X factor too sadistic for comfort

By Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin

Sod it. There’s something sinister about this year’s X Factor. Mary Byrne’s slow, ongoing collapse, the scandal over Gamu-gate and the horrific hatred that has been levelled at Katie Waissel have all left a feeling that we’re no longer talking about Saturday night entertainment, but rather a modern-day Stanford Prison Experiment in which we are all test subjects.
Of course, reality TV always has its controversies, and its victims. However, shows like Big Brother and I’m A Celebrity shamelessly present themselves as televised social experimentation, and those who opt-in ultimately know what they’re accepting. In contrast, X Factor lures people in with a promise of realising dreams, proving to a hostile world that they’re good enough to make it. Most will suffer some disappointment and go back home to sing in the mirror, no harm done. A selection of the very worst (often also among the most hopeful) will have their auditions and the judges’ taunting responses played to an audience of millions for the sake of cheap, sneering comedy.
At the top of the pile, the X Factor finalists will get a few weeks or months of their dream lifestyle, with the trade-off of being subjected to tabloid slurs and public opprobrium. Mary has faced widespread discussion about her weight and her “working class hero” background, Matt, the favourite to win, is dealing with an ex-girlfriend’s claim that he is a sex addict, Wagner has been routinely portrayed as the “dirty old man” of X-Factor, who can’t be trusted with backing dancers or female contestants and 24-year-old Katie Waissel has been routinely flayed from all sides based on vague claims that she is annoying and fame-hungry – which surely is an expected attribute in finalists?
This year’s most visible casualties are Mary and Katie. Mary, who has the added stress of a visibly drastic diet, has admitted to being on a range of anti-depressant and blood-pressure medications and Katie, who has four times been in the bottom two, has apparently suffered panic attacks and collapses, which unsurprisingly was painted as another example of her melodrama.
We all play along by watching, by voting and by posting Facebook updates and joining groups (my current favourite being “it’s easier to get rid of chlamydia than Katie Waissel”), distancing ourselves from remembering the reality part of reality TV.
X Factor is less fun when you think about the fact, for example, that Wagner has a son, who watches his father getting mocked and humiliated. Or that after they have spent their five minutes of fame most of the acts will fade back into obscurity. Only a few, most obviously Leona Lewis, JLS and Shayne Ward, have transformed X Factor success into real-world success.
Basically, those who take part in X Factor are gambling. The stakes are high and the prize of massive success, wealth and fame is overwhelmingly tempting. Like any good casino, the X Factor producers focus all the attention on the tiny possibility a person will win, deflecting from the massive probability that they won’t. Furthermore, as with the very best of casinos, on X Factor the house always wins.
Without fail, Louis Walsh will lash out at Simon Cowell in defence of his acts and Cheryl Cole will get teary-eyed during performances and tell acts that she loves them. When scandals break out judges and producers will insist that the happiness and well being of acts is their first priority. However, the more that’s written about Mary Byrne’s rags to riches struggle, the more people will want to see what the fuss is about, and vote to keep her in.
Last year, an anti-X-Factor campaign ensured that Rage Against The Machine went to number one at Christmas rather than X Factor winner Joe McElderry. A similar campaign is now apparently ensuring a cult vote for Wagner Carhillo, so that the largely talentless Brazilian has remained in the show long after better singers have been eliminated. An ingenious plot, except that X Factor is gaining massive profit from the votes and even more publicity, at the expense of Carhillo’s dignity.
X Factor is gripping, entertaining television and has earned its success. For me though, Saturday night has gotten a bit too sadistic for comfort.