Perish the thought that I should be old enough to have actually seen 50's TV game show curiousity 'Queen for a Day' - but relentless (though youthful) trivial-ite that I am, the show and its creepy premise made quite an impression on me when I first heard about it some years ago. It had all the black and white, nostalgia-drenched, phony-baloney elements I imagined permeated television programming back then - and all the drama, tears and winner/loser juxtaposing that TV is so good at today. As a spectacle, a 'blast from the past' memory, and a rerun, I found the notion fascinating.
Recently, current TV talkshow sensation Oprah Winfrey has launched a similarly themed recurring episode, providing scepters, robes, tiaras and shiny gifts to the downtrodden. (Who can presumably now add 'humiliated' to their resume.) 50 years on, TV can provide an even better video-version of private tragedy, but in the years the original show was broadcast, even with the technological limitations of the era, the programs produced heroines with stories so hankie-wringingly tragic it was nearly impossible (though not quite) to avert your empathetically brimming eyes.
TV Guide called it 'The number 1 mesmerizer of middle-aged females and the most relentless dispenser of free washing machines'. Years later, its producer called it "Vulgar and sleazy and filled with bathos and bad taste; it was exactly what the public wanted.'
Actually, it was exactly what the producers wanted - it was a hit.
Back in the carefree 50's, women (no men allowed!) came to the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles and vied for the free tickets that were handed out on the day of production. Standing in line to await entree to the studio theatre, the women were asked to write down their one 'wish' (clearly, those who asked for the program sponsor's appliances or goods had a better chance of seeing their dream come true) and would be given an impromptu interview to see just how shitty their lives were. The best (or worst) five stories were selected and the women brought up on stage to pitch their woe to America.
That was (and remains) the premise of Queen for a Day: the woman with the most heart-rending, pathetic, horrendous excuse for a life would be chosen (by audience applause-o-meter) to win the royal title and be gowned in velvet and ermine, topped with a gaudy crown and gratefully accept a washing machine as the culmination of her most fervent fantastical wishes... not to mention ample reward for her suffering.
It's hard to imagine a more grotesque spectacle; hard to imagine too, the woman who would want to parade her tragedies for all the world and her neighbours to see. (Harder still to imagine the feelings of the four women whose stories were deemed not quite dreadful enough to win. Did they get consolation prizes? Were they consoled?)
And producers were careful to ensure that all the disaster and failure-filled stories were real: some naughty contestants had in the past embroidered, or even created faux sadness out of whole cloth. One infers they would be summarily shown the meaning of true sadness and humiliation...
So now here we are - 2004 - modern times... The world has moved on and a washing machine will no longer provide the answer to harsh reality and the hideous vagaries of cruel chance.
These days, it takes at least a Minivan or an SUV.
And by now we've all heard of the most recently crowned queen of pity - Myriam Bedard. Though everyone now knows that the former Olympic champion is a) married, and b) the ostensible victim of diversionary tactics by a cornered politico, it's interesting that said politico thought the most damaging epithet he could sling around Bedard's neck was 'single mother'. His interpretation said it all: 'Pitiable'. I'm sure it stuck in many the craw of a single mother. I don't have a single child - though I am pitiably single myself - but my craw is just about filled to choking.
Then last night I found myself flipping channels, then flipping back, then sticking with - to the very heart-rending end - the presentation of a recent award-winning documentary on CBC Newsworld. A documentary that in its initial moments of viewing seemd to exemplify the very core and meaning of 'pitiable'.
Titled: "My Flesh and Blood" the doc covered a year in the life of an unusual American family: Susan Tom and her 11 adopted special needs children. I won't go into all the grim day to day detail - mostly because it's not so grim ('awe-inspiring' is the word that comes to mind) but suffice it to say that it's an unflinching insight into the life of one particular single mother and the children she loves so deeply: the little girls without legs; the little girl without many facial features - the result of a crib fire she survived as an infant; the little girl now entering her teens with the mental age of six; the boy suffering from a terminal, mind-boggling illness that causes his skin to erupt in agonising blisters from the slightest friction... the barest movement of his clothes on his skin sufficient to open a gaping sore; and the son who fought a daily battle with crippling mental illness, topped off with more than a painful soupcon of cystic fibrosis.
I could go on - there's lots more. But after beginning to watch it with much the same horror and fascination I would have approached an episode of 'Queen for a Day', I soon experienced a sensation much like Susan Tom's kids must experience every day: a sense of love and dedication and spirit and humour and patience and commitment and normalcy and hope and hard work and fun and... Majesty.