?  In any event, at show’s end, in a one-on-one meeting, he shaves and puts his suit back on to reveal his true self and to dispense largess in some way appropriate to what he’s learned. Sometimes, not always, the show features a worker who somehow acts poorly towards other employees or customers and then, in the one-on-one meeting, is satisfyingly disciplined (though not, at least on the show, fired). The natural order is restored. This is America.

Maybe it is, but it’s not a classic American tale. It superficially resembles Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, in which the young Prince (later Edward VI) gets traded out of the palace by a twin during the late tyranny of Henry VIII. Twain’s version, however, satirizes the pretensions of social class–a pauper can be prince, after all, and the prince is just not that different from the pauper. I can’t, however, discern any satire in Undercover Boss.  Or maybe it’s the Horatio Alger story of the self-made man who pulls himself up from the dust to make something of himself? Not quite, because in the end, it’s luck, and boss and employee are different, even if there are affecting moments of contact. This is not at all an American tale, but a very pre-modern one, because hierarchy is actually fortified, not levelled.

This becomes very clear at the end.  The boss plays a video of his experiences to his company. He’s obviously not cut out to be an employee, so he shows them that he deserves to be their millionaire boss by making fun of himself on camera (he gets fired again, in front of all of them–what a sport!) and praising his workers for being such good examples that (see the very end) “This is an experience that is really going to change my life.” The pat re-construction of the moral universe of the company’s hierarchy at the end again ignores questions: if I were one of the other employees whom the boss hadn’t met, wouldn’t I be kind of jealous? I work hard for you too, after all?  I might be even kind of pissed off?  Perhaps, but not if I’m a diligent employee.  Little doubt remains that those who are rewarded deserve the blessings that have fallen, unasked for and unsought, upon them: there is no negotiation; they are merely, necessarily, grateful.

Now, of course, no-one is executed. That’s not a modern businessman’s prerogative. But what power the boss businessman (and TV) has, he uses: he promotes or dispenses largess, and discredited employees are at least, for the prurient audience, shamed in ways that will live on in YouTube videos to be seen by families, co-workers, and potential future bosses.  It’s all astonishingly similar to, for instance, the moralized story in the early modern murder pamphlet about the murderess Sarah Elestone:

She for the most part seemed but little concerned, many times talking of other things when they prayed for her, but a day or two before her Execution it pleased God to awaken her and to discover her sins unto her, and the need she stood in of an interest in the Lord Jesus. Which made her the willinger to dye, finding that it was according both to the Law of God and Man: and hoping that the Lord Jesus would have mercy on her poor sinful Soul.

This is the public exhibition of power, legitimated by the brief glimpses we have into the souls of the employees, good and bad.

Another less creepy show doesn’t seem to tell a similar lesson, but in fact it does.  In Extreme Makeover all we see are good hearts.  We meet a family in very dire straights, fighting financial and emotional battles against events far beyond their control, often including an illness or disability, that has visited ruin upon them (remember Job’s boils?). The show crystallizes their struggle in film of their mold-infested, water-damaged, structurally compromised, fire hazard of a house, their American Nightmare, that it very cathartically destroys. It then builds them a beautiful new one in a week, entirely with volunteer help and funded by donations, during which they are sent to our culture’s fantasy wonderland, Disneyworld.

It’s amazing to watch. The families are very, often tragically, deserving.  The volunteers are many–hundreds of them, including a guest star (pop star, actor) who connects us to the family and the work being done. Mortgages are paid off (but wouldn’t you have to pay some serious taxes on the gift of a house?; no matter . . . ), a donation establishes a fund to draw on for medical bills, and lives are offered the promise of real change. I watch this show with a sense of prurient wonder. I question what it skips, but I mean no sarcasm here. In one of the more famous episodes, a home makeover in Buffalo spilled over into the streets around the house, as the Buffalo News recounted:

Volunteers were moved by the emotional video that recounted Powell’s story. She bought her home for $12,000, not realizing that it was condemned and targeted for demolition. The family faced numerous problems as they tried to bring the home up to code, including sewage backups in the basement and a crumbling foundation. Powell tried to contact the seller, but he disappeared. The volunteer effort went beyond the classy transformation of 228 Massachusetts Ave. Crews also repaired nearby homes, poured sidewalks and made other quality-of-life improvements. Organizers said the initiative affected 71 homes.

People are helped in both of these shows.  They are grateful for the blessings that they’ve needed, and for the community effort that Extreme Makeover especially seems to inspire.  And even if their straits are not so dire, the employees who perform well in front of their bosses deserve their reward. The shows attempt the argument that more than materiality is at stake (Extreme Makeover makes the better one, because of the volunteer work), but TV’s sponsors need material representation, and so the house becomes key: this is America, after all, and our houses are our dreams.

The issue I have with these shows is not, obviously, that they help people.  Nor is it myth itself; we need myths, we tell the myths that we need, and we now seem to need these stories.  The problem is that their myth is a self-contraditory lie:  these shows pretend to be stories of hope, when in fact they are parables of despair.  People are helped.  But this help is entirely random.  It is dropped from or catalyzed by luck that descends down the hierarchy of wealth and power.  We have no monarchs dispensing fortune from coaches, but we do have TV stars dispensing luck from companies.  According to these narratives our only hope–as we throw ourselves on the mercy of the rich and powerful, as if they were Gods–is that we will be noticed.

The blind Goddess Fortune turns her wheel.

These shows’ myth is not just that the lottery is nice to win, but that it’s something many of us need to win.  In Undercover Boss especially we’re not meeting the unusually deprived, as in Extreme Makeover; instead, we meet some of the millions who just can’t move their shoe past Go along the Monopoly board towards an American Dream. They still soldier on, making the best of what they have, and even continue in the great tradition of the American middle and lower classes to help others (as soldiers, police officers, community volunteers). But the shows imply that the only hope they have to escape the prisons of their lives is the intervention of something like a TV Reality show to trigger or bestow what’s only fair.  The story the shows tell is that we don’t just want but need to rely on the inscrutable whims of the elites to twist Fortune’s wheel upwards.

I return, then, to how pardon and punishment work: they depend on a legitimated hierarchy. If we buy into the show’s myth that luck, or the rich, or both, are the source of reward, we lose, at least for a moment, the American truth that all are created equal.  This becomes a tragic loss.  It’s not a tragedy that the shows lie, of course; TV does that all the time.  The tragedy is that because the shows exult in how they’ve monetized deprivation, they fool us into feeling that we are making some kind of progress against it. Actually, though, they represent no real progress at all. Where do these problems come from?  How might we actually fix them?  But, why would they work on such large questions?  They make money from the hopelessness.  More Americans than not couldn’t afford to turn them down.  When the gap between rich and poor is not just cavernous but widening, the myth that there are possibilities becomes frayed, and hierarchies re-assert themselves as the inevitable and necessary source of blessings because (the story goes) they, not ourselves, must be depended on to be the engine of our success.  In the world these shows create, we must petition our idols because only they can help us any more.

You can, if you like, apply to be on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, but according to the application forms, “please be aware that we receive thousands of applications each week.”


1. K.J. Kesselring, Mercy and Authority in the Tudor State (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003): 3. Wyatt’s story is told in this first chapter as well.

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1 Comment

Filed under Early Modern, Medieval

One response to “Touched by an Idol

  1. Pingback: Higher Education, Public Policy, and Moral Hypocrisy | gladly wolde he

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