I stood in front of my class yesterday in a flippy skirt and opaque black tights – it’s November now after all – and told my eighteen year old seniors that we were leaving the 1940s behind and sauntering our way into the next decade.
On the board behind me, written in a pretty purple-colored chalk, was the word zeitgeist.
“Say it with me so you know how to pronounce it,” I told my students who are old enough to vote, even though most of them don’t. “Zeitgeist.”
“Zeitgeist,” they said back in unison, and for a brief moment I thought I knew what teaching kindergarten must be like.
“Zeitgeist is defined as the spirit of the times. It comprises the thoughts and the ideas that dominate a culture during a particular time period. And as social historians who use media as evidence, we can ascertain what was important to people of an era by considering the trends that were wildly popular on television and in movies during those years."
To be clear, I’d already lost a few of my students who were starting to stare into space like the banjo-playing townsfolk in the beginning of the movie Deliverance. This happens sometimes; if I string more than, let’s say, three sentences in a row and I do it while not showing them a clip of something blowing to smithereens onscreen like in a Michael Bay movie, I run the risk of some of them tuning out.
Do I accept this loss of consciousness from students who can only harness their attention to a moment that is frenetically paced or whose answer to every question I ask is Drugs? I do not. I do things like snap my fingers in their face or stomp a heavy-booted foot on the floor or throw a piece of chalk at their heads.
I think those strategies are part of why I’m what is considered a highly effective teacher.
“Let’s talk about our current zeitgeist and how television can, on some level, illustrate it. What kinds of shows are popular and continually green-lit? Which shows have stayed on the air and have spawned other shows that are similar?”
There is silence in the room. There are twenty-seven pairs of eyes simply staring at me.
“I said that out loud, right?” I ask – and that gets a laugh.
“Let’s go, then. Give me answers. Stop being afraid to think. I am not asking you the meaning of life; I’m asking you to tell me popular shows and what they might reveal about what our society deems important.”
“Reality shows are popular,” said one kid, and it’s almost sad how excited I can get at eight-thirty in the morning when someone answers my question – my easy question.
“Yes!” I exclaim, and I almost jump up and down, but the heels on these boots are kind of heavy. “Name some.”
“You people need to start watching more TV,” I mumble, and I actually mean it – because the truth is, culture is often reflected in what we consume on television and these kids can’t have that discussion and that’s just sad.
But I have things I need to accomplish during this thirty-eight minute period and their deafening muteness is not getting me to my goal, so I decide to take matters into my own hands.
“Raise your hands if you’ve seen more than one episode of the following shows. Ready?” I ask, and they look like they’ve perked up for a moment, like raising their hands in this manner reminds them of playing 7-Up on rainy days in elementary school.
Me? I always enjoyed climbing the rope in Gym class or that fucking awesome parachute we’d all scoot under and sit on to keep the material of the thing puffy, but to each his own. Nostalgia is nostalgia.
I start listing off reality shows:
· American Idol
· America’s Next Top Model
· The Bad Girl’s Club
· The Real World
· Here Comes Honey Boo Boo
It’s after saying the words Here Comes Honey Boo Boo that I almost have to recline on my desk for a moment, because it sometimes takes my breath and my humanity away that those words, put together in that order, actually mean something now.
Have I ever watched that show? Of course not.
Do I know all of the names, though, of everyone on it and can I pick the mother’s terrifying neck out of a line-up? Absolutely. Because this televised travesty has slunk its way out of the depths of society and has now been reported on by the mainstream media and I consume that media every single day.
“Let’s talk about American Idol,” I say, and I’ve got them now. “Which of you prefers watching the auditions – especially when the singer is absolutely terrible – rather than watching the people who have actual talent sing?”
Almost all of them shoot their hands into the air.
“Do you think those people really think they can sing?” asks one girl.
“What do you think?” I ask, turning the question back on her, hoping I can get her – and maybe three other kids – to get those brain synapses working.
“I think they do believe they can sing,” she answers with authority.
“What do you think the process is for getting in to audition for the judges?” I ask them.
“They just have to wait in a long-ass line,” says one of my boys. He looks about thirty and this is only the second thing he has said on his own all semester. The other things he’s uttered in class took place after I called his name and refused to move on until he gave me something – anything – resembling an answer.
So it hurts me a little to break the news to this kid that he’s wrong, that the auditioners on American Idol do wait in long-ass lines, but it’s to see producers. And those producers decide who gets on camera during the auditioning process, so they intentionally put people before the judges who sound like dying cats being swung heavily against a car door in winter.
“What does it say about our society that we enjoy watching these terrible auditions? What does it say about our society that some of the singers have to know they can’t sing, but they go on camera and do it anyway, for what amounts to millions of people? What do these choices reveal about what matters, to them and to us?” I ask.
“I guess our culture values attention, whether it’s good or bad,” responds one of the kids in the back of the room, and I decide then and there to eventually name my firstborn after him.
I’d do it too – but I still am not positive about his name. I think it starts with a J.
I toss out a new question then: “Can you give me any other examples from television that proves that our culture values attention, whether positive or negative?”
Again the room is quiet. And I wonder, at that very moment, what that silence says about our zeitgeist.
“Let’s talk about a show that’s been on for a bunch of years now, starring people who have a lot of presence in the media. What are your opinions on the Kardashians?” I ask.
I am not lying, exaggerating, or trying to make this a more compelling story when I say that I believe that simply saying that family’s name in a room dedicated to getting students to embrace and cultivate intelligence took something real out of me. Seriously: I think half of my soul floated away, and when I stared hard at it, hoping it would come back to me, I realized it was shaped like Kim’s giant ass.
“I love them!” said one of my girls, and I turned straight to her.
“Why?” I asked. I tried to keep my voice measured. I tried – a little bit – not to judge.
“They’re funny,” she said with a grin.
“There’s a lot of them,” I answered. “Can you give an example of one of them who appeals to you? Can you use a moment from the show as an example?”
“Just all of them. They’re such idiots. Don’t you think it’s funny that they’re so stupid?” she asked me – and her look was pure.
“No,” I responded – and I was absolutely stoic in my answer. “I don’t think it’s funny. I think it’s dangerous.”
From there, from that little exchange, we moved into how our current society values fleeting fame and doesn’t seem to care in the least if the fame becomes mere infamy. And we talked about how talent seems to be less important today than maybe it used to be and that bad behavior is often rewarded. And then, finally comfortable that they knew what I meant by the term zeitgeist and semi-comfortable that most could use it in a sentence – and that six of the twenty-seven could maybe spell it correctly – I transitioned into the lesson at hand. I introduced the 1950s by screening an episode of I Love Lucy, a show half of my students had never seen and a quarter had never heard of. The goal: watch this show and tell me the implied and subtextual messages that allow the viewer to understand the zeitgeist of the fifties.
They watched the episode where Lucy finds out she is pregnant, though nobody onscreen ever uses the word pregnant. She is “going to have a blessed event,” and they use all the other vernacular that can stand in for being knocked up in a time when “pregnant” was deemed too clinical a term. And they were able to see that the zeitgeist that was illustrated through the sitcom showed very specific gender roles and that neighbors were family then and that the world was seen as a safe place, as evidenced by nobody locking a single door.
And as a one-day lesson that would allow me to kick off the examination of a complicated and tumultuous decade, it worked.
Except the whole thing stayed with me. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I’d explained why I believed people like the Kardashians were dangerous and that I was met with blank expressions by those who actually call themselves fans.
Fans of what?
See, I know it’s just meant to be escapism – and as someone who programs The Real Housewivesinto her DVR, I understand escapism in its rawest, most unBotoxed form – but there’s something really sick to me about the family from Calabasas who have become zillionaires.
They have a ton of money and a ton of attention and global name recognition – and they have done nothing real to get any of it in the first place.
Now, I'm warning you: watch it if you’re going to tell me that they’re famous because they have a successful show. You’re right; they do. But how did they get that show? How did anyone know who they were? Was it not a gigantic posterior and a urine-soaked sex tape that made all of them – including the young children and the mother – known in the first place?
What exactly is the lesson there?
The level of influence these people with no talent and seemingly nothing to say that isn’t canned kind of stuns me, even in an era like today where very little should shock me.
Maybe I’m being too hard on these fucking morons, I thought to myself as I left work. Maybe I’m just judging them because, every time I go to any site online, all I see is a fully made-up person posing with puffed out duck lips and dressed in gowns to go grab pizza. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe they are engaging and hilarious and secret rocket scientists.
And so, when I arrived home, I decided to see for myself. I have only watched about three episodes of the show in all of my life, and it wasn’t active watching. It was more me vacuuming and doing laundry and the show was on in the background as white noise, which, to be fair, was all I thought it to be anyway.
Feeling like an anthropologist – or a girl loudly chewing gum named Tiffany – I settled on my couch and turned on my TV. Scrolling to the On Demand menu, I saw that I could order – for free – the newest spinoff of the franchise, the one that had made these women richer than I believe anyone could have guessed would happen.
Kourtney and Khloe Take the Hamptons it was. And as I pressed the button on my remote, I hoped nobody who worked at Cablevision knew me.
Give it a chance, I told myself. Don’t settle into asshole mode immediately.
And I did not settle into asshole mode immediately. I gave it a good three minutes and then listened to Kourtney complain about her itchy vagina, witnessed Khloe covered in enough makeup that I could go at her with a chisel and still not hit a single layer of epidermis, and stared while Kourtney’s boyfriend fell down the spiral of depression as he was dragged to the very place he grew up, the place where his parents – both of them – just died – and now he was being asked on camera by his dead-eyed girlfriend why he can’t just act normal.
I saw the girls – one so short and one so enormous – walk into a pop-up store they are pretending to run. I saw Scott rub his eyes as he surveyed the roads he used to drive to see his dying father. I saw Kourtney’s expression never change – not once – and I heard literally no fluxuation in her tone of voice. There was a constant somnambulant quality as she spoke. It didn’t matter if she was cooing to one of her cute kids or discussing maybe leaving her boyfriend of almost a decade while she was pregnant with their third child. Her voice and her expression did not change.
And it’s really that – the lack of expression, the lack of appreciation, the lack of life – that offends me about this family and their success. I mean, sure: I can argue that Khloe seems kind of blunt and sarcastic, qualities I appreciate in just about anyone. And I can say that the teenage one strutting runways for legitimate fashion icons is emaciated enough to be a real model. And I can even say that the family – or at least the people they have hired – understands the power of branding and there’s, I guess, nothing wrong with capitalizing on that.
But it’s the fact that these people are fucking boring that gets me. Nothing happened on the show last night. To make sure I wasn’t judging their empire unfairly on only one episode, I flicked over to my Netflix and watched two full episodes of the original show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians – and I walked away with the same impression.
These people fight with their family on camera for pay and for profit.
They are weirdly sexual with one another and think it’s normal to ask one sister to smell toilet paper that just nestled inside two of their crotches so the smelling judge can deem which sibling has a nastier vagina.
They do constant modeling shoots that promote their other modeling shoots.
They are friends with pieces of shit like the Girl Gone Wild founder.
They speak, all of them, without a minuscule amount of expression while they lay most of their lives bare.
They speak constantly and only of themselves, to the point that I could have sworn that I was watching a scene from Being John Malkovich, but the only words I could hear, formed from their over-plumped lips and booming into my living room, were "Kardashian, Kardashian."
They travel in luxury cars and sit around in pajamas while perfectly made up and coiffed.
And other than interviews throughout the show, they never acknowledge that they are being filmed or that because they are being filmed, they might be behaving a wee bit differently than normal.
They show the world that attention – even if it’s for marrying a douchebag, having a sex tape, screaming at your preening mother, or tossing your psychologically-compromised grief-stricken boyfriend out of your luxury summer rental – is all that counts. They act like family means everything, even though each of their storylines is centered on selling one another out.
There’s a sickness to this show and to the fact that it never seems to end, that even during a hiatus, some member of the family is still being filmed somewhere so they remain a ubiquitous media presence all year long.
But I wonder what will happen when the cameras finally go away.
And I’m starting to wonder if things just might actually stay this way forever and perhaps the cameras will never leave – because this need for an omnipresence is really what today has become.