Disappointment and Disgust, or Teaching?

by: John Hartley / Queensland University of Technology

Prince of Wales

Prince of Wales

It was that kind of day. I was in London for the conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS), held for the first time outside of the USA. Was anything quite as it seemed? Knowing that the British press loves to celebrate April Fools Day by publishing spoof stories that fool their readers, I opened The Times (it was that kind of conference). I was quite unable to distinguish actual events from April Fool jokes, especially anything related to the British Royals. On this occasion the Prince of Wales had been recorded having a hissy fit about how much he hated the BBC correspondent, in front of the cameras, which naturally required front-page headlines and a photograph. An April fool, doubtless, but not a spoof. Inside, The Thunderer permitted itself a Leading Article regretting that ‘Textual criticism is no longer the principal discipline’ of ‘our educational overlords.’ Come again? The Times (a scion of the Evil Murdoch Empire remember) praising textual criticism? But this was no joke either. It turned out to be a fit of nostalgia brought on by an academic conference – not SCMS of course, but the Classical Association. Ah, of course: ‘the roots of Western civilisation.’ The Times must be serious.

Another conference – not SCMS but the British Psychological Society – rated a full-page news story. The Times announced that ‘Grumpy old men are just a myth. It’s women who are really raging in old age, research indicates.’ Was this the April Fool? No, it was academic research, whose truth-to-life was demonstrated by the fact that it seemed to illustrate the themes of the British sitcom One Foot in the Grave (1990-2000), and the BBC’s Grumpy Old Men (2002-3) and Grumpy Old Women (2004-5).

“‘Victor Meldrew [lead character in One Foot in the Grave] was the exception and not the rule,’ Jane Barnett, of Middlesex University, said. … She added that the Grumpy Old Women television programme, featuring people such as Janet Street-Porter and Germaine Greer ranting at a succession of irritants, was far better at reflecting reality than its counterpart Grumpy Old Men.” —The Times: April 1 2005, page 5.

Despite so much news about textual criticism and TV shows, there was nothing in the paper about the SCMS. The opening plenary speakers were Charlotte Brunsdon and Thomas Elsaesser. His paper was called ‘Cinephilia’; hers was called ‘Poor Old Television.’ A theme linked the two. Brunsdon spoke of the ‘teaching of disgust.’ Elsaesser spoke of something he called ‘disappointment,’ that formed what he said was the ‘core of the discipline.’ This was the moment when ‘love’ (behaviour) turned into ‘teaching’ (thought); when tacit knowledge and personal experience (going to the movies), was transformed to explicit knowledge and critical discourse (reading Screen). The trigger for such alchemy, it seems, is disgust.

Brunsdon focused on a couple of recent instances that highlight television’s public repute. The first was fictional, a clip of Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult watching TV in the 2002 movie About a Boy. Brunsdon observed how the scene sets up TV in opposition to Grant’s character’s self-regarding cool, despite the fact that he spends all day watching it. This is ‘poor old telly’ – the perpetual bad object, first of Culture, then of Theory, now of Digital Media. So critical ‘disappointment’ with television appears never to have been preceded by ‘love.’ If there were such a thing as ‘telephilia’ it would not be a fine upstanding manly affection like Elsaesser’s cinephilia but – as Brunsdon pointed out – a feminised and domestic symptom of social pathology, loved only by fools and not only in April.

The other clip she showed was from factual television – the Channel 4 series Jamie’s School Dinners. Brunsdon showed a clip of celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver ‘teaching disgust’ to children who like junk food such as chicken nuggets. Oliver prevailed by performing what can only be described as a close textual analysis of the nuggets. He laid the ingredients out on the table – not lovely legs and breast but slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails and mechanically processed carcasses and skin and white powder. Then he put them through the blender. The horrified children’s innocence turned to experience. Disgust and disappointment precipitated not only teaching but also learning. They started to eat what was good for them rather than what they wanted.

Brunsdon expressed doubt that the Jamie Oliver episode represented the kind of television pedagogy I espouse in Uses of Television. And maybe so, because my preferred model of schooling is based on ‘desire’ rather than ‘fear’; i.e not pathologising but liking the object of study. Jamie Oliver himself apparently prefers a pinch of fear: “‘A constructive amount of fear in a school was always a good thing,’ he says. We are beginning, I tell him, to sound like two grumpy old codgers. He shrugs, as if to say he has much to be grumpy about.” (Interview with Jasper Gerard; The Times February 20, 2005.)

However in one respect I do want to claim Jamie’s School Dinners for my kind of TV pedagogy. He uses the entertainment format of lifestyle/reality TV as a device for enlightening the population, and via them the political sphere, about the need for healthy diets among schoolchildren. And the impact of his show on public policy in the UK was ‘educational’ to the point of miracle. Oliver collected over a quarter of a million signatures on a petition for better school meals. Even before he had presented it to the Prime Minister, the Government announced a £280m funding increase, including a £60m School Food Trust to train ‘dinner ladies.’

Jamie School Dinner

Jamie takes school dinner petition to Number 10

The day following this coup, a news story appeared in the Independent announcing that Oliver was to be adopted as the Conservative Party candidate in the seat of Arundel. It had recently become available because the incumbent had been sacked by the Tory leader. Jamie’s astute, can-do celebrity made this story shockingly plausible, including the revelation that his ‘progress towards election in the Tory heartland, which boasts a 14,000 majority, will be made into a documentary by Channel Four.’ But this one really was the April Fools joke (Independent, April 1, page 3). And it fooled us all, including Charlotte Brunsdon and I, who exchanged startled ‘disappointment’ if not ‘disgust’ at the very idea of it. Full marks to the Independent.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. This being television, the repeat of Jamie’s School Dinners was already on Channel Four even as Charlotte Brunsdon analysed it at SCMS. And now Jamie’s set to go global. The series has been sold to twelve countries, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Denmark, Thailand, Sweden, Hong Kong, Slovenia and Finland. The big target is the USA: “It is in America, the spiritual home of obesity, where the demand for healthy eating television is greatest. US networks will bid for Jamie’s School Dinners at a television market in Cannes next week.” World gets a taste for Jamie’s menu, Adam Sherwin, The Times April 4, 2005.

Jamie’s School Dinners can be seen as celebrity populism, but it is also a good example of how television can teach, not by inspiring fear, disgust or disappointment in its audience but by recruiting them to a useful public campaign. It uses a familiar format to turn consumers into active citizens. It looks like lifestyle/reality TV, but Oliver is impressively willing to bring the viewer with him on the thankless slog through institutional complexity and defensive hostility. The odds always favour the failure of his efforts to win the grudging consent of the education authority, kitchen workers and reluctant clients. You can see exactly why they don’t want to adopt his expensive, time-consuming, hard-to-scale ideas, even as the kids dump his food in the bins.

When things do start to improve, it is clear that they need not have. That’s what makes it good teaching, good television. And beyond ‘poor old telly,’ the miracle of a real outcome; not government funding or political gain (mere foolishness of April), but something harder to make: a new awareness, shared among schoolchildren, citizens and education authorities, that they can do better, for and by themselves.

So here’s a question on which I invite the comment of Flowers (those who Flow): Is ‘disappointment’ and ‘the teaching of disgust’ the ‘core of our discipline’? Or might teaching better be accomplished by inspiring positive civic action. Either way, doesn’t reality TV do it better than we do?

Image Credits:
1. Prince of Wales
2. Jamie takes school dinner petition to Number 10

Society for Cinema and Media Studies
Reality Blurred
About a Boy
Jamie’s School Dinners

Please feel free to comment.


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  • disgust versus shame

    Hartley’s observation that TV studies starts from a dark place and needs to embrace the pleasures and possibilities of commercial television as a legitimate site for producing active citizens is spot on. As a teacher, I have had to wrestle with repeated resistances on the parts of students that TV is JUST entertainment and not fall back on the easy and opportunistic position of lambasting it (and, by proxy, them) as revelling in base crap. After all, who gets to decide anyways? I wonder if the disgust expressed by TV scholars toward their chosen object of desire does not emerge as a gut reaction in the classroom in response to student refusals to see the intersections between citizenship and consumption; education and entertainment. Is our job not to unravel (or perhaps, re-knot) those connections instead of derisively coining TV the opposite of whatever it claims to be?

    Then again, I’m not certain I buy Hartley’s notion that reality TV does it better. Reality TV, like Jamie’s school dinners, often relies upon a corollary of disgust in its efforts to teach, namely shame. Upon seeing how chicken strips are made, students respond with disgust and parents react with shame at their previous eagerness to feed their children fast food for lunch. It seems, if anything, that TV scholars share this penchant, sublimating our shame at the pleasures we derive from our object of study (not the least of which that we get paid to talk about TV) into a disgust for those who enjoy the lessons TV offers guilt free. For TV scholars to begin to embrace new forms of teaching about television, we must first overcome our own self-loathing.

  • Jessica Ehimika

    Although “disappointment” and “teaching with disgust” are negative ways of teaching, they are effective. Sometimes, it takes knowing or experiencing the consequences of a bad decision or action in order to get a person to change. Even though it was a hoax, Jaime’s School Dinners is a good example of how negative reinforcement works to improve the health of young children. Most children do not simply learn by hearing “do not eat that, or do not do that.” It is always in children’s nature to ask “why” when they do not understand something. Even with explanation, children do not fully understand the whole concept.That is not to say that postitive reinforcement is a waste or does not work, but it is more effective when someone burns themselves on the stove to learn not to touch a stove when it’s hot.
    Reality tv, in this case, helped to steer children in a more positive direction, but that is not to say that it always is the better teacher. Since reality is not a true representation of real life, it causes a sense of disbelief because reality tv is manipulated to come across a certain way. In this case, parents are a better source than reality tv, but parents should stop beating around the bush or sugarcoating the truth. Eating junk food, such as chicken nuggets is not a bad thing if eaten in moderation. If parents teach their children the importance of eating healthy through methods like Jamie’s School Dinners, children will not need to rely on reality tv to teach them.

  • teaching tv

    I do think Hartley’s question is “spot-on,” to sound British. Avi also points out the impetus for TV teching to move towards “disgust” as a way to connect with students’ apathy about TV. As someone who teahces crit analysis of TV AND future TV writers, I oddly find myself battling FOR tv and its pleasures. Get this: even many of my students who want to BECOME tv writers love to bash tv. What does that mean? I think we are perhaps dealing with a larger cultural phenomenon of “loving to hate” TV. As teahcres, we are a part of that larger culture as much as our students are. And indeed, as Brundson pointed out, pop culture loves to hate TV as well…How many times does The Simpsons criticize television?

    I think we should explore this motif of disgust–in terms of reality TV, but also “popular” TV in general. Why do we (teachers, students, even professionals in the field) hesitate to embrace a love of the medium? How can we find ways to teach criticism without relegating the subject of that criticism to oblivion? I do think Reality TV is a grand place to start…Every semester I ask students to interview people about Quality TV, and they inevitably comeback with responses saying–“Don’t know how to define it–but it’s not Reality and it’s not the WB.” Yet these same students come back with another interview assignment about what people watch–and guess what?–The people who are disgusted by Reality and Teen shows…watch an awful lot of it. Perhaps this paradox is a useful place to start for teaching.

  • Jessica Richards

    What is reality anymore?

    Jamie Oliver used the tactic of fear to instill his message to his audience. This kind of insubtle scare method is easy to point out and question. But if you look closer all or most of tv is set up this way. Commercials sell products based on the consumer’s fear of what might happen without them. Sitcoms sell themselves based on the audience’s fear of ending up alone or unhappy. It seems that there is no positive discourse anymore. And whats even worse- this is normal. There is no such thing as reality television, there never has because it is impossible or nearly to create a reality on something that is composed of illusion. It is interesting to wonder how different society would be if positive actions were implemented instead of fear. As of now though the prospect of this idea seems to be as real as television itself- not very.

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