When I was a little girl, I had my own imaginary Peanut Gallery. Probably most of my readers know what that is, but for those who are not baby boomers, the Peanut Gallery was a panel of kids picked from the live audience to sit on stage during the Howdy Doody Show.
The origin of the phrase, however, dates back to vaudeville and referred to the audience in the rear, least expensive, seats who threw peanuts at the stage to show disapproval with the performers.
At age 5, although I was only aware of the Peanut Gallery on the 1950s TV show, my personal version was more like the vaudeville audience. My imaginary Peanut Gallery judged me. They heckled more than applauded, so I invented a feature that neither the vaudevillians nor Buffalo Bob had: A pull chain to change the panel of participants.
Yes, if a particular group of children were heckling me or being critical of my behavior, I could pull that chain over and over until I found a group that applauded or showed approval of me.
As an adult, I can look back at this behavior and understand it as an often-misunderstood little girl’s way of coping with the disapproval she regularly faced. A rather clever tool I used until I learned to fit in by pretending to be more like the other children in the neighborhood and school.
In fact, I got so good at pretending to be someone I was not that I almost forgot who I really was. Almost—but you can never escape who you truly are. No matter how deep down you push that insistent little spark of individuality, it manages to surface.
And so as I integrated into the “normal, acceptable” behavior of the times as society dictated, I had less need for my interchangeable Peanut Gallery. Yet the feeling of being watched never really disappeared. It took many years for me to rediscover the pull chain, and for much of my adult life I was stuck with whatever imagined disapproval they threw my way.
In recent years, there’s been a revival of interest in George Orwell’s 1984, a novel about a dystopian future society governed by an unseen controlling force called Big Brother, who was ever-present, observing everything and everyone without exception. Orwell intended Big Brother to represent Big Government and that’s pretty much been the prevailing interpretation.
Publishing the book in 1949, Orwell clearly chose a date in the then not-too-distant future to set his novel. He saw this type of future unraveling at a rapid pace.
If there were a follow-up story, 2024, here’s my synopsis of the probable continuing plot line:
In the years post-1984, with tech advances and solid bouts of fear-inspiring action taken against nonconforming citizens, Big Brother needed to do less and less spying on the populace. That job was now performed by mass media and the populace itself. Having been unknowingly trained and purposefully poked and prodded into submission via socialization from birth, citizens watched each other very closely to make sure the status quo was maintained.
Any individual, private or public, performing one single act outside of acceptable norms was immediately called out, reported to mass media, and the incident was publicized globally. Shame, rejection, and sometimes even expulsion, followed. It was called “cancel culture,” or the dispossessing of an individual for acts contrary to what’s on the approved list of acceptable behavior.
But no system is perfect. Especially ones based on false versions of reality. The culture of 2024 was dominated by media, primarily entertainment media. In that domain, mythic idols, gods, and heroes were cheered and adored for valiant, often singlehanded rescues of the fair maidens and kingdoms by whatever means necessary. They were called box-office hits and the populace clamored for more. Children wore the costumes of their heroes. Their parents spent millions of dollars on paraphernalia representing these “action” heroes who mostly used violence and weaponry to keep the world safe.
But these archetypes didn’t translate well into everyday real life. The people, especially children, were confused. When they responded to situations in a similar manner, the blood was real. People died, for real. Abuse was often the outcome of “protection.” No, violence is wrong, the people cried out. Except, of course, when….
And this is where Will Smith finds himself in 2022. Remember loving his character in Independence Day? We cheered his bravery, patriotism, and valor for standing up to an entity that threatened what he loved.
But not so much in real life when, in a moment he perceived that someone he loved and whose pain he felt personally was being threatened, he committed an act of violence.
This is not a defense of violence or justification of his actions. Merely an observation of crowd reaction.
Another observation. Why do we laugh at jokes that poke fun of others? When did that start being okay when in “real-life” situations, we are told not to make fun of other people?
Personally, this kind of humor has always made me uncomfortable—since the first time I witnessed it en masse, watching a performance by Don Rickles. He scared me big time. As a young girl, I didn’t know why. Now I understand that I felt threatened.
Perhaps that’s how Will Smith felt at the Oscars.
Yet this type of entertainment—depreciating humor—is now rampant. Could it be just another way of policing the populace? Don’t stand out too much or you may actually get noticed and thus be subject to ridicule until you step back into line.
When I was learning to be like everyone else, I went along with the crowd at times when my inner voice said no. I did, said, and participated in things that made my stomach turn inside out. No, I didn’t want to be mean or hurtful. But I also didn’t want the crowd to turn on me. That is the end result of peer pressure all too often. In today’s cancel culture that appears to be manifesting as increased teen suicides.
In the week previous to the Oscars incident, a 12-year-old girl with alopecia (the condition she shared with Jada Pinkett Smith that causes total hair loss) committed suicide after being taunted by children at school.
Yet Chris Rock was just doing his job as a comedian—making people laugh.
And this is where we find ourselves: at the intersection of media-made world and real-life world. Although the norm in one does not reflect the other, most people can’t tell the difference anymore.
So maybe it’s time to stop watching what others are doing so much and be more watchful of our own behavior. Perhaps it’s time to question if what we do supports our ideals or if our behavior is contradictory to what we believe.
Maybe it’s time to simply ask, “What do I believe?” and come up with an original answer—one that comes from the heart and not something you once read or were told or saw in a movie.
If we spent more time looking at the truth found within ourselves, I think we might become kinder in our observations of others. And that just might lead to a world where what we find entertaining is more congruent with the values we know to be true. And that might possibly lead to a world of tolerance, compassion, and appreciation. The world of 2084?
About Guard at China Airport
I wish I knew more about this image. It’s one photographed during Joe’s China trip in the early 1980s—possibly 1984—long before I knew him.
I can tell you having seen the collection of images from that trip that it stands out in subject matter. Most of his photos depict the life of interior China, capturing both the people and the landscapes of what was then still underdeveloped by Western standards. Few cars, animals used for personal and commercial transport, and fairly primitive styles of housing and farming predominant.
Yet the transition to a new culture was certainly discernible. The armed guard at the airport signaled the direction it was heading. Whether Joe took this photo for its visual appeal or its statement of contrast to where he’d just been, I don’t really know.
This is what is says to me: Big Brother Is Watching You.
But then, I’m the girl who imagined a Peanut Gallery full of hecklers. What does it say to you?
After reading your post, and even before this image says”we’re watching you”
Joe took so many amazing photos on that trip to China. Well through out his career. I did love so many of them from that trip. As he always said to me. Beauty is always there, just look for it. He was a master of seeing it everywhere.