Around this time every year, something terrible happens: The X Factor begins.
It drifts over our airwaves like a spectre, heralding the countdown to Christmas and reminding us all of our own mortality – it seems like mere minutes since the last series drew to a close, and meditation upon this thought quickly leads us to the inevitable conclusion that death is just around the corner. The X Factor is one of the most prominent examples of trash TV in recent times, and as a nation we can’t seem to resist the pull of this kind of programme. But is there anything wrong with our craving for easily digestible, sensationalised television?
Some see the trash TV trend as being representative of general unintelligence, declining moral standards and our childlike hankering for instant gratification – and perhaps there’s some truth to this. Take the success of Love Island this past summer, a show where one ‘challenge’ required blindfolded female participants to identify different fruits using their bottoms. Watching Love Island requires us to turn off our minds, relax and float downstream on paper-thin rafts of fake tan and vapid personalities. It requires us to become passive consumers of a product painstakingly designed to be sugar-sweet, shallow and easy to swallow: candyfloss to the mind. This is pretty much irrefutable.
But then again, maybe it’s okay to disengage our brains every once in a while – it might even be healthy. After all, we surely can’t function at full intellectual capacity every second of every day; a blow-out on occasion might clear out the cobwebs and allow our minds to refocus. We spend much of our lives disciplined and focused, avoiding eating too much fast food or making sure we meet our Fitbit step count – it’s exhausting. I don’t think it’s overstating the facts to say that, occasionally, we need that greasy kebab, or that day of Netflix and napping. It’s what keeps us sane. As a potential blow-out option, trash TV fits the bill.
And if you’re a Love Island lover looking for reassurance that you’re not braindead, you’ll relish reading that researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics found that viewers of the show are actually more likely to be intelligent. This research suggests that Love Island’s viewership is attracted to the programme not in spite of it being shit but because it’s shit, in classic hipster tradition. It seems that its unpretentious appeal is a welcome change from other, more ambitious shows on TV.
There’s a self-righteous tendency to look down our noses at people who watch ‘lowbrow’ television, like we’re so clever and cultured that we’ve never indulged in any guilty pleasure before. Yes, it’s probably true that The X Factor in its pomp could never be as profoundly affecting as something like Breaking Bad or Mad Men, and yes, many of these so-called ‘reality’ TV shows are scripted and not really ‘real’ at all. But who cares? When we put on Capital FM in the car, we don’t expect to hear ambitious, avant-garde music that pushes the boundaries of what music can be, and we probably don’t even want this. Rather, what we want is something pleasantly diverting that passes the time and mildly enhances our lives.
I’d wager that none of us are immune to the appeal of these programmes. As much as the trash TV trash-talker would love to deny it, chances are there was a time in the not-too-distant past when he watched The X Factor or Love Island, probably under duress… and sort of, kind of, I dunno, liked it just a little bit. Of course, he thought it was objectively awful, inane, soulless, full of petty arguments and fame-hungry wannabes. But as much as he tried to kill any sort of empathy he began to feel sprouting in his cold, withered heart, he honestly could understand why people watched it. It was escapism, plain and simple.
Entertainment is subjective, and imposing our own tastes on other people presupposes the egocentric belief that what we like is somehow ‘right’ or objectively good in some way. This becomes even more problematic when we start making unjustified assumptions about the sort of person who watches these programmes – about their intelligence and even their class. This is pure snobbery, and it’s incredible what issues of personal choice people will focus upon to convince themselves of their own inherent superiority over all other human beings. We can all fall into this trap from time to time if we’re not careful, and we should pick ourselves up on it when we do.
It’s called ‘trash’ TV for a reason, and I think anyone who watches it would be forced to admit that it is not high-quality fare. But it wouldn’t meet its remit if it was, because then it would cease to be a guilty pleasure. So let’s stop the trash TV bashing and admit that we need it in our lives. And don’t let any holier-than-thou pseudo-sophisticate tell you otherwise.
Join our club – you know you want to.
Words by Greg Woodin