I wasn't sure it was possible, but Shark Tank has reached a new low. And yet, it is a revealing low, one that deserves some critical attention and analysis.
On Shark Tank, entrepreneurs pitch their products to a panel of "shark" investors, hoping to get a certain amount of money and the investor's expertise in exchange for giving the shark a percentage of their company's profits. With its combination of television spectacle, dramatic bargaining, and over-the-top infomercial-esque product presentations, Shark Tank is explicit about the connection between contemporary media, claims about "reality" (it is billed as a "reality show"), and the condition of late capitalism. In this sense, Shark Tank can be seen as a perfect show, because it is so much more open about the relationship between television and capital than any other show on the air. The Voice, for instance, markets a certain image of pop music and sells iTunes singles of its latest songs, but it is less obvious to see its selling behind its rhetoric about artists expressing themselves for the supposed purity of the act. (And indeed that's the point.)
Shark Tank is less ashamed of itself. It is the proud descendant of the earliest TV programming where the 1950s and 1960s camera lovingly focuses on the sponsor's name and/or logo -- Geritol tonic for instance (said to help "tired blood," whatever that is), or Hazel Bishop cosmetics, among others. On postwar TV, the focus would ostensibly be somewhere else. The set of a quiz show or a biography show like "This is Your Life" would have a strategically placed logo on it, and the sponsor would be mentioned several times, but this would be presented as an aside. In some cases, the disjunction between the products featured the show and the theme of the show reached morbidly humorous heights. On "This is Your Life," celebrated citizens would receive either charm bracelets or gold cuff links (gender specific, of course) from Marshall's Jewelers, even Hana Bloch Kohner, profiled in 1953 as a Holocaust survivor. (I love TV.) The extent to which sponsors effected the show -- the knowledge, for instance, that the Revsons of Revlon Cosmetics had substantial say over which contestants were kept or sacked from the quiz show "The $64,000 Question" for instance -- was carefully kept hidden until the late 1950s quiz show scandals made it to the Supreme Court. (Oh God, they're rigged!!!) Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz did shill for Philip Morris, and their animated images were used in Philip Morris commercials between segments of the show, but a distinction was still made between the cigarettes on the one hand and the show on the other. In the image below, What's My Line? may have been shilling Kellogg's in 1961, but the product display and the blindfolded contests do not seem related.
Shark Tank takes shots of sponsor's products, combines them with late night infomercials, and the business-related suspense and judgment of its reality predecessor, The Apprentice, and turns it all into a show where distinctions between television programming and product placement have completely eroded. The show takes on a meta dimension where viewers at home figuratively occupy the same space as the investor shark judging panel -- we get to decide how well products are presented (with Kantian disinterest?) and if their creators deserve help to make these products easier to buy. Product selling is acknowledged as an art that can be judged, though it is interesting to note that when artists and entertainers come to the tank wanting backing for their latest project, they are nearly always rejected.
Since I am not a depressed Adornian or Debordian decrying the ascendancy of the culture industry or criticizing the ways in which our lives are "colonized" by spectacle, I am usually not upset by this show. It makes connections clear. It's a humorously perverse theater of (the cruelty of) the object where investor Kevin O'Leary makes stereotypically cold-blooded capitalist statements (I don't care if it's useful as long as it can sell, you're dead to me) and is at least the most straightforward of the panel of five. Typically I get a kick out of this show. But the show reached a new nadir when it marketed an insidious project that champions weight loss. As a fat activist, I can't sit by. Shark Tank: this sucks.
On the latest episode, Ryan Tseng and the absurdly enthusiastic, fist pumping David Krippendorf peddle a product called "Kitchen Safe," a container that can be locked for a specific period of time. The safe is supposed to prevent you or your children from accessing "unhealthy snacks" for a set duration. Tseng and Krippendorf boast that the system has no overrides. There is nothing anyone can do to open the safe if it is locked! The Kitchen Safe is marketed as a "commitment device" that helps you in your challenging yet noble quest to behave with willpower and self-control.
Ryan Tseng calls it "fun, effective, and easy to use." Guest shark, GoPro CEO Nick Woodman, feels that this product satisfies a consumer need. After Kevin O'Leary repeatedly calls the safe "a piece of crap" -- there is a reason he is nicknamed Mr. Wonderful, after all -- Krippendorf adamantly disagrees. He feels this producing is about "helping people out" which is more important than its (also admittedly important) money-making potential. Several sharks immediately praise Krippendorf for his "passion." "I've seen a lot of people who are overweight," Krippendorf intones as sad music plays softly,
"and it's hard. It's hard to have that temptation around your house every day. We used to buy a thing of ice cream, and we'd eat half of it and then I'd throw it away because if it was there I would eat it...We deal with the customer emails all the time and when someone's like, 'thank you, I've been looking for this for ten years, I've finally found something that makes a difference,' that keeps me going."
QVC shark Lori Greiner is "touched" that Tseng has been crying during Krippendorf's impassioned speech. Woodman calls them a "strong team." By the end of the negotiations, the Kitchen Safe men accept an offer from Lori Greiner and Nick Woodman who offer them $100,000 in exchange for a 20% stake in the company. Greiner says to them, "both of us believe in you and we believe in what we can all do together as a team." Woodman promises to become "personally invested in the business to help you guys succeed."
The problems with this product are legion. I actually don't know where to start. The product endorses what fat activist Virgie Tovar calls "diet culture," the mentalities that American culture, and Western culture more broadly, hold around weight loss and food intake restriction. Kitchen Safe assumes that food is bad and that the only way to handle the caloric devil is to fight against it. Krippendorf makes this antagonistic attitude clear when he starts the company pitch. He yells, "Sharks! America is fighting a battle we must win! The enemy is junk food, temptation, and it is everywhere!...It's no wonder that two thirds of us is overweight! There must be a better way!"
In his crazed carnival barker style, David Krippendorf couldn't be more clear. For him and for so many of us, food has a moral valence, and it's not a good one. If you do not "defeat" the "enemy," you become "overweight," the supposedly kind word for fat, and even this gentler word makes you cry. The problem with this attitude is that, in case you didn't know, people have to eat food in order to live. (Newsflash!) You must constantly fraternize with the enemy for your very survival.
You become like a tragic comic book character: what keeps you alive is also your biggest threat. The word threat is important here. The enemy is actually not food, which is a necessary, nutritious, and pleasurable part of life, but the perceived or imagined threats of having an "overweight" body and of being "unhealthy," in other words, of departing from the body type and values around food our culture finds appropriate. In this way, reality TV has not changed substantially from television's Cold War beginnings. That many 1950s game shows were designed to manage invisible threat is apparent even in their titles, like "To Tell the Truth" or "Truth or Consequences." The title here plays on the halo/pitchfork, angel/devil dichotomy the show relies on. Typically people answered questions incorrectly on purpose so they would get to do whatever silly stunt was the "consequence" of their incorrectness. Whether consequences are valued over truth or vice versa, the polarity is maintained through humor and ritualized play.
In its earliest period, TV was haunted by the fear of Communists and spies (or both in one); the new threat, food, is more personal and perhaps even more lethal. In each case, the enemy is inside us. In each case, television uses standardized, reality-based formats to proclaim and eradicate, or literally contain, threat. Through these attempts, television reveals the anxieties of its age.
It also reveals the kinds of solutions to anxiety that its age envisions. On Shark Tank, the solution to food as enemy is action-directed punishment. Instead of doing something as ridiculously New Agey as examining your relationship to food and bringing kindness to your cravings, the solution is to ignore your desires and lock food away in sadistic containers. The creators of Kitchen Safe point out that this punishment-oriented device can be used for more than just food. A remote control can be put in the safe for a few hours so that a child learns to do his or her homework before watching television (which clearly one should never do). In this model of parenting, children and adults do not discuss how to handle homework together. Parents do not try to empathize with their children's feelings and needs and allow solutions to emerge from collaboration and connection. Treating children like capable, worthy humans would indulge them. "After all," someone might say, "no one indulged me, and I'm proud of how cruel I've become, so I am happy to use a new product to perpetuate the punishing attitudes I resented growing up. This is great!" Children, too, are a threat to be contained.
And it is this cruel shoving off to the side, of course, that incites rebellion. The product's founders and its website stress that the safe helps with "temptation." Of course it doesn't. It increases temptation by making something "bad" more difficult to attain and therefore more desirable. It increases the mentality that causes you to ignore your body and eat more than you actually want: you rebel against restriction by overdoing and lose any sense of how many supposedly evil cookies you would have actually liked, which may have been just one or two. (Or it may have been the whole damn box. Whatever.) Products like this use absurd and mean-spirited rules to replace inner knowing around what your body needs or simply wants.
It is the paranoia that Kitchen Safe encourages that turns food into a threat, an all-consuming enemy that you fight with your timer container before it annihilates you. When you actually listen to your body around food -- a task that is harder and harder to do in our society -- your body will kindly tell you what it wants and when to stop. Is it really so bad to eat a little or a lot? Is it going to ruin your health to have a bunch of cookies? Let's say that whether you restrict yourself around food or not, for a variety of genetic or environmental reasons or the pressures of diet culture, you become "overweight." Did you know you can be happy anyway? Did you know it's possible to be happier fatter rather than thinner? Did you know your weight does not have to determine your happiness at all?
The great monk Ajahn Sumedho says that approaching the world with lovingkindness means taking on an attitude of not fighting. A non Cold War attitude. No Communists, no threats, no spies. We don't have to fight food, and we don't have to fight ourselves. We "win" because there is no war to lose. There is just our humanity, our pleasure, and our own sense of rightness.