My wife and I finally switched off our cable for good the other day. I could use this column to reflect on all the fun that I had with the now antiquated concept of cable TV–the place where I discovered music videos, Tony Soprano, meerkats, Wolf Blitzer’s beard, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s breasts, Suze Orman’s teeth and, back in the early days, practically non-stop viewing of the Kris Kristofferson’s film Convoy.
And yet I feel like what I’m saying goodbye to now ought not to be called cable but simply “The Kardashian Box.” The fundamental problem with cable is the illusion of choice: It was supposed to give us thousands of channels, and perhaps offer us a peek into different languages, religions, histories, cultures, entire libraries of film (old movies, new movies, lost movies and perhaps even the 90% of independent movies that don’t get distributors). That’s not even to mention the sports. Instead, cable has become a brand-building machine–an entablature of pretty faced caryatids with fake boobs who sell us and perfumes and young adult books and predatory lending scams and those death traps called “cars.” The Kardashian Box has organized into a few repeated themes–nostalgia (TV Land), masturbation (Cinemax), death drive (the CBS weekend cop shows, and I guess the increasingly aggressive nightly news programs, too) and fetish object (QVC and Snooki). Because the audience is hard to corral otherwise, my one-time favorite movie channels are now showing cheap reality TV and reruns to keep their overhead down and still showing more ads than broadcast TV. Why in the hell am I paying for this?
And there is probably no better time to get rid of cable than now, when America has seemingly become enthralled by the tax-revenue-consuming capers of a monarchy we rejected 235 years ago. “Could Kate Middleton be the new Diana?” ask the journalists as they run down the street chasing Prince William’s bride and miss the irony. If you have ever seen Bernardo Bertolucci’s film “The Spider’s Strategem,” perhaps you have a sick feeling like I do when Jane Seymour and her blinding dentition come onscreen with more Royal news. The Bertolucci movie was about a man who was trying to escape his family’s history and for his efforts found himself increasingly enmeshed in it. So, too, do I shudder at watching the press build up another couple of people they can later tear down. The viewers, of course, aren’t stupid. At this point, they likely know how the dirty game works. They’ve torn down Britney, Lindsay, Miley and Barney (OK, maybe not Barney). A lot of them have given it up this game and stopped watching. Others, however, still need the comfort of seeing the accident happen over and over. Fetish. Death drive. Deliverance. Stasis. Digestion. Bathroom break.
Perhaps nothing is as telling in the royal wedding phenomenon as the fascination with clothing, traditions, supporting characters. The identity of the dressmaker is shrouded in secrecy until we find an appropriate moment to invade his or her privacy. We are schooled in the finer points of heraldry and learn the difference between a lozenge and an escutcheon, a party per pale and a party per saltire and other details of the bridal panoply. For good measure we invite the ghostly visitation of one departed player whose spectral, Pre-Raphaelite vacuousness haunts us as certainly as Hamlet’s father: Yes, SHE is back. We are asked if the couple’s first female child will be called Diana. We are shown split screen comparisons of old bride and new. A news story breaks that William will use his mother’s sapphire engagement ring. Kate’s Libelula dress is compared with Diana’s Emanuel dress. The old video is shown. … And then, as James Frazer predicted in The Golden Bough, the “Killing of the King” process begins anew as new bride supplants old in a form of psychological ritual murder (OK, sorry, just riffing there).
In a way, life has come full circle, because the Royals were reality TV before there was such a thing. Henry VIII’s exploits were fodder for townie gossip and scandal sheets long before we had a Kardashian Box. Both then and now, the viewers know the game and even may know the rules are contrived, just as they know Jersey Shore‘s Snooki is likely flirting with invisible cameramen. It’s just that the viewers don’t care. I once met a Lancashire woman who was something of a political firebrand and came to America to announce that U.S. citizens owe all Native Americans reparations. I felt hard-pressed to argue, but then in an unguarded moment, she admitted she had loved the royals and wanted to be Princess Di when she was younger. Who was I to be self-righteous at that moment and say, “Your monarchy lives off the fat of the poor and is an abomination to the Rights of Man, Republican idealism, human equality and basic morality. Also, they can’t dance.”
I, too, love reading English history and marvel as chips off the block of William the Conqueror globe trot and take gap years in Chile and need to do little else to stand as testament to the island’s storied past. It’s just that you can love Roman history without needing the Empire to come back. Still, forget the argument about whether the royals are important, whether they should be taxed, or whether their political function makes them easily replaceable with a rubber stamp from Staples. The more important question is: What is the emotional need they fulfill, even in Americans who are supposed to be decathected from such nonsense? Do men in Britain still feel an aching affection for routinzed charisma? Do women still secretly love the idea of being chattel princesses? Or is it more simple? I feel that if we looked into ourselves deeply enough, we’d discover that it’s the same reason we need cable (and pay so much for both): We are existentially sick. We no longer want to live in our bodies. We have checked out. Watching Kate Middleton wed in a story book tale allows us to project ourselves inside of her (take the meaning there however you want), and abscond from our own here and now and the responsibility to our reality. (FYI: Another way to abscond from reality is to believe in heaven.)
Being in our own here and now, after all, is too hard. We are most of us at the mercy of adrenal glands who do our thinking for us. Our bodies are tired from feeling things, freeing ourselves from them mentally is our constant burden. To be in your body all the time requires constant thought and maintenance. Exercising. Working. A debate. Running errands. Motorcross. Skydiving. Even blogging. To take ownership of your own being is a task many of us would readily shrink from. Some literary critics even contend that it’s the struggle where mythology originates–the contrived stories we tell each other and which we use to arrange reality are nothing more than shadows on the wall projected by our own conflicted glands. Thus the royals are are not just Williams and Harrys. They are also our Dicks.
I leave you with that thought as you enjoy the royal wedding. I hear that Sophie Cranston is a fab designer!
Where does that leave me? … Just bought a new Apple TV. So juicy … so delicious … here comes my descent into existential oblivion.