“What in holy hell are you watching?”
My husband should have the grace to look guilty; instead, he just grins. On the tv screen, young women in bikinis jiggle as they spike a volleyball, giggle as they play an uncomfortably suggestive game of leapfrog. “It’s Whacked Out Sports,” he replies.
I blink. Now guys on motorcycles are soaring off-ramps and . . . crashing. Rollerbladers twist in midair and . . . smash into concrete.
“Nobody ever dies,” Andrew assures me. “But they do get banged up pretty badly.”
Whacked Out Sports replays professional and amateur videos of all sorts of wacky accidents, stupid mistakes made in the name of fun, daredevil stunts run amok.
“Which is worth watching why?” I ask.
“Because these people vote.” That was Andrew’s explanation for watching Jerry Springer, too. Granted, he was the one at the 2016 election-night party who warned us not to celebrate too soon.
I do want to pop my bubble, climb out of my silo, do whatever it takes to learn about the other America (which I define by fealty to Donald Trump). On the other hand, life is the sum of what we pay attention to . . . and do we really have to waste our Sunday morning on people the announcer gleefully pronounces “judgment-impaired daredevils”?
Andrew says the show is a cultural clue. I say it is free-flowing testosterone, uninhibited by intelligence or common sense.
“I’d argue that is cultural too,” he says. “It’s a certain definition of manhood.”
The “well-waxed” young women (to borrow the announcer’s adjective) segue us to the commercial by transferring balls to one another using only their mouths. Then they squeal—that high, excited noise we associate with very young women. Even back then, my vocal cords refused.
After the break, the camera cuts to a group of guys in the suburbs who are defining their manhood by rigging a mini water park in their back yard and sliding on a giant sheet of black vinyl. Discs are bound to rupture. Yet “these are responsible adults,” the announcer says breezily, “with hefty mortgages and male-pattern baldness.” By dreaming up ways to hurt themselves, they are lifting the burden of responsible adulthood from their chafed shoulders.
Andrew watches them wipe out and winces, half amused.
“I think you just like feeling superior,” I say. “It’s the slipping on a banana peel thing.”
“That’s part of it,” he agrees, conceding faster than I expected. “There’s a bit of schadenfreude. But it’s not the banana peel, because that’s involuntary. These people are seeking this stuff out. Spending lots of money and hours of their lives on it.”
On camera, a guy is in the Atlantic Ocean hugging a shark from behind. In the next frame, a gash in his hand drips blood.
“We don’t try to understand,” Andrew says. “We just assume that people should like the sorts of things we like, because they’re artistic or educational or they benefit the common good.”
“These guys might argue that this is for the common good,” I counter. “As a spectator sport.”
“Maybe,” he says slowly, “but I doubt it. This is personal. It’s rugged individualism. We are more like the pilgrims living in community, sharing idealistic notions of a city on a hill. These folks are the frontiersmen pushing the boundaries, developing their own skills of survival. We live behind the walls of the settlement; they live outside the walls.”
Or crash over them, as someone just did when he tried to rollerblade on a fancy obstacle course that started on his garage roof.
“We look at this stuff, and our jaws drop, and we wonder how anyone could be that fucking stupid, spend all that money to risk injury and death,” Andrew says. “They see it as pushing themselves to see what they can do, hone their skills, refine their craft. They cherish the right to do whatever they want: defy rules, ignore warnings. Also, they believe in distinct male-female differences.”
“The worst aspects of both stereotypes,” I point out. “Half-naked females squealing and giggling and jumping up and down, and guys behaving like idiots and destroying stuff in the process.”
“Soaring on my Hog like I was freak’n Superman,” the announcer recalls mistily, right on cue.
“We look at this stuff and say, ‘Why?’” Andrew continues. “They say, ‘Why not?’ As for the kittenish young women in bikinis, they are playful, which suggests they might be playful elsewhere, too.” I roll my eyes. “For you, it’s ‘For heaven’s sake, think of the sisterhood, you’re making us all look bad.’ For these women it’s, ‘Hey, I have a beautiful body, I get to be on tv, why not? Don’t tell me what to do. I don’t have a responsibility to the sisterhood!’”
I sigh and google. Whacked Out Sports began in 2006 and has spread widely in syndication. Last year, its producer, age sixty-three, died suddenly—no cause disclosed.
The show continues to air: I find broadcasts of Whacked Out Sports in the U.K., South Africa, India, Pakistan, South Korea, the Philippines . . . .
“Which of course feeds the international stereotype that we’re a bunch of dumbass hillbillies,” Andrew says. “But these folks probably think, ‘Hey, it shows ’em we’re tough, and we’ll kick their ass.”
I nod, numb. Then I search for “Whacked Out Sports criticism.”
I find none. The pages that come up all say “Missing:
criticism. | Must include: criticism.”
Yet this show is so White, so retro-male, so ripe for scathing dismissal by the snooty elite. There is even a class overlay: “This is what you open a bag of pork rinds for,” the announcer says. Not why you don a lobster bib or slide a sterling cheese knife into a wheel of Camembert.
“You ever notice that rich people don’t do this stuff?” I ask. “When they take risks, they can afford to be well insulated, with plenty of safeguards. So does that mean they’re less self-destructive?”
Andrew shrugs. “Maybe they have less to prove.”