All day, the gossip has been unfolding about the woman found dead in her car outside of Paula Abdul’s house last night of an apparent suicide. As more and more details have made into the press, the sadder and sadder the whole thing has become. The young woman, Paula Goodspeed, was apparently obsessed with Paula Abdul to the point of stalking her, and when her parents reported her missing to the police they suggested that someone check Paula’s house. To make matters more unbearable, Paula Goodspeed appeared on American Idol as one of the unwitting contestants who’s used for comedic relief in the audition episodes because of how ashamed they should be to have such outsized dreams unbefitting their lack of talent. Inevitably, someone has dug up the video of Goodspeed on American Idol. It’s macabre.
As a website that spends most of its time heaping onto the humiliation suffered by reality TV participants, contestants, stars, and would-be stars, it’s hard to take the moral highground and criticize American Idol for its callous lack of respect for the sensitivities of human beings, but let’s.
The fact is that most reality shows, while definitely being aware of the potential for embarrassment that awaits their attention-starved casts–thus the copious amounts of free alcohol in every McMansion, not to mention VH1’s use of fart sound effects and MacPaint graphics–most shows nevertheless refrain from too much editorializing. Well, wait, let me be a little more careful, because obviously reality TV is nothing but one long editorial. We’re all well aware of the heavy handed editing to the point of fabrication used to create sentences, characters, feuds, and storylines. There is no such thing as a reality show that lets you be the sole arbiter of opinion. They all work hard to guide you towards the desired emotional response.
BUT, there is something particularly insidious about the audition episodes of American Idol that IS somewhat unique in the reality TV field. Because from the tens of thousands of people who audition to be on the show, a few are handpicked by producers FOR THE SOLE PURPOSE OF being pointed at and laughed at by a willing nation. They don’t even get to compete. To the best of my understanding of the American Idol process, by the time anyone actually sees Simon, Randy, and Paula, they’ve already been pre-screened in a preliminary audition by some sub-producers. So it was those people who decide which of the would-be contestants is so ridiculous as to be deserving of total humiliation and verbal degradation on national television.
Now, again, for the most part, anyone who puts themselves forward for a reality TV show knows what they are getting into at this point. This isn’t season one of the Real World. The rules are well known, and most people who participate in these shows get exactly what they deserve. And to be sure, the resulting competition of American Idol, with its focus on wholesome garbage pop and the supposedly meritocratic search for genuine talent, for however much it’s actually just a cashgrab of exploitative recording contracts and Coke endorsements, is still WAY more good-natured than, say, Celebreality. But it is precisely the dichotomy presented by American Idol that has made reality TV such a horrible and destructive force in our society. It holds out the promise of fame and fortune, encouraging people to strive for their dreams and insisting that anyone can succeed. But at the same time, it makes sure that the audience laughs at the frustration and fosters the humiliation that the average person often confronts just for trying. In reality, people get beaten down again and again, and it’s not necessarily true that anyone can succeed. Lots of people can’t. But if you didn’t keep that hopeful dream alive, then how would you get the sad ones to show up so that you could make fun of them?
What happened to Paula Goodspeed was obviously the result of way more factors than simply her uncomfortable appearance on the show. That was just a chilling sidenote. But her death is a painful reminders of how the pleasantly nasty thrill of schadenfreude that makes up so much of reality TV’s appeal is based largely on the pain and suffering of human beings. And that is sad. And that is our fault. Not hers.