Any multisyllabic German word usually catches most people’s attention. If you’ve never heard of it before, it may sound like some sort of sophisticated scientific concept. But it’s far from being sophisticated, it actually describes one of the most debased human tendencies: “Pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.”
And I must confess that it’s a feeling I experience often. In my defense, I don’t indulge in it when anyone suffers a serious calamity. My passion for social justice speaks for me there. It only arises when someone who has done me or others wrong experiences a pitfall or gets their just deserts. I justify it as being okay when it seems like karma. This doesn’t necessarily make my feelings acceptable, and I’m not proud of this particular proclivity I’ve developed.
Although it seems like schadenfreude would be confined to the realm of interpersonal relations, it has increasingly become a staple of U.S. culture. The ubiquity of reality television is a case in point. When a friend of mine and I were recently watching an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, we were commenting on how it was one of our most guilty pleasures. We concluded our guilt mainly rested in the fact that we were enjoying how much better we felt about our lives after watching. Judging Kris Jenner’s parenting skills and exploitation of her daughters for financial gain allowed us to sit on moral high horses without even leaving the couch. It distracts us from life’s anxieties and stresses. However, we both know there are clear ethical questions about watching and subsequently enjoying the reality TV train wreck.
As a genre, reality TV typically involves its stars exposing themselves to varying degrees of humiliation. We’re not laughing with them, we’re laughing at them. And since it’s so cheap to produce, the media conglomerates have pumped out every variety of reality TV schadenfreude they can muster, making it the quintessential genre of the profit-driven neoliberal era. Although not every show attempts to arouse our schadenfreude per se, some of the genre’s greatest and most controversial hits clearly do: Teen Mom, Toddlers and Tiaras, Celebrity Rehab, Jersey Shore, Sister Wives, Hoarders, Intervention, and the list goes on. If you don’t feel the self-satisfaction of having your relative shit together after a marathon of any one of these shows, I’d be surprised. Also, we can just throw Here Comes Honey Boo Boo in for good measure. Wow.
I’ve never had anyone admit to me that they genuinely self-identify or empathize with the subjects of reality TV. Typically, if a friend says they watch one of these shows, it’s usually told to me as a confession or with a hint of embarrassment. We’re enjoying the disaster, and we feel slightly remorseful, but we can’t stop. Is this just a harmless trend that will eventually fade away? Reality TV has been an integral part of the culture for several decades now, and its presence has only increased. What does it say if we are generally not empathizing with the embarrassment or plight of others, or at least not consistently? Like me, many who watch these programs might consider themselves compassionate in other areas of their lives, but somehow, we think of these protagonists as deserving of our scorn.
I can’t say whether schadenfreude has become more or less prevalent over time—these types of human phenomena are nearly impossible to quantify. I think recognizing our own tendencies toward it can be revealing, and can provide some understanding about our reality TV guilty pleasures. Maybe then we can change the channel once and for all.