Thursday, 8 August 2013

In defence of Channel 4's Embarrassing Bodies

Channels 4's Embarrassing Bodies has been compared to a modern day freak show. Unwitting and distressed members of the public are the subject of ridicule on this opportunistic and cruel show.

While I find the above statement to be a tad dramatic, the number of criticisms are numerous, and most are hard to deny. There are some side-affects of this television programme, however, that may outweigh its flaws.

The notion that Embarrassing Bodies is "exploitative" is a tenuous one. Any T.V. documentary could be considered exploitative because the motives are first and foremost to garner an audience (if a documentary is unlikely to attract viewers it will never get commissioned). I don't think this alone means Embarrassing Bodies uses its participants unfairly, though; they are aware that they are being filmed and of the nature of the show. In some cases these people have never seen a GP before, yet they are willing to seek treatment and inform others of their circumstances through this outlet. For what reason do they feel comfortable to do this on TV, but not in private, I can't say with any certainty. Nonetheless, the participants receive free, quality care, and are educated about their illness. They are not being used unfairly.

I concede that the display of unusual conditions is Embarrassing Bodies' main hook, and I suspect most of the audience tune-in to see graphic images of some "gruesome" disease. But because the show is popular, if only for this reason, it has the possibility of reaching a relatively high number of people (it's broadcast on television, on a terrestrial channel, after all) and it gives those people access to some genuinely good advice. Embarrassing Bodies is not just an exhibition, it discusses the nature of each condition it features and frequently recommends self-examination and visits to the local GP. I feel like I've gained more useful advice on health from this show in the past twelve months than anywhere else. (My testes have never been so frequently inspected - this should be routine for all adult males!) But aside from the obvious benefit of raised awareness, Embarrassing Bodies has another feature which I find extremely worthwhile. However accidental it might be to the show, its focus is on people with "flaws".

The media is dominated by artificial images of supposed beauty, images which are impossible to compete with. This is a longstanding tradition based on what networks/film studios/magazine publishers believe an audience likes to see. Do we want news presented by those with the bumpy, pasty skins of the average Englishman? Apparently not. This is why there are dedicated departments designed specifically to enhance the look of people who will be displayed on camera.

Embarrasing Bodies

Though the presenters of Embarrassing Bodies are clearly no exception to this (quite visibly made-up), and the patients who arrive on the set are likely to undergo a similar makeup routine themselves, the programme still portrays some hint of real life - it shows that everybody has problems.

I'm not suggesting that this is the intention of Channel 4, that Embarrassing Bodies was created purely to educate, or to give us a slice of "real life". I'm just simply saying that it does. The men and women featured often look different to me, different to most people I see on TV or the movies. My eyes have been opened to the number of conditions we can have, and how little I suffer personally. This not only makes me feel incredibly lucky, but it makes me appreciate my partners body and mind more, too.

TV generally shows an idealised version of life, happiness, work, relationships, human beings e.t.c. I am grateful to be in a culture where I have a significant opportunity to see the issues I'm so fortunate enough not to have, a culture where members of the public are brave enough to let the world see their "defects".

It is the opposite of what Hollywood tells us. The opposite of what most mass media tells us (at least in visual terms). Sure, there are probably a ton of programmes that offer a more authentic and compassionate display of humanity than Embarrassing Bodies. But I'm not aware of them - and that's the point. For all its foibles, I discovered it, I watched it, and in the process learned much about personal struggle and diversity.

My biggest issue with Embarrassing Bodies? The name.

Yes, it's marketing. Yes, it's used to gain viewers. But when I watch it, I see normal people with difficult circumstances they are trying to deal with. Even the application page of its website has the quote "remember there’s no shame we’re all the same".

"Bodies", then, seems like a more appropriate title.