This article was first printed in PETRIe 66 (2014).
For as long as history stretches, we have enjoyed rejection for its entertainment value. Through a variety of different practices, traditional pastimes and more recent means of media delivery, we have managed to channel rejection into our lives as one of the finest and most natural forms of entertainment. For an individual outcast, or even an entire group, the concept and consequences of rejection have remained an apparent and consistent part of human culture.
Take a look at the definition and etymology of rejection and it seems that both as a concept and a word, rejection comes hand-in-hand with negativity. Semantically speaking, to reject something is to dismiss it as inadequate, unacceptable or faulty. It is refusing to agree to it or failing to show due affection or concern for someone. Rejected is not normally something you would hear one striving to become; to be seen as ‘inadequate’, ‘unacceptable’ or ‘faulty’ would be deeply painful for anyone to accept.
Despite this, we have managed to translate something inherently negative into being something positive, using it as a pivotal and integral part of our social framework. Rejection holds great value for the entertainment industry and is employed widely across the globe. It is also a tradition that stems back thousands of years.
The punishment of criminals, for example, has continuously offered itself as a public spectacle – either with the felon forced to fight in arenas, strung up for all to see, or beheaded with an audience around them. The latter practice can be traced through the centuries BC, where the death penalty became a codified punishment for numerous lawbreakers throughout the world.
From the 10th century, Britain’s executions were often displayed from gallows, acting as a warning to the public about the repercussions of misbehaving. However, such finite social exclusion was also a form of entertainment. By the 16th century, Britain had 222 crimes punishable by death. While this hefty sentence was not frequently given, those who faced public execution continued to attract the crowds until the mid-19th century, when the death penalty in Britain, and most of Europe, was all but wiped out.
Aside from historic lawbreakers, there are plenty of subsequent examples of rejection as entertainment to be found throughout history. Individuals with abnormalities or physical deformities have continuously drawn attention. Exhibitions or so-called ‘freak’ shows began increasing in popularity even as far back as the 15th century, but reached a climax in the Victorian period. Whether it was for their peculiar size, irregular physicality, or even their country of origin, these human curiosities were placed in the public view as if they were objects in a museum.
This type of exhibition was perhaps most disturbingly seen in the human zoos across Europe
during the late-19th and early-20th centuries, in which Africans and Native Americans were kept as living ‘exhibits’ to entertain the visitors. Germany held ‘Völkerschau’, which translates to ‘People’s Show’, throughout the early 1900s, in which living people were presented as curiosities.
More than 30 million people reportedly lined up in 1889 to see the Village Nègre, with its 400 indigenous people, as one of the main attractions at ‘The World’s Fair’ in Paris. Over the next few decades, similar shows would only increase in popularity, serving to alienate non-European cultures in an attempt to demonstrate the importance of colonisation.
A little closer to home perhaps than these xenophobic exhibitions, the mentally ill provided another pastime for those looking to be entertained. The Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlem in London, more commonly known as Bedlam, became a psychiatric institution in 1547 for those suffering with mental illness. From around 1675, after the hospital had been moved to a new building in Moorfields due to overcrowding and poor conditions, there seemed to be a potential for profit.
Visitors could be charged a penny fee to come and watch the patients. If the patients, or ‘entertainers’, were not living up to the pennies the visitors had parted with, their audience are said to have poked, prodded and provoked the patients in an effort to up the amusement ante. It was not until 1770 that the practice was stopped and the peace of the patients took priority.
Luckily, these extreme forms of rejection as entertainment are no longer deemed to be acceptable today. No longer do we visit freak shows, mental institutions and public executions. The days of human zoos are long gone, with only the rotting buildings remaining as evidence for what once was. Dig a little deeper beneath the surface of modern entertainment (and sometimes, just scratch only the top layer) though, and you will find rejection is in fact still as rife as ever - maybe even worse, given that the underlying curiosity in rejection as entertainment has become so deeply embedded in our cultural communications and psychological mindset that we are now almost ignorant to the fact that, whilst banning the most extreme examples, nothing has in fact changed.
Night after night, we welcome the finest forms of rejection into our living rooms through programmes packaging and delivering it to us in light-hearted and entertaining timeslots. Granted, the experience is not as personal, hands on or socially grotesque as visiting a so-called ‘freak’ show or a psychiatric hospital - but, through tuning into reality programmes that celebrate the weird and wonderful outcasts of society, such as those within Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies or The Undateables, we find ourselves met with the same form of social viewing intended to present us with the unusual or awkward ‘other’ for our enjoyment and engagement.
Admittedly, this rejection is much more passive; there is no prodding or peering involved, and the people at the focus of these programmes are far less mistreated - they are volunteers, after all. Any vulnerabilities they may have are glossed over. We also have a glowing screen filled with hundreds of pixels separating us from the rejected individual. Documenters and directors have created them - they are the product of someone else’s work, which just happens to be playing out in our living room if we happen to hit the right button. That is not to say we always take the moral high ground and look away; in more instances than we might think, we take an active and encouraging role in the practice without even realising it is happening.
The concept behind the show Big Brother is a prime example. Bringing the Orwellian nightmare as close to actuality as legally possible, the programme allows viewers to closely analyse subjects over a period of time before choosing whose inadequacies, unacceptable traits and faults become so overwhelming that the individual in question is forcedly rejected from the show. This rejection is, of course, always streamed live on air, so the boos and heckled abuse from the live studio audience can be shared by all. On top of that, people watching from the comfort of their homes are encouraged to text and phone in - to participate in that process of rejection.
Britain’s Got Talent and The Voice are two others, in which the audience’s participation is a fundamental part - not just in the entertainment value, but also the show’s success. In the opening stages of both programmes, the rejection is passive. With Britain’s Got Talent, judges demean and reject the auditions with the press of a button; on The Voice, contestants perform to judges with their backs turned, who then only grace the contestants with eye contact if the performers are up to their standard.
The X Factor has found decades of success thanks to the rejection-fuelled auditions and live shows, many of which are purposefully broadcast in the earlier stages for their ability to humiliate the participant and entertain the audience. In the 2013 season, judges could vote contestants through the initial audition process, allowing them a chair on stage. However, if all the seats were filled and they found themselves preferring another contestant, they could choose to make a switch, replacing from those already seated. As a result, we watched moments of jubilation when contestants got through, mixed with sadness as they left the stage, all in front of a palpitating audience.
With the birth of the Internet, it has all inevitably changed again. As technology progresses, so will our ways to entertain. Even with YouTube, it is not hard to wander aimlessly into the section infested with marriage proposal fails and more of the world’s most entertaining rejections, ready and waiting to stream and share whenever and wherever you want. The framework may change, but ultimately, the process of social rejection remains the same. The humiliated and the audience; together again.
With this in mind, one must question what the future holds for rejection’s role in the entertainment arena. Although no one knows for certain exactly where it will end up, we can only hope it does not slip further into the dystopias described in George Orwell’s 1984 or Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series.
The question does remain, however, as to whether or not our methods of entertainment are actually now more damaging and dangerously uncontrollable than they have ever been. In history, you generally had to leave your house or make the conscious effort to come across entertaining public rejection in order to participate. Today though, it has become increasingly hard to avoid. Flick the television channel, follow a website link, download an app and you are involved - yet we are hardly aware it is happening.
Rejection has become such a powerful part of our entertainment mainframe that one cannot help but question how unconsciously and unwillingly we have let it embed itself in our daily routines. We are a generation alive with opportunity and prospects, and yet we ironically find so much comfort in the presentation of rejection. Perhaps it is because it is not ‘us’.
Interestingly, while we get so much enjoyment from witnessing others being rejected, we are fast becoming one of the worst equipped generations for dealing with this emotion in our own lives. Many of us are said to have not been told ‘no’ enough as children (and adults), and have been mollycoddled into thinking we are geniuses capable of anything. As such, we don’t know how to deal with rejection. Perhaps watching it so much could help us learn how to cope with this unknown emotion, or maybe we are now just too desensitised?
It seems that from the past to the present day, rejection has become vital to our social, cultural and personal interaction and human communication. For years we have used an individual’s inadequate, unacceptable and faulty personal, or even physical, traits and twisted them into entertainment. Although the manner in which rejection has been delivered as entertainment in the past may well have been more severe than today, the underlying principles are still very much the same.
So when you are next sat in front of your Saturday night television programme or are scouring the Internet for today’s big fail, maybe it is worth thinking about the actual morality of the situation. Besides, who knows what potential your imperfections may carry for the mainstream.
Archive: PETRIe INVENTORY 66
Words: Josh Walker