Are You Not Entertained?

Okay, this isn’t a post about fantasy or myth. It’s about society, and it’s a rant. Except it’s not a rant. Because this will be a rant about not ranting.

Last week I accidentally watched Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares.” It was on after watching some Star Trek: TNG and I was busy doing some drywall work in my living room…who cares. Anyway, I’ve never seen Ramsay’s show, and only knew it by reputation. In the show, Ramsay visits struggling restaurants and finds ways to improve their service, ambience, and cuisine. This particular restaurant was an Indian place in New York that was inefficiently run, had a dwindling customer base, and served uninspired food. When Ramsay addresses these issues, he screams at and berates the owners, managers, chefs, cooks, servers, and busboys.

I understand this is just part of Ramsay’s schtick. I realize how many viewers he’d lose if he gave advice as gentle suggestion rather than with hammer blows. But I see his “schtick” as part of the cultural phenomenon of the screaming critic, who takes it upon him/herself to verbally devastate a target. This is what we call entertainment.

Here’s Ramsay, shredding a victim:

Here is Simon Cowell, who made the “mean critic” thing so popular in American Idol:

Here’s a piece about “The Weakest Link” and the appeal of Anne Robinson, the “Queen of Mean.”

“Reality” shows, audition shows, and game shows like these are more than harmless entertainment. They set an example for everyday viewers of what “criticism” means. They imply that the only way to get an idea across is through using language and volume to utterly dominate the person you are ostensibly trying to help. That’s what bothered me about “Kitchen Nightmares.” These restauranteurs were simply hoping to revive an ailing business. (And yes, I’m sure they knew what they were getting into when they signed on to be a part of Ramsay’s show. They also knew they would get publicity from the show. That doesn’t invalidate my point).

There were some issues– health code violations, subpar food, etc– that were urgent. In those cases, yes, sometimes people need to be aggressively confronted. Get in the cook’s face about using rotting tomatoes. But when Ramsay screams in the face of the cook that his salmon was worthless and wretched and little more than garbage, it reinforces the idea that “criticism” must be ruthless and loud.

I’ve always struggled with niceness. It’s my go-to personality trait, I think. There have been a number of times in my life when I could have–should have– gotten in someone’s face, yelled, or even thrown something to make a point. Being nice about everything is a flaw. But if words will be used to injure, let them be used in moments of crisis. Scream at the careless child who is about to ride his bike into traffic, but not at the careless child who left his bike on the driveway.

All of these personalities are demonstrating irresponsible use of knowledge, authority, and power. In the case of “Kitchen Nightmares,” Ramsay is the Knower, the Expert. The restauranteur is the Seeker of Knowledge, the Student. Rather than use his wisdom to guide the fledgling businessman to success, he uses it as a weapon to reinforce his position as the Authority and Expert. I understand that different teachers have different methods. There is a mythic archetype of the wise old teacher who shows no kindness to students but leads them to greater knowledge through harsh training. The teaching is compassionate, though the methods are stern. Ramsay and Co. are not those mythic figures, however. They are shadow figures of the sage, ego-driven authoritarians who use their greater knowledge to shame the student. And with the format of such T.V. programming, the “teacher” is the hero of the story. Viewers watch week after week not to see the growth and learning of a struggling businessman/woman, but to see how viciously their hero will smack down the fools who dared to think they knew how to run a restaurant.

Well. I guess this turned into a myth post anyway. Then again, in the end, isn’t everything about myth?

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