Thursday, October 7, 2010

Death by candid camera: Voyeurism, Exhibitionism and the suicide of Tyler Clementi

Tyler Clementi was a freshman at Rutgers University whose sexual encounter with another young man was deliberately videostreamed over the internet without his knowledge, by his roommate and another freshman.  On discovering that this had occurred, Tyler apparently became distraught and tragically took his own life by jumping off the George Washington bridge.

Many serious issues are rightfully raised by these events, including the prevalence of bullying and suicide in gay youth, the scope of the definition of hate crimes and the role of the internet and social media in our culture.  The horrifying statistics are that almost 85% of all lesbian, gay and bisexual teens report are bullied in high school because of their sexual orientation and lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.  The internet and social media outlets have also all rightfully come under increased scrutiny for their perceived contribution to exposing Tyler's private life.  Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, the two freshman students who have been accused of invading and exposing Tyler's private life have also rightfully been called to account.  However, did the behavior of Dharun and Molly behavior not merely reflect a disturbing and longstanding development in our culture coming to its most dangerous conclusion?  Could it be that this disturbing use of the internet and social media was merely a natural consequence of our culture's increasing compulsion towards voyeurism and exhibitionism, encouraged by a brand of television that began in the 1940s? 

Beginning around the late 1940s, the television show Candid Camera first aired, unofficially marking the birth of a new genre of television - reality TV.  This 'hidden camera' show aimed to capture the reaction of unsuspecting people who were made the victims of a prank.  The audience was to be intrigued and delighted by being allowed to spy on what was assumed to be a private experience of emotional expression and vulnerability, by knowing that they were "in" on something that the victim was unaware of.  There was the supremacy that the audience could feel in knowing something that the victim did not, and a delight in seeing the victim display their gullibility for all to see and laugh at.

This genre of television soon evolved, eventually with the camera no longer needing to the hidden, and with the subjects no longer unsuspecting, but volunteering to exhibit their private experiences for public consumption.  While 'hidden camera' shows were still preserved (with shows such as Punk'd and The Jamie Kennedy Experiment) shows such as the Real World, Big Brother, The Bachelor and Real Housewives marked the beginning of this newer genre of reality television.   No longer was there the need to construct a prank for the delight of the audience, the audience could now be delighted by witnessing 'real' events unfold that they would not ordinarily have access to.  In this new genre, there was now an agreement - the 'victims' agree to be the exhibitionist, providing entertainment and delight to the voyeuristic audience.  The audience (the voyeur) could satisfy itself by being able to witness the cast members' (the exhibitors) perceived humiliating behavior or their enviable lives.  Reality TV had become humiliation TV.

At the same time, this cosy, yet sometimes destructive relationship between the voyeur and exhibitionist was also being cultivated in the celebrity community with the explosion of the paparazzi.  Photos and sex tapes of celebrities were hunted and exposed, supposedly providing benefit for both.  The voyeur/exhibitionist relationship in this dynamic centered both on humiliation and titillation.

Facebook and YouTube further crystallized the exhibitionistic and voyeuristic impulses where the user agreed implicitly to be both exhibitionist and voyeur.  Privacy norms were eroded and information that was once private was now accessible for all to see who cared to see it.  With one click, everyone could see someone's child having a meltdown, see a teenager being beaten, see a kitten playing the piano or someone abusing a dog, or hear a politician say something offensive they thought no one had heard.  The voyeur/exhibitionist dynamic was now permanently sealed into our culture, providing both humiliation and titillation.

To be very clear, this is not to suggest in any way at all that Tyler Clementi willingly participated in this interplay between exhibitionism and voyeurism, that he wished to be exhibited or that he bore any responsibility for his exposure.  What is being suggested here, however, is that Tyler Clementi became an unwilling victim of what is ultimately a current compulsion in our culture: the compulsion to look at things which titillate us and our desire to convert the unsuspecting into subjects for humiliation for this purpose.  As such, Tyler Clementi was forced into the role of exhibitor by voyeurs Dharun and Molly, who no doubt must have relished the feeling of supremacy they felt in knowing that they could witness Tyler's secret behavior without him even knowing.  Indeed, Tyler Clementi was forced into the role of exhibitor by a culture that is compelled towards voyeurism and that has believed (long before Andy Warhol's declaration) that everyone secretly wishes to be seen, that everything should be seen, and that to witness the humiliation of another is the best titillation of all.  Smile, you're on...

Rest in peace, Tyler Clementi.

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