Now this show is about humiliation, in a fun way, if possible, but humiliation nonetheless. Contestants are given ostensibly easy questions-- those typically given to elementary school students-- and if they mess up they are supposed to say, "I am not smarter than a fifth grader." Along the way, they can cheat off of the papers of the real fifth graders who are regulars on the show.
The difficulty in the questions is subtle. If you got them as multiple choice, as in "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," they would not pose much of a challenge. But often the contestant must come up with the answer on his or her own. Do you trust yourself, all pumped up with adrenaline and dazzled by lights and sound, to remember that the sun rises in the east? Or to be able to multiply 7 x 5 in your head?
Tonight the contestant was a 21-year old college student and member of a fraternity. Fraternities, of course, have always been famous for being "meatheads," a term that Foxworthy got the contestant to say about his own group. So it would be fun to see the meathead fail.
But that wasn't enough for the entertainment-satured American audience. The show also brought in five extra possible cheat resources-- the contestant's frat brothers. Now the stage was set for plenty of humiliation, and the guys were fine with that.
It started with one of the frat boys saying that the second line of the song "America" ("My country 'tis of thee") was "The beautiful oh gracias."
I laughed long and loud, all the while understanding that this instance of men behaving badly, being seen as lazy, stupid, beer-drinking louts was just another log on the pile for the torching of American manhood.
How often do boys have to see men confirmed as foolish before they themselves believe that this is their destiny, too?
Near the beginning of the show they asked the contestant what he would want to do with the money he had already won-- $25,000 for answering a few simple questions. He said he wanted to to buy a car and go to Vegas. Foxworthy also prodded him into admitting he would throw a kegger for the brothers.
Then they showed a video of the contestant as a fifth grader. The contestant said, in effect, that if he had a lot of money he would give it to his parents, "so they wouldn't have to work."
What happened to that generous, respectful boy?
Well, lest we become too morose, I do want to say that young men have been ne'er-do-wells for some time now, as early as the comedies of ancient Greece. And Thomas Wolfe, who wrote in the 1930's, had a great throw-away riff in his You Can't Go Home Again:
When one observes a youth on a city street and sees the calloused scar that has become his life, and remembers the same youth as he was ten years before when he was a child of eight, one knows what has happened though the cause be hidden. One knows that there came a time when life stopped growing for that youth and the scar began, and one feels that if he could only find the reason and the cure, he would know what revolutions are.
So we have been worried about boys becoming men for some time now.
I just wonder, has American myth ever milked the, shall we say, Homer Simpson effect as much as it is doing now? And what will be the effect?