Please keep in mind as you read this post, that it could easily be considered offensive and poltically incorrect. I have written it in such a way as to be deliberately provocative, and force us to ask questions about our own thought processes and behavior. I am often speaking ironically in order to underline my points. Thanks!
The Homeless Freak and Hartz IV T.V.
In our last class discussion on November 16, we started to touch on the ideas of socioeconomic class and the new freak. We talked about how fatness is considered a sign of lower socioeconomic class, thus creating the underlying connection between freakishness and poverty. This then led me to consider how the poor could be considered “freaks”, based not initial bodily differences, but on those physical changes brought on by behavior.
I lived in New York City for a few years, and I can tell you, there is no shortage of “freaks” there; men who show up at the public library with shaving cream, razors, and a towel, or women who walk around meticulously collecting cans and bottles from trash cans. I have even seen someone defecating in a subway car, and more recently, urinating near the patio of a well-known Tuebingen café. That is, behavior, in this case, more than appearance can create the grotesque. While the claim is often made than many homeless people suffer from mental illness or are addled from years of alcohol or drug addiction, the truth is, especially nowadays with our lacking economy, many are not. So what is it, then, that separates us from them? Well, at first, not much. The problem is that freakish behavior can create freakish appearance and thus you are a freak on two counts…right?
Well, while you may spend the first few months or years as a homeless person seeking out public restrooms and spending your change on a trip to the laundry service, eventually any of us could be found taking care of our bodily functions in public places, or sleeping under trees. Consider the 1983 movie “Trading Places” in which Eddie Murphy plays a homeless man who is forced to trade lives with an exceedingly affluent man. The rich man, upon being forced to be homeless, quickly becomes paranoid, drunk, and even holds a room full of his old friends hostage. In short, he displays mental illness only once he has been stripped of his socioeconomic status. Yet, while his new lifestyle changes his appearance (he is bedraggled and unkempt) a closer examination would probably keep you from assuming the man is in fact a “true homeless”. People that have spent years and years surviving cold winters and inadequate nutrition will be in possession of telltale physical signs of poverty, which certainly go beyond an un-ironed shirt: yellowed eyes, bloated belly, frostbitten extremities, etc. Given a bit more time, it is certain that Louis’ body would catch up to his behavior and he would become a true freak.
It is this kind of physical change, born from a behavioral one, which is the focus of 19th century discourse on the female prostitute. Ironically, just as we seem to do (and I have done here), Parent-Duchatelet attempted to provide a medical description of the physiognomy of the Paris prostitute. While he, (and we) make that claim that there is no inherent difference between prostitutes and “normal” women or the homeless and those “with home”, we do assume that extended periods of poverty or sexual practice create visible differences. For example, other authors of the time claimed that while the prostitute may have been mistaken for a beauty, years of practice in her profession will make her more mannish. In the same way, years of poverty will make a person more primitive, both behaviorally, and physically.
Obviously, homelessness is an extreme example. Yet anywhere in between the middle class and that level of extreme poverty, there are countless denominations of “freakishness”. Consider, for example, the “Welfare mother”. What images come to mind? Most likely she is fat, rude, unkempt, whorish…any number of adjectives which aren’t altogether flattering. She may behave so rudely, and appear so grotesque, that she becomes a freak, again, on BOTH counts.
In German contemporary culture, there is a phrase known as “Hartz IV T.V.”. This is used to refer to a certain type of television programming, which is neither educational nor informative; an entertainment which requires little critical thought or background knowledge. It is so-called “poor quality” or “low class” entertainment. Programming might include daytime talk shows about estranged families, which are brought together again, women stealing one another’s husbands and then hitting one another, or reenactments of court cases, which deal with divorce, domestic abuse, or incest. In short, things associated with those of lower socioeconomic class.
(This type of programming may also be named as such because of its usual airtime, that is, during the day, on weekdays; a time when most well to do citizens would go to work, leaving the unemployed to stay at home and watch television that is suitable for them.)
Yet those of higher socioeconomic classes quite often view this type of television. Case in point, I recently overheard two students at the university discussing how much they enjoyed “Hartz IV T.V.”. They laughed a discussed the latest “Bloedsinn” (idiocy, stupidity) they had watched, and asked each other how anyone could possibly act like that. Along the same line, my aunt, an upper middle class business owner, was recently home with a cold during the day, as we spoke she mentioned how she was looking forward to watching some “good old Hartz IV T.V.”, as it is good to “tune-out” to. In addition, each of these individuals seemed to feel the need to defend their right to watch such programming, and did so with a combined sense of guilt, fascination, and humor-in short, a modern day freak show.
Yet, all of these things; divorce, incest, or a good-old-fashioned catfight are just as likely to occur middle and upper middle class families, just in the same way that university students may fall asleep at a bus stop or pee in public after a night on the town, displaying the behavior we associate with homelessness. What then is really the difference? Is it their carnevalesque display of humanity we are fascinated by? Do we see our own behavior reflected back on us when we watch this type of T.V.? Why do we feel the need to qualify our viewing of such programming and why is it shameful? Here, I would argue that by watching such grotesque television, “we” (the middle / upper class) are reaffirmed in our belief that certain people JUST ARE a certain way, thus, we are able to separate ourselves from what we consider to be “low class”, by calling these divisions natural ones. This is indeed just the danger inherent in representing anyone, be it prostitute or poor as being “physically” other. While lifestyle DOES affect behavior and appearance, it is important to keep in mind that these are changes and in constant flux. By assuming that such differences are NATURALLY occurring, rather than the result of circumstance, we may easily forget that we ourselves are a fine line away from looking and being “just like them.” Perhaps this is why Hartz I.V. T.V. is so comforting, it reminds us that, although appearance may be the result of behavior, this behavior must have a point of onset. By watching people behave in ways which we ourselves would never display, we reassure ourselves that in our lack of carnival, we are quite safe from ever becoming the “homeless freak”.