Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Revenge TV

At the end of December, my Big Deal Hollywood Movie Studio bought a Big Deal Film Company for a Christmas bonus. The stocking stuffer was a grand round of layoffs. So I lost my Big Studio Job and more importantly, my golf cart. I’ll admit it. I cried. Not about the golf cart - really. But about leaving my safe, cozy, Big Studio nest. This meant it was time for me to live as a writer.

A Director Friend of mine was shooting a reality TV show. “Come along and see what you can learn.” She offered, “I could use your help writing for it.” So along I went. And learn I did.

This makeover/competition show was supposed to be all about radically transforming the lives and looks of three stylistically-challenged, average looking girls. They duly all showed up to the first day in baggy, shabby clothes, no makeup and bad hair. But pretty girls turning out prettier do not make for interesting TV. Viewer interest demands conflict. So my Director Friend and I spent our evenings going over the notes I made about who said what and crafting how we could get this one pissed off at that one, scared of the other one and so on.

For our first stab at creating conflict, we came up with some innocuous rivalry stuff. One did OK. One was wooden. But one seemed to have stepped right out of a Soap Opera and think she was the next Meryl Streep. At first I even liked her. Her bright smile and pretty blue eyes reminded me of my sister. But this girl was fresh out of high school where, it seemed, she traded on her looks and popularity as a cheerleader.

I can’t stand cheerleaders. Why? Nothing of substance really. Just residual teenage bitterness. Back in high school the cheerleaders were the popular girls with the perfect bodies and the boyfriends. They were the ones who ditched me on school trips, threw food at me in the quad, and ostracized me for being better at sports, better at academics, and smart-mouthed.

It was a cheerleader who, in a gym class basketball game, went up to block my lay-up and landed on my foot, twisting her ankle. She tried to beat me up right there and then for weeks while her ankle healed she egged her friends into threatening me and punching at me when I passed. Never mind my crushed foot and the small matter of it being only a game.

I considered it a personal failure when my little sister got to high school and announced she was going out for the cheer squad. I could not stop her from going to the dark side. But I knew she didn’t have it in her to be one of them. Predictably they shit on her and broke her heart by the time she graduated. Of course they did, they’re cheerleaders.

I’d heard that being on set can be a lot like high school. And true to form, the crew reminded me of the AV nerds, drama club kids and AP English geeks that had peopled my outcast existence in high school. You know, the only people actually worth hanging out with. What I hadn’t figured on were the ghosts of their cheerleaders past this one young girl would conjure. Though we never compared notes or stated anything overtly, I could see her grating on them as much as she did on me, this cheerleader revisited.

This child – a nineteen year-old, mind you – was an expert on everything from how to be a rock star to why only cute animals deserve rescue – it’s OK to kill ugly ones. On the hair makeover day, we learned all about her hard-earned cosmetology license

“Can you believe they once bleached my hair with 50 solution?” She raved to the hairstylist.

His assistant rolled his eyes and whispered to me: “They don’t make 50 solution.”

Most of all she was an expert on her own beauty often expounding upon such topics as her cheekbones or how her oval face was perfect according to, you know, world-wide beauty standards. I heard my grandmother’s voice echoing in my head: Beauty is as beauty does. This girl was clearly a stranger to the beauty of humility.

It’s been more than a few years since high school and I figured I was past all those old wounds. But as this girl’s personality climbed out of its dark little cave, I found myself pushing for scripts that would antagonize her more than the other girls. The crew was with me. It was payback. A long-awaited fantasy of being able to take down the most popular cheerleader in school. I think we would have felt worse but didn’t she deserve it? I mean she was saying and doing everything of her own free will. Not like we were manufacturing a bitch out of Mother Teresa.

As the competition heated up and she lost one makeover challenge after another (don’t ask), her horrid over-acting turned to a barrage of mind-blowing “Can we even air that?” comments; ungracious at best and bigoted and cruel at worst. Maybe it was a defense mechanism; clawing her way to any illusion of self worth as she slipped down in the standings. This girl knew everything but how to keep her big mouth shut.

At last the big finale rolls around. We all know she’s going to lose out on the grand prize. Her mouth made sure of that beyond anything we could have scripted. “Maybe she’ll cry!” is the giddy sentiment on set. Like “maybe there will be a rainbow!” So she steps in all the paces we know she will, smugly pissing the other girls and the crew off all night. And when we get to the big reveal that she has lost, her face falls, sets to stone.

The assistant director and I set up the side interview and she starts talking about her loss.

And suddenly she’s wailing. “I have no self-esteem anymore, this was all for nothing, I tried so hard, I thought I was doing well. I tried so hard.” The tears stream down and her pretty face turns red.

The assistant director’s voice wavers as he presses her to answer more questions, give us more usable sound bites. I can feel him wishing he didn’t have to do this. He’s made a pretty girl cry. We all have. We all let this girl who reminded us of those who have shit on us build herself a pink, plastic gallows. We cheered as she put her head right into the noose and smiled for her close-up. She dangles from the rope like we wanted and everyone on set shuffles, looking at their feet. The pretty girl wails on. I hurt for her. I can’t believe she is really so fragile to be cracked to the core by a silly reality show contest. I want to counsel her. I want to build her back up.

“Honey, I’m so proud of you. You’re beautiful. I don’t care about winning. I love you,” her man holds her.

“Don’t feel sorry for me!” She sputters, pushing him away.

I look at my feet. The fallen Cheerleader slinks off. Her back is to us as she hugs her man.

The second place girl steps into the interview set and we all busy ourselves with her responses. She’s fine. It was just a contest. She had fun. Her guy is glad she had fun. I watch the Cheerleader in the corner.

I don’t feel satisfaction as I imagined I would. It didn’t have the glory of payback for all the cheerleaders who were ever shitty to me. While I’m sure none of them ever gave a second thought to making me cry, I don’t feel vindicated. I feel mean. I feel like one of them. In High School I dreamed about beating them at their own game. It hadn’t dawned on me theirs wasn’t a game worth playing.

I sit with my Director Friend later. I tell her I am surprised to say I felt bad about making the Cheerleader cry; that she seemed really destroyed.

The Director smiles; “You didn’t see when she turned around.”

“See what?”

“As soon as her back was to the camera, she turned the water works off like a switch and laughed.”

And like a big sucker I fell for the Hollywood artifice. And that from the worst actress I’ve ever seen.

The next day as I watched the dailies and listened to the recorded voice of the Cheerleader sharing about how the other girls were jealous that they could never be blonde like her; she has a blonde soul, it dawned on me I couldn’t have written a better John Hughes High School villainess if I tried. She was a comical manifestation of every cheerleader who had ever stolen my homework or tripped me in the hall. I was able to laugh at her, at all of them. I finally got the lesson: time to forgive the cheerleaders of my past; revenge is a dish best not served at all.

Besides, in this Hollywood world of mine even the cheerleaders want to be the underdogs. It’s Andie and Duckie that you love, not Blaine and the Richies. You want Molly Ringwald to get Jake Ryan because she’s not the cheerleader. You love Lloyd Dobbler because he’s a big loser just like you. And you know he’s got the biggest heart and is the most fun to be with.

I’ll tell you this much: the next time I make an actress cry it will be from some brilliantly touching dialog I’m proud to have written. You can take that to your former-AP-English-geek heart.

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Blogger writergurl said...

One of my favorite (overheard) cheerleader comments:

Girl at football game: Oh, here come the jocks!

The football team runs onto the field, followed by the cheerleaders.

Girl's friend: And their supporters.

9:10 PM  
Blogger Brett said...

I'm biased 9for lots of reasons, none of them so fascinating that they rate mention here), but I've always liked cheerleaders, drillteamers, pageant queens, etc. Sure, some of them are every bit as shallow and nasty as the cliché holds, but there are lots of them who are not.

Slapping labels is a dangerous game. Not all cheerleaders are evil, just as not all eloquent witty smarty-pants wordslinging writer-types are pale near-sighted nerds with acne and ugly shoes.

My eyesight is just fine, for example.
two-tone oxfords B

10:33 AM  
Blogger Heidi said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Heidi said...

Brett, I agree with you. My intention in writing this piece was to poke fun at myself for having been so judgemental, good cause or not. And to show that I learned something about how pointless it is to generalize people like that. I felt the cheerleader angle was a funny way into the story.

10:42 AM  

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