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Are We Bad People? Casey Anthony, the Reality TV Effect and Dead Kids as Hallmark Entertainment

By Courtney Enlow | Think Pieces | July 5, 2011 |


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The Fourth of July weekend is often a time of friends, family, fireworks and filling oneself with processed meats. A time when people have picnics, go boating on the lake, hit the beach, and generally surround themselves with the presence of others.

Not me. I spent three-fourths of the weekend staring slack jawed at the TV watching the Casey Anthony trial.

Not that there weren't breaks. I went to a bachelorette party (during which we discussed the trial) and made a picnic dinner (during which I had the TV's volume all the way up) and then went and watched fireworks (with my phone at the ready for any CNN alerts). But mostly it was trial footage and trial talk. At one point my husband made a futile attempt to change the channel to 2001 and I barked, "That movie is noises and nothing; change it the hell back to Headline News." Such is the grip of the so-called "Trial of the Century" (aren't they all?)

For three years now, this particular case has been the tentpole for HLN (and CourtTV, when it was still known as such and operating in its previous format). There are always those who wonder why certain cases catch on, why the death of one child takes hold of the public zeitgeist where another's does not. In the instance of the Caylee Anthony case and Casey Anthony trial, it's actually pretty clear. Relatively speaking within the realm of child murderers, Casey Anthony is young and attractive. We love young, attractive people. She's also batballs nutsack crazy. We really fucking love that. It's like a reality show, but with murder.

So, we've watched. For three years, we've watched. We've devoted our time and energy poring over every jail tape or phone call, testimony and piece of evidence as though it's an especially long episode of SVU. Except ... it isn't.

I'm always weirded out by my own behavior. It is now the societal norm to get so caught up in celebrity bullshit that we forget they're real people. Then, at a certain point, they stop being real people at all. But, Casey Anthony isn't a celebrity. Little Caylee wasn't a child actress paid to pretend to be asleep. This is the very real brutal murder (or the very real brutal accidental drowning which resulted in her body being hidden to cover it up, you know, like we all do) of a very real child. And we've watched it. We've been fascinated by it. We've been entertained by it.

Why is that so easy for us to ignore while we're doing it?

The societal ramifications of reality television have yet to be examined, but as an honorary PhD in the subject, I think we're seeing examples of it right here, right now, with this very case. This has basically been a three season television show. It's had it all. Sex, murder, cute kids, affairs, a dysfunctional family, allegations of sexual abuse, crazy bitches, lawyers (including a pretty blonde) and a made-up Mexican nanny named after a sedative. I mean, COME ON. If this was a TV show, it would be a damn good one.

But, it's not. It's real. A real kid is dead. And a lot of people, a lot of nice, normal people, have been entertained by this.

This isn't new, obviously. Every few years or so, there's a trial that captivates the nation and we watch and care and armchair-prosecute and then it ends and we stop caring and go back to watching Idol or some other really important thing. The same thing happened with OJ. Two people died at his hands in a heinous, bloody way, but he's still a punchline. Like with all reality TV, we laugh at the perpetrator and forget the victim. (In a coincidental tenuous connection aside, lest we forget that the butt beacons of reality television known as the Kardashians wouldn't be rich and famous if their dad hadn't helped get OJ off.)

Reality TV is not the sole blame of the Anthony fixation. We've been warped by legal dramedies, too. I mean, why else would Twitter be so confused by the length of the closing arguments? Because they're only four minutes long on every other "show." But also, when it comes down to it, we're all twisted fuckers, aren't we? We're fascinated by murder, the act of snuffing out the life of another human being. We're hypnotized and rendered zombie-like by evil and wickedness perpetrated by another human being. We're made to feel superior because we haven't fucked up as badly as the people involved in these cases ("My kid may have punched a little girl in daycare, but he didn't chloroform her, so I'm better than Cindy Anthony.")

As long as we're still like this, as long as people keep killing people, as long as HLN's ratings blow up the way they have, we'll always be entertained by something awful, unthinkable and ugly. And I'll be right there with them, waiting for the verdict.

God, we're fucked up.

UPDATE: The season finale of this show fucking sucked.


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