Posted tagged ‘hand-out culture’

The Giveaway/Hand-Out Culture

May 5, 2010

It started with Oprah. Then Ellen. And Rachel. Talk show hosts who courted fan loyalty by giving away gifts. It’s gotten so out of hand that TV viewers now write to them, literally asking for hand-outs. I realize times are tough all over, but do these people have no shame, anymore?

Since I’m a freelance writer (i.e., not actually employed), I watch a fair amount of daytime TV while procrastinating between screenplays and blog posts. Perhaps I’ve become jaded, or maybe I’m just jealous of all those audience members who are getting really great swag in exchange for promotional consideration. But lately my TV-induced ire has been directed at Ellen DeGeneres for responding to direct pleas by viewers for money.

The letters she reads on air don’t come right out and beg for cash. Usually, the wife will write that her husband lost his job, they’re struggling to pay bills, and so forth… but every day on TV, Ellen brings joy and laughter to their bleak lives! The subtext is plain to see: please help us out like those other wives who get to keep all the cash they frantically grab, while inside a transparent money blower machine as the crowd cheers them on. What’s next in Ellen’s evolving give-away games? Dance marathons like in THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?

The thing is I love Ellen. Everybody does. She has probably done more for the acceptance of gays and lesbians than any single person, simply by being honest about herself. Ellen is genuinely nice. She wants to help less fortunate folks. But at a certain point, to quote her American Idol pal Simon, it starts to “feel a bit desperate” like a singer trying too hard to win over the judges.

Worse, it actually encourages more “magical thinking” in her television audience, the kind Oprah espoused in her endorsement of The Secret book (here’s my blog post on that topic). Viewers in TV Land are thinking: Hey, if I write a heart-breaking letter and send a really cute photo of my kids and out-of-work spouse, there’s a chance Ellen will save us! It’s like winning the lottery without even having to buy a ticket.

What gets my goat though is when Ellen dispatches her perky assistant to fork over the cash, gifts or toys, it often turns out the family doesn’t really look very destitute. They have a nicer house than I do! Better furniture too. Huge widescreen TVs. And a new car in the driveway. You know, it’s possible these people were spending too damn much before, and didn’t save any money when they should have.

Before you call me a cranky selfish jerk, let me tell you something: I’m a softie at heart. When I lived in New York City, I even went to the post office in Manhattan where they let people sort through letters to Santa, and I chose one from a poor mother in the Bronx. I got a friend to help me buy toys for her kids and go with me because it was a rough neighborhood. It felt good to play Santa. I’ll never forget the woman’s face. She didn’t look grateful — she looked suspicious and uncertain, as if she didn’t expect someone to actually answer her letter. There was no joyous screaming while jumping up and down like on Ellen, because real poverty isn’t fixed with a few toys or a check.

The people you see on Oprah, Ellen and Rachel have it pretty good in comparison. For them to be shamelessly accepting hand-outs on national TV is unseemly to me. I guess times have changed. We now expect to get something for nothing in our giveaway culture. Never have so many asked for so much, for so little actual work or effort.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if people in those talk show audiences started donating the swag they receive to charities instead of keeping it?