Can Everybody Please Lay Off Darva Conger?

Look: At least the onetime TV bride and current Playboy cover girl has made an honest assessment of herself, which is more than you can say for the networks that use her for her ratings and then taunt her for being a media slut. “Am I an opportunist? Well, if you think about it, what’s wrong with opportunism?” she asked the smarmy 48 Hours reporter who interviewed her last night. He smirked in disbelief. But what is he? And what can CBS say for itself, after having aired Survivor followed by Big Brother followed by a 48 Hours episode on the subject of fame? The obvious point of the latter exercise, Conger aside, was to interview two members of the Survivor cast. The bouncy blonde Jenna–so witty and sarcastic on the island–turned all coy and flirty; she’s an aspiring actress, natch. Sean, the doctor, gave the reporter a signed headshot of himself, just in case 48 Hours should ever need an on-air doctor.

If by now you still don’t understand what drives ordinary folk to sign up for humiliating reality-based TV shows, makes us all watch them, and dictates our sneering tone afterward, you obviously haven’t seen Robert Altman’s Nashville. (Rent it immediately, then read this wonderful 25th-anniversary essay in Salon by Ray Sawhill.) The whole sick mess is summed up in a single subplot. It’s the story of Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), a redheaded waitress in a diner who wants to be a country star in the worst way. Sueleen has the saddest voice in Nashville–whingeing and nasal and off-key. She can clear a club in minutes; when she sings to herself at work, her customers stretch in embarrassment and sneak out. She is beautiful though, slender and painfully self-conscious. And so, after performing at an amateur night, she is sent to do a political fund-raiser. There, a roomful of men are willing to sit patiently through her first song, but stomp and holler and throw dollar bills at her on her second. Sueleen doesn’t understand what’s going on until the organizers pull her aside and explain: She’s got to strip. She won’t. Well, what if they promised to let her sing at the rally the next day? She’ll do it. She takes off her clothes as if she’s undressing in her bedroom, sullenly and effectively–the more sullen, the more effective. Her misery drives the men wild. The upshot? Two things: One of the organizers, aroused, puts the moves on her when he drives her home and would probably have raped her if her boyfriend hadn’t shown up. And, as she tells her boyfriend, she can’t wait to sing at the rally!

Whatever makes people seek our attention–and many boring books have been written on this subject–it is more than matched by our insistence that they give us something in return. If they can sing or dance, great, but if they can’t, then they should take off their clothes or get married or bare their souls or perform some other titillating act of self-degradation. The success of Survivor and Big Brother, with all their rules and deprivations, lies in their having institutionalized this sadomasochistic arrangement. You think it was an accident that not one of the people entering the house on Big Brother last night–including the married ones–ruled out the possibility of sleeping with another houseguest? You just know that promising to keep their sexual options open was a condition of acceptance. Sure we’ll watch, but we won’t keep watching unless you give us some tits and ass, some fits of social awkwardness, some good nighttime action. And no, we won’t respect you in the morning.