How low can the culture sink?
Pretty low, as it turns out with the exploitation of the question, "Who's Your Daddy?" This is one of the most evocative questions in literature and life, because the answer rests on affection and genes, and reflects the emotions of the one who, for better and for worse, answers. The question elicits pride and prejudice, fear and shame, understanding and ignorance, flowing from the relationship we all have (or have not) with that first man in our lives.
"Who's Your Daddy?" is a question fraught with such seriousness and potential for trauma that it struck me as impossible that anyone would be so cynical, so vulgar, so heartless as to create a television reality show around the question and answer. Stupid me. The Fox Network, with the usual pretensions of seeking to "understand" pop culture, devoted 90 minutes to answering the question for one woman, descending to new depths of degradation.
Contemporary society is particularly vulnerable to the exploitation of this question when large numbers of single-parent families are headed by women. Adopted children now seek their "birth parents" with the assistance of researchers who read DNA, the ultimate proof of paternity. Reunited children and parents speak poignantly of complicated feelings about abandonment and identity. They can spend years trying to sort things out.
T.J. Meyers, a girl adopted at 6 weeks of age, who has grown up to be a beautiful, curvaceous blonde - this is what makes her suitable for television - was put before the cameras to interview eight strange men, asking each one if he is her father. Only one, which Fox verified beforehand through DNA sampling, is the real thing. But each one answers, "I am your father," accompanied by appropriate and extravagant gestures of biting the lower lip, wiping at watery eyes and manipulating tortured frowns. If the daughter chooses the correct suspect, she wins $100,000; an imposter gets the $100,000 if she chooses him.
There's actually more (or less) here than meets the prurient eye. Reality TV magazine discovered that T.J. is actually a soft-porn movie star and Playboy magazine playmate. She describes herself on her Internet Web site as the "hot chick next door." Thus "Who's Your Daddy?" has more than a touch of the leer. The would-be fathers could be taken for dirty old men, eager to be a hot chick's daddy if not her father.
When I first heard of this show, televised last week, I figured it must be satire inspired by a Terry Southern novel, like the author's hilarious quiz show called "What's My Disease," in which panelists try to diagnosis a guest's illness and the audience applauds wildly when a panelist correctly identifies a dread disease.
But "Who's My Daddy" is no satire; paternity is no laughing matter. Adding insult to genealogy, T. J., who correctly identified her biological father, was treated to a spontaneous meeting with her birth mother and three "new" sisters sired by her father. The parents who raised her were, naturally, not invited. (Who cares about them?)
Adoption agencies begged Fox not to do this, understanding that such cheap exploitation sensationalizes and trivializes an emotional decision that affects an extended family in many ways. But when the producers sweetened the pot at the end of the genetic rainbow, making it possible to win $100,000, it was difficult for contestants to turn down such a public display of intimate sentiment. (You could ask Jerry Springer.)
Fox might next consider inspiration from another Terry Southern novel, "The Magic Christian," which satirizes how far a man and a woman will go in pursuit of profitable venality. In this satire, animal excrement is heaped over a million dollars in assorted bills, and contestants are invited to dive into the mountain of merde with the lure that there's "Free $ Here."
Producers of pop culture only rarely underestimate the intelligence of their viewers, and never their own bad taste in pursuit of greed, but Fox failed with "Who's Your Daddy?" The show finished fourth in its time slot, according to Nielsen ratings. Five further episodes may never get out of the can.
"The special was thoroughly vetted by our standards and practices department to ensure that it was appropriate for broadcast," said a spokesman for Fox. (Who could doubt it?) Only one affiliate station figured its audience deserved better, and broadcast instead a movie in which a woman reflects on the experiences of adopting a child.
Someone might yet produce a reality show that asks Fox, "Where's Your Conscience?" That's one that won't ever get out of the can, either.