Video Vigilantes is a new breed of documentary.
A collection of shaming scenes are assembled...
...with no particular point of view.
Shame is just used to amuse viewers.
Shame reminds those caught on camera of the power of surveillance but...
...surveillance is now so ubiquitous that it has ambivalent power.
Dog: the Bounty Hunter. Is Dog, the bounty hunter, being shamed here?
Or are Dog's victims the recipients of shame?
Private Stars tests the boundaries of shame as...
...members of the public "try out" as porn stars.
Private Stars. The participants may be willing so the possibilities here for shame are complex.
Brian Bates is a self-proclaimed VideoVigilante who believes in the corrective power of shame.
"Learning to Drive," Video Nation. By training the camera on themselves, people confront shame.
But in this format, the users may decide to leave in elements where shame is part of a cathartic process. ["Glued to the TV," Video Nation]
Celebrity Big Brother. Celebrities ise the Big Brother format to re-establish themselves. In this show...
...shame may be part of a contrived performance.
Engineering shame on Celebrity Big Brother may be part of strategy, but it still proves how shame endures as a social force.
Temptation Island has willing victims expecting shame and...
...embracing it so that they may seem complex emotional creatures.
In The Secret Policeman hidden cameras were used to shame a police recruitment college.
Once The Secret Policeman was aired, shame was felt by individuals, senior officers, and elements of the Home Office.
Handbook distributed by undercurrents.org: "the news you don't see on the news." Organizations that foreground the work of activists remind us of the complex ways in which shame may be brought to bear on subjects or used by them to confront authorities. Shame offers insight into the fluid exchange of power.
In this category I should like to include Private Investigators and Insurance Fraud operatives as well as crusading individuals capturing wrong-doers on behalf of a real or imagined community. What these sources share is that the television material is edited from their perspective and those captured have no voice or choice but to be shamed. What is different from the first category above is that we are now offered a more ambivalent position on the law-bringers and law-breakers.
Private Investigators first began to take videotapes of their operations in order to protect themselves as well as to provide the necessary evidence for their clients. But more interesting about their video work is their desire to provide what sounds like a justification for their tactics. "If you think your partner is cheating then they probably are," was one investigators’ line. Here the commercial imperative comes dressed as a moral force.
In the UK, Video Vigilantes often features American PIs who have been hired by suspicious partners to spy on their spouse. The show then offers up the video evidence for our titillation and it is often conjoined to any court proceedings that follow. The segments begin with an interview in which the PI plays the role of a counsellor offering huge sympathy for the clients’ plight. We are thus given a point of identification. The high point is the shaming of the errant partner. As the commentary puts it, "Harold may have thought he was getting away from Norma but he wasn’t so lucky with the surveillance team."
Then in an extended sequence, we see Harold being entertained by his lap-dancing "business associate" before being confronted by wife Norma outside the club. At first, Harold tries to hide his shame on being confronted by the wife. The "business associate" protests in terms which suggests she is not overly happy about the process: "Get the fuck out of my way before I kick your ass."
The PI then leaves the couple to sort out their differences. The ostensible rationale given in the commentary is that the spouse's publicly shaming should be the trigger to effect their reconciliation. But somehow one doubts it. PIs are also known to have offered "honey traps" for worried partners. Thus the show sets up ever more pitfalls and occasions for shaming. It would be interesting to know whether the extension of surveillance and the affordability of such recording technology may be changing the communities’ awareness of themselves operating in public space. Might people feel more ready to challenge the shame offered by such tactics? Unlike the silent guilty undergoing authoritarian shame, here people can refuse or even confront those who seek to shame them.
The program Cheaters also depends on the process of shaming. The format is very simple: a spouse hires a team to check on whether or not their partner is cheating on them. We are then treated to a great deal of surveillance footage and salacious commentary before we see the confrontation in a car park/mall/pick-up truck. As it announces on the website, the program is "dedicated to both the faithful and presented to the false-hearted to encourage the renewal of temperance and virtue. Cheater’s host makes shame powerfully felt when, in one of the typical car-park confrontations, he asks the unfaithful about his or her responsibilities to their partner. Shame may be what we expect the hapless to feel, but our own viewer's reaction may be complicated by a degree of sympathy.
Bounty-hunters or, to give them their formal title "Fugitive Recovery Agents" are featured in Dog – The Bounty Hunter. As a commentary reveals — if you’ve broken the law, then you shouldn't fear the police as much as the bounty hunters. In the most graphic and violent sequences, Fugitive Recovery Agents with names like "The Breaker" and "The Chaser" are seen wrestling difficult renegades to the ground before bundling them into handcuffs. People such as "Dog" and his photogenic team clearly operate in a space beyond the police yet provide video surveillance evidence to prove that they are still within the law.
Again our reactions may be complex. On the one hand, we all want safer streets, but the show leaves a lingering suspicion that "Dog" and his team may be playing up to the camera. Who is being shamed here? Might "Dog" and his team feel a measure of shame, or do they revel in their shamelessness because their pursuit of the dangerous enables them to flout community conventions? Those captured get little chance to speak. But since the pursuers have used such aggressive tactics, we feel less certain that those captured deserve shame.
The newest vigilantes on television are those individuals who have taken it upon themselves to act as moral agents in and for the community by individually videotaping crime in their localities. The work of these individuals brings us to another important term in the discussion of governance: activism.
As others have noted elsewhere, the term empowerment underwent significant shifts in the 1990s. It moved from being a word used to express the aspirations of the neglected and under-represented to being a badge of honour for the forgotten. (Shattuc, 1997) The U.S. right, for example, now talked about empowering ordinary decent families (much the same movement to the right has occurred in Britain). I believe that the word activism has occasioned similar although slightly different shifts. The term has gone from being one which was (and still can be) adopted by left-wing groups concerned with extending franchise and uncovering state crimes to one which is a self-appointed badge of honour for leaders of the community, particularly those armed with cameras. In the UK the context for much of this has already been established through shows such as Neighbours from Hell, Neighbours at War and Britain’s Worst Drivers. In the United States, programming which dominates Bravo, Reality TV and FTN give plentiful airtime to individuals whose "hobby" or mission depending on one’s perspective, is to film people often in their own neighbourhood breaking the law.
The most infamous of these men is Brian Bates. Chicago-based Bates has been indefatigable in using video to pursue men who use prostitutes. Since he began in 1997, the fearless self-defined video vigilante has been responsible for over 300 convictions. His technique is simple: he follows the "john" and the prostitute, keeps out of distance, and then, when the couple are in flagrante he shouts "Oy, what are you doing over there getting a blow-job?" It's a question that appears to offer its own answer. Bates then proceeds to ask said "john" if his wife knows of this encounter. In most cases, the couple drive away while Bates shouts after them, chanting out their license plate number, etc. As a result of his crusade (no better word) Bates has become something of a talk-show celebrity, appearing on many of these programs propagandizing for his mission. Bates spends a minimum of twenty hours a week on his work. It is his principal occupation, for which he receives only a modest remuneration.
Bates uses the camera to take the law into his own hands. By by-passing the complex machinery of complaint, he uses shame to expose wrong-doers and in doing so, uses them to scare other individuals back into some fragile sense of community. Yet it would be wrong to suggest Bates is merely supplemental to the police as part of our "authoritarian" category. On one occasion Bates happened to catch a policeman being serviced by one of the local prostitutes. Although a supporter of firm law and order, Bates felt duty bound to report the incident not only to his superior but to the officer’s wife. As a result of this selfless community-inspired action, Bates has become unpopular with some of the force. A recent incident, for example, led to Bates being "officially" tracked by five police officers. This counter-surveillance has in turn blunted his operation's efficiency and made him more cautious.
What connects Bates’ crusades, the crude moral posturing of cheaters.com, the tactics of PIs, and the work of "Dog" the Bounty Hunter is that they use surveillance techniques to generate shame and create victims. We should note that all four use the rhetoric of working "for the community." Their actions are designed reactivate this community through shaming individuals. But our own reactions to these tactics may be far more complex: The obvious titillation created by filming prostitutes and strippers is immediately balanced by the uneasy pleasures we might take in seeing johns and clients shamed on television. But it is only because shame is such a powerful social force in regulating behaviour that we can feel this way.
(iii) willing victims
One of the most unusual developments in television in recent years has been the willingness of people to use cameras to investigate their lives. In the UK this approach had its modest beginnings in the nineties via the Community Programming Unit at the BBC which produced the series Video Diaries and Video Nation. But formats such as Big Brother and Temptation Island have taken this a step further and complicated our understanding of shaming’s power by transmitting behaviour which has formerly been a private affair.
It might be argued that the most popular tele-brand to explore the links between surveillance and shaming is Big Brother. In the six years of the format’s life, different nations have found their own understanding of themselves enlarged by seeing the private lives and interactions of their most extroverted people, who often explicitly address shame. What shame boundaries remain when an individual is willing to have sex or give birth live on television, as happened recently in The Netherlands?
In actively seeking to confront shame these individuals prove that it is a fluid concept. One modern example of this tendency is Bravo’s Private Stars. In this late-night program professional porno stars audition hopeful amateurs, all of whom seek to work with them in the porno genre. The explicit nudity in the program coupled with frank language is particularly revealing for British viewers, long used to their representation as a shy and reserved people. The series might have been designed to bring to mind the old phrase, "Do they know no shame?"
On a more modest budget are programs which feature women at Mardi Gras exposing themselves in return for a bead necklace. Like everybody else on television (apart from those guilty of crimes), the women have to sign release forms giving consent to use and broadcast such footage. But recording this sort of material would not have been possible ten years ago. The inroads made by technology in the form of cheap camcorders allow such impulsive acts to occur. (The release form is signed quickly after.) To see this sort of behaviour may change the way we feel about shame. Even if viewers or participants say they feel "no shame," their attitude still illustrate their awareness of shame as a moderating mechanism.
These various displays of shamelessness are clearly connected to the profit motive. Some producers will regularly test the limits of shame for fun and profit. There will always be an audience for this sort of footage. The growing subgenres of pornography such as "Gonzo" and those featuring "hidden" camcorder footage also produce a similar uneasy reaction. If the ordinary people being filmed know that their representation is being used for pornographic purposes and we know this too, then the boundaries of shame produced by ever-more pervasive surveillance are extended again. And who is feeling shame now? Is it the individual who took it upon him/herself to be on-screen or the guilty voyeur?
(iv) shame and activism
We have already noted how CCTV footage and video-material shot by the police are clearly designed to "line us up" with the authorities. It is because we are so used to this we feel a shock when we see activists' footage. The ragged hand-held bumpy footage of those on the "other side of the fence" only serves to underscore the authenticity of the video vigilante wielding the camera.
For example "Undercurrents" activists recorded the screams of colleagues being tortured by the police at the G8 summit in Genoa while taking cover behind a water-cooler. This footage provided clear evidence of state licensed brutality. The difference between these images and more "official" footage lies in how this material is put to use, which discourses it contributes to, and what it is connected to. Does it constitute a critique if it is simply one example of bad behaviour amongst others?
The work of "Undercurrents" was shown outside television and circulated privately. It may well be that it was interpreted by many who saw it as an example of how the police ought to be shamed. On other occasions, similar material of the police filmed by activists finds its way onto television. In one episode of Video Vigilantes, for example, we see the work of Hamish Campbell, an activist whose mission it has been to record as many instances of police brutality as he can. In a sequence shot in South America, we see police beating one man to the ground, who later died as a result of his injuries. One might argue that activist footage of the police has a modest heritage of its own that dates back — as far as reality television goes — to the infamous Rodney King beating. But, as lawyers proved at the time, what is crucial is the context. In one episode of Video Vigilantes we see camcorder footage of three policemen brutally detaining a 16-year old boy, handcuffing him and then punching him in the face. This widely broadcast material led to the forced resignations of two officers. However, the story ends with how the police successfully sued for discrimination on the grounds that they had been more harshly treated than the black officer. The story became one about the vagaries of the justice system rather than one about state sanctioned violence. In such a programming environment, video activism may be rendered far less effective as an oppositional discourse and become just a different style of filming.
The programming context in which we consume activists’ footage of police brutality, etc., is crucial to understanding how we are being asked to read it. In a recent BBC program The Secret Policeman, a reporter posing as a trainee policeman took secret camcorder footage which revealed the police to be racist. The program caused a sensation. Here the agency that uses criminal footage to shame them was itself shamed into doing something. However if activists' footage of errant police beatings takes place in a compilation program such as America’s Wildest Cops, then we might read those images as simply more bad behaviour — different only in degree but not kind from the sort of shenanigans that married men get up to with their girlfriends. If the activists' footage merely contributes to a jokey commentary on "crazy behaviour," then in no way does police brutality become an issue meriting discussion. The only point such footage might prove in that context is that the police are also subject to the filming of video activists and may also have to face the same punishments as the rest of us (but not often).
The activists of "Undercurrents" include in their number several ex-mainstream media professionals, who are aware of the ways in which their footage may be used. Their Activists Handbook offers its readers tips and strategies to counter dominant discourses:
In the widest definition, video activists are part of a broader coalition of Internet hackers, radio pirates, photographers and others who are representing for the "ignored and marginalized." What unites such traditional activists is a concern for the people who they believe to be either under-represented or misinformed. For example: Video Act is designed to make a stronger network amongst working people to fight the machinations of capitalism. But as we saw in a previous section, a new generation of people describe themselves as "activists" and are inspired by what we might describe as moral concerns in and for the community. Activism here is connected instead to the way the new video vigilantes understand the role and function of the "good" (i.e., morally bound) community: shame is the tool used to police it.
Shaming's popularity on television on both sides of the Atlantic might relate to the fact that shaming is taking a higher profile in the legal systems of western governments. We have already seen how restorative justice aims to use shame to reintegrate the offender back into the community. But at the same time as this inclusionary development, an opposing movement on behalf of the U.S. judiciary aims to exclude offenders by forcing them to wear signs indicating their crimes. Such methods are praised by the communitarian Etzioni, who believes that shaming is "deeply democratic because it reflects the community’s values and hence cannot be imposed by the authorities per se against a people." However, Etzioni problematically idealizes the community. Proving the existence of a real community with shared values may be more difficult that he thinks. Despite the rhetorical claims of many to work for "the community," the problem is proving that it exists. We might have more easily identified the community in ye olden days when the stocks were out there in the village square but it is considerably more difficult now. I would suggest that the surveillance and shaming produced by television programs help to form communities of interest. Furthermore, we have ambivalent reactions to shame and some of the communities formed in its name last no longer than the moments of televisual transmission.
Shaming: who and why?
I want to conclude by discussing the reasons for the continued persistence of shame in so much contemporary television.
As we have seen above, in authoritarian formats shaming is important is promoting a model of social cohesion which works by excluding outsiders, cheats and fraudsters. This is a model of community unity that depends upon its members informing authorities after operating covert surveillance in those spaces where the agencies of the state are absent. Programs like Crimewatch UK and Cops utilize the power of shame to help govern the community and ourselves. Such programmes make shame part of the atmosphere. In risk-averse western culture, shaming through surveillance works as a policing mechanism by which government is extended. And it is of course in the interest of the state to enrol us in the business of policing one another. But we have also noted that shame cannot be simply read off from producers' intentions. In some cases we have an ambivalent reaction to the shamed. In other cases we wonder at those who seem willing to take shame upon themselves.
Clearly most of the people being shamed on television are from the working class. The sort of material which can be used for shaming such as camcorder footage of cheating neighbours or people confronting others on talk shows often comes from those locales where people will be much less likely to know of their rights. This group also can expect to receive the highest level of surveillance on a daily basis. Bauman has made a useful distinction between the "seduced" and the "repressed." The former have been integrated into society by means of market dependency while the latter constitute the new poor, those subject to tight regulations, those who do not have choices. It is increasingly evident that the new poor regularly experience a greater degree of surveillance. In stark contrast to the circulation of their images, the poor suffer from the lowest degree of social and sheer geographic mobility. At the same time, the shaming act's image can now circulate locally, nationally and, if particularly telegenic, internationally. Such shaming footage travels well because most cultures understand the shaming imperative, particularly at a time when it is becoming a more popular form of government and control. Being shamed in a "community" is a very real thing to people who can’t move away.
Furthermore, we might also consider producers' responsibilities to those who are shamed. The immediate reaction from those in the industry will be to point to the various producers' guidelines which have been set up to protect both parties in any given production. Key here is the release form in which those filmed give consent for the use of their image. But do those filmed know what they are letting themselves in for? This uncertainty that we feel about those at the center of televisual shaming makes the pleasure of watching so uneasy.
Television is deeply inbricated in the production, foregrounding and distribution of shame. Televised shame offers it as a point of connection with the public. For every time we see a shaming act, at the same time a community is conjured up. We may be seeing righteous exposés against the corrupt or shocked gawping at the brazen — all televisual shaming reminds us of the degree to which behaviour is still a key component in contemporary life. Other media do similar work in reminding us of shame.
Shaming offers us membership: we too can share our concerns at the behaviour of the police or our bosses or our friends and neighbours. It has never been easier to share our concerns about other people's behaviour and to become active in utilizing shame to express this. In a new sense the fluidity of shame both enables and restricts us. But while I have noted the potential for self-expression and boundary-testing that shame represents, I want to emphasize that for the most part shaming is used to pull us into line with the authorities. It usually reinforces a model of community that can only work by excluding outsiders. Shame works by reminding us that we could become outsiders too.