In this week’s Sunday Sermon  the stupendous comedian and blogger Kate Smurthwaite takes on reality itself.

What a joy to be asked to write a sermon. No wonder vicars and priests have for so many centuries ignored the tsunami of counter-evidence about virgin births and miracles and encouraged their “flock” to keep coming along week after week.

There is a strange group of people who hate my work but still insist on seeing and reading all of it (hello again, thanks for tuning in). They often accuse me of “sermonising” by which I think they mean lecturing long-windedly and with the absolute conviction that I am right. I strongly suspect for many of them my confidence in my own powers of research and deduction would be less horrifying if I had the common decency to grow a penis.

The religious sermonisers don’t need research or deduction as they have the luxury of faith to hang their certainties on. Faith is a bizarre virtue, aliens would land and ask “These humans seriously think they’re better than others because they choose to irrationally believe an eclectic hodge-podge of ideas about an eternal soul and a man whose wife turned into salt? They’re clearly not an advanced life form, save a couple for the zoo and figure out if the rest can be ground up into baby food.”

Of course the fun part of sermonising isn’t the complete conviction at all – it’s the long-windedness, which rather explains why I still haven’t broached my main subject even though we’re into paragraph four already. Reality TV.

T.S.Eliot said “humankind cannot stand very much reality”. He also said “only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go”, which is very bad advice if you’re on a National Express bus. The trouble with reality TV though, is that it just doesn’t involve enough reality.

The genre started it’s recent explosion (it had existed at a quieter level with shows like Seven Up for decades) with Big Brother, a brilliant premise – put a group of random strangers into a house and see what happens. What happened was the producers couldn’t handle the stress of wondering if anything was going to happen and took matters into their own hands. They didn’t choose random strangers, they chose the group of people they considered most likely to start fighting or fucking. And then they told them if they didn’t build a tower out of drinking straws in twenty minutes they wouldn’t eat. Forget “Big Brother”, it should be called “Weird Producer”.

These days the genre is dominated by shows about “experts” solving “ordinary people’s” problems. And in this format the producers can rest even easier because the script is essentially pre-written. All they need do is find people to play the roles correctly or just fudge it if anyone breaks role.

Act one: person with a problem, “famous” expert shows up, delight. Act two: early stages of transformation go well. Act three: it gets tough, there’s crying. Act four: happy ending. How ironic that the genre supposed to show us an unpredictable slice of real life ends up following a plot arc that Shakespeare would have recognised and considered dull.

In case you’ve missed any of these masterpieces here’s a quick run-through of some of the shows I’ve caught lately. What Not To Wear: solve your confidence problem though floaty tops. How To Look Good Naked: solve your confidence problem by taking off your floaty top. Extreme Makeover: solve your confidence problem through Botox and make-up. Supernanny: solve your child’s behavioural problems through wall charts and a naughty step. The Biggest Loser: solve your weight problem through tyre-rolling and kettle bells. World’s Strictest Parents: solve your unruly children problems through volunteering and someone else’s extreme religious views. Tool Academy: solve your unpleasant boyfriend problems through blazers and therapy. The Naked Office: solve your business development problems through nudity. Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares: solve your restaurant problems through swearing and menu simplification.

In reality TV, unlike in actual reality, all problems can be solved.

Once in a while real reality intrudes on the carefully-scripted plan. There’s an early episode of an unruly children show where the 2 year old girl who seems unresponsive to stern telling offs turns out to have a hearing problem. This is real life, some children are “naughty” but others have real medical reasons for behaving badly or developing slower and sometimes a specially marked step isn’t going to solve anything.

Contestants on The Biggest Loser sometimes have to drop out because of health problems that prevent them participating in grueling exercise programs. It’s usually glossed over as quickly as possible but the truth is still in there – for many people the message that overcoming obesity is just about positive thinking is a deeply unhelpful one.

A woman on The Naked Office didn’t fit the costume provided for her for one of the challenges. There’s a real issue – how is your body confidence affected by being told that your size isn’t available? They could have suggested she participate in her own clothes but instead in an act of deep unpleasantness that can only result from paranoid sticking-to-the-script she was sent home and then criticised for not participating.

There must be hundreds more on the cutting room floor. Clips that didn’t fit the shape of the show that had already been decided. The improve-your-relationship shows where a couple reveals a history of violence and the expert calls the police. The cosmetic surgery show where the results don’t live up to expectations or the restaurant that goes out of business despite the fucking refurbishment.

Sadly when it comes to the messages people pick up from these shows, as Mark E Smith said “The three ‘r’s are repetition, repetition and repetition”. So we’re told: cosmetic surgery makes you happy, stripping off is empowering, bad boyfriends can be transformed if you stick with them, kids just need a firm disciplinary system and some stickers. These are not messages we should accept unquestioningly. They are solutions that may fit one individual but not another. And the “positive mental attitude conquers all” message has a dark flip side played out all too often in the tabloids. If you can choose to win, then life’s losers must by definition have chosen their fate too. Useless benefit-scrounging scum…

World’s Strictest Parents should be hauled up in front of the Advertising Standards Authority for the name alone. Unless they’re actually prepared to send the boys to work eighteen-hour shifts in mines and publicly flog the girls if they flash an ankle in public it should be re-named World’s Strictest Quite Reasonable Middle Class Parents.

Instead we get these rather stern but loving families with an emphasis on volunteering, chores and religion pitted against disrespectful, stoned, mini-skirted British teenagers. I love it. I am rooting for the teens.

The host families often insist the teens adhere to cultural gender roles – the girls are expected to serve food, the boys to do “yard work”. They expect the British teens to dress modestly, pray and attend religious services. They sulk and chain smoke and answer back.

No doubt the best bits are left on the cutting room floor. The bits where the pierced slacker teens hit back with blunt reason. “Why am I supposed to be respectful when you treat your wife like a servant, mate?”. “How is that being moral though? If you’re just doing stuff cos you’re afraid of going to hell?”. “Yeah but it’s pointless cos there is no God, is there?”. That slice of reality would be a sermon the world could really benefit from hearing.




  1. I can’t wait to see World’s Strictest Quite Reasonable Middle Class Parents.
    It sounds like a great sitcom.

  2. King says:

    “Blunt reason”?

    “Why am I supposed to be respectful when you treat your wife like a servant, mate?”

    Well, if the wife actually were treated like a servant (however that’s defined), and servants (as defined) didn’t receive any respect from their masters, then it might at least be a coherent argument.

    Of course, if the host parents and the teen have vastly different and irreconcilable ideas about how women (and servants, for that matter) should act in a relationship (as informed by their different cultures), then the parents aren’t likely to be swayed by the teen’s “reasoning,” are they? If I were confident that I was treating my spouse with respect as it was measured in my own culture, I sincerely doubt I’d be bothered by the accusations of a teen from a very different culture who knew little or nothing about my culture and was staying with me, in part, because he hadn’t effectively learned how to respect others (or himself).

    The teens would be ill-advised to try any line like that, anyway. The host parent could very well turn it around on them, and to greater effect:

    “Why should I respect you when you disrespect your real parents by demanding that they – who provide you with everything you need – do everything for you and give you everything you want, despite the fact that you are able-bodied and chronologically almost an adult?”
    “Why should I respect you when you disrespect your real parents by calling them names, wishing them ill, taking things from them that you don’t need, breaking their property, and making them worry by engaging in risky activities?”
    “Why should I respect you when you disrespect your peers and the teachers your government has provided for you by not showing up to class, by not working well when you do show up, or by being disruptive?”
    “Why should I respect you when you disrespect yourself by ingesting substances that have been shown to harm your body and present yourself in a manner that strongly suggests that you lack the self-confidence to face the world without a safety blanket of eye-hiding hair, distracting body jewelry and “art” and provocative, “stylish” clothing?”
    “Why should I respect you after I’ve invited you into my home, fed you, and tried to make you feel welcome (at an inconvenience to my family), because I want to share my life and knowledge with you and help you if I can, when all you’ve done is deliberately disobey me, try to create trouble, criticize my household without trying to understand why we do things the way we do, and try to embarrass my family and me in our community – despite the fact that I have been more gracious, patient, and forgiving of you than I would be with my children or their friends if they acted the way you have acted in my house?”
    “Why should I respect you when you have shown no respect for my life experience, knowledge, accomplishments, culture, or property, despite the fact that you are less than half my age and have done almost nothing with your life other than waste the opportunities that have been given to you?”

    And on and on. The teens on WSP often seem to want to be treated like they are adults and to consider themselves morally superior to their apparently emotionally, socially, and financially successful host families. Unfortunately for the teens, most of them actually are minors, and all of them appear to lack the problem-solving and decision-making skills, emotional maturity and control, willingness to take responsibility for themselves, self-discipline, and ability to provide for their own basic needs that are the foundation blocks of functional adulthood.

    “How is that being moral though? If you’re just doing stuff cos you’re afraid of going to hell?”.

    Not exactly “blunt reasoning.” It’s actually a rather old question that most, if not all, of the religions of which it could be asked have developed an answer to. There have been centuries of dialogue on the nature of morality in a Christian framework (to pick a religion), and there are still people engaged in that dialogue today. If asked with a sincere interest in understanding, it would be a wonderful indicator of the teen’s interest in and willingness to engage with the host family or with ideas that are foreign to him or that he might not agree with.

    If asked without any interest in understanding, but merely as an attempt to make the host parents flustered or angry or insinuate that they’re stupid or arbitrary in their actions (and therefore not worth respecting or obeying), it would simply make the teen look ignorant of one of the major sustained threads of philosophical discussion in the world, too inflexible or arrogant to act in a manner consistent with his hosts’ culture (WSP is ostensibly a sort of cultural immersion show, isn’t it?), too selfish to consider the feelings of his hosts as he sneers at their beliefs and way of living, and too arrogant and immature to think that sane adults who are confident enough in their beliefs to expose themselves to international scrutiny are likely to recognize a 16yo college dropout with few prospects, a drinking problem, and a lot of burned bridges as a subject expert on morality.

    “Yeah but it’s pointless cos there is no God, is there?”

    No, that’s not “blunt reasoning” either. That’s a statement of (non-)belief. Just as a statement that God or gods do(es) exist is a statement of belief. There are a number of arguments against the existence of God/gods, several of them strong and quite compelling (at least to me), but those arguments are just that – arguments. Of course, in most situations in the show belief in God/gods isn’t the point. The fact that host families practicing a variety of religions, as well as some to whom no belief system is ascribed suggests that “strict” parenting isn’t really about holding a specific set of religious beliefs. The host parents are sharing their culture and sharing the things that shape their worldviews and give their lives meaning and structure. The teens aren’t being asked to convert. They’re just being asked to participate in the family’s activities. That some of the kids throw fits when asked to attend a religious service of some sort because it’s not what they believe merely underlines their own narrow-mindedness (being around people with different beliefs, even if the kids probably don’t really know what their hosts believe – how terrible), immaturity (listening to prayers, sermons, or liturgical music for an hour or two, and possibly having to wear a special piece of clothing that won’t do any harm – how intolerable), and (again) disrespectful (visiting people so they can (ostensibly) learn about the culture, then refusing to participate and perhaps mocking or arguing with people who have opened their homes and themselves up to their visitors).

    The type of “reasoning” the author would like to see is just more of the same sort of arrogant, ignorant mouthiness that’s already well represented on the show, and that the teens appear to have been allowed to get away with at home and to have used to abuse, bully, and cow the adults in their lives who are too busy, too tired, or too insecure to maintain control of their households and provide the structure, active guidance, and reality checks that most teenagers need to master the knowledge and skills needed to become a productive, stable adult. Should parents be tyrants who issue unreasonable demands and treat their children like slaves? No. And that’s not what the host parents do. Almost all of the host parents appear to run households in which children are raised so that they can become competent, successful adults (rather than overgrown toddlers), and in which the expectations placed on the children – however onerous many Brits may consider them – are within what is considered normal for the host family’s culture.

    Teenagers like the ones who appear on WSP don’t need to subject the world to their powers of rhetoric. They need to sober up, sit down, shut up, and start taking a good look around at a world that can be pretty hard (especially once the parental money tree dries up and the long-term effects of the drugs and drink start appearing) and in which their existence doesn’t really matter except as their actions affect other people. Who knows – maybe if they stop gazing at their navels or at the bottom of the bottle long enough they’ll find they can actually learn something from people who do dull things like go to work, complete advanced academic and technical courses, participate in sports and the arts, address their own life problems, and somehow find the meaning, happiness, and contentment in their terribly uncool lives that the types of kids who appear on WSP seem to lack.

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