An Academic (Almost) Does the WB

Rich Benjamin gets snared in the reality television craze and learns some lessons about obsession with youth and life as a gay intellectual.

March 2, 2005

America is the land of identity fraud.

Not only is identity theft on the rise, as criminals more readily exploit technology to steal their victim's identity, but Americans increasingly fake their own identity for financial, professional, or social gain. The ever-increasing powers of technology, combined with louder siren calls of celebrity and wealth at all costs, undermine our personal ethics, nurturing a land of dreamers and hucksters.  

For a while, I became one of them.

This summer I strolled into the WB studios in New York City. I arrived at the casting department to audition for their youth reality series Studio 7. The series would throw seven strangers into a deluxe Manhattan apartment for a week, filming their every move. The week would culminate in a quiz show competition, pitting the seven housemates against one another, awarding $77,000 to a sole winner.  

But there was a catch. WB, the network of sophomoric shows devoted to young folks, set a strict age cap for contestants: 24.

Rather than disclose my age, let's just say I'm at least seven years over the show's age limit. But I've been told countless times that I look 18.

During the "audition," casting directors submitted applicants to a pop quiz on politics and pop culture. The quiz asked various questions such as the name of the author of Against All Enemies: Inside America?s War on Terror (Richard Clarke); the name of the famous comedienne scribe of the hit 'tween chick flick Mean Girls (Tina Fey); the number of editions of NYPD Blue on air (five); and names of the contenders for the 2004 Democratic nomination. The casting directors also administered a lengthy questionnaire. In person and in writing, I kept it bubbly, doing my best to impersonate a vapid, trivia-savvy young dude.

The network folks demanded to know my strategy for winning the contest. Determined to be cast and to win, I described my Blonde Ambition strategy to casting directors. I told them that people often underestimate me. Therefore I'd "play blonde" during the show, fooling my competitors into a state of false ease. This strategy served me well in college, I told central casting. As an undergrad, I mastered an air of nonchalance, which gave the impression that this honorary blonde never studied. Of course, I secretly did. Such a strategy disarmed classmates.   

After taking the timed quiz, and submitting to a videotaped interview, the casting director photographed me, and I left the audition on my merry way.

Life went on. About three weeks after the interview, I got a call from the most senior casting director congratulating me. I'd been selected among many applicants as a contestant. I was thrilled. Visions of fame and fortune waltzed in my mind. Not so fast.   The studio demanded a slew of requirements before I could appear in the series to compete for the dough. I'd have to show that I didn't have HIV or hepatitis, and that I was in good psychological health. No problem, I thought. Then came the kicker. I'd have to supply a state-issued I.D. before entering the lush apartment housing the reality show's contestants. What a real dilemma.

What to do? On the one had, I reasoned that fraud is fraud. Telling producers I'm 22 years old is one thing. But falsifying state documents is quite another. Even if I chose to sneak my way onto the reality show set with a fake I.D., where in the world would I get one? On this matter, like all real world matters, I consulted my barber, Chris. My question generated surprise and pity from him, like why is this poor moron asking such a pathetic question. "Chinatown. Times Squares," Chris replied. ("Duh," I thought to myself. Chinatown. Times Square. The lands of the simulacra. Where else would I find a fake I.D.?)

So cash in hand, I scouted both Chinatown and Times Square for fake ID's.  In Chinatown, one prospective supplier shook his head. "You college students! What's the rush to be 21?" he asked. "Brother, soon you? You'll want those years back!"

"No, you don't understand," I corrected. "I don't want an ID to make me 'legal.' I want an I.D. subtracting years from my age! I want a reverse fake ID." Ultimately, I didn't find one. Securing a fake I.D., without any college contacts in a Republican-governed Disneyfied New York City is more difficult than you probably realize.

For weeks this venture into identity fraud kept me awake at night. It was a clichéd scenario of good angel, bad devil offering me contradictory advice. A devilish voice berated me for not taking the risk and competing in the reality series. "Fool! If reality show contestants regularly lie about their sanity and criminal record, what?s so bad about shaving a handful of years from your age?" Angel: "Forging documents -- no matter the end -- is always a bad idea."

The scholar in me couldn't resist the philosophical quandaries. Obviously, forging another person's identity is wrong. But what about my own? Doesn't my identity belong to me? Sure, in the public sector, we have established identities to maintain public security, to distribute public benefits, to understand our nation's demographics, etc. But in my private life, is "revising" my identity so bad?

Ultimately, I wish this tawdry identity crisis had only been about winning some money.  Unfortunately, I realized this crazy episode -- a Stanford Ph.D. successfully auditioning for a WB reality series, then agonizing what to do -- concerned more than money. This awkward pursuit of a fake identity had more profound roots than I initially realized. This identity dilemma reflected a wellspring of anxiety over aging -- and even turmoil over being a gay intellectual.

For the better part of a decade, my academic life enabled me to lead a very busy social life, and my social life fed furious bouts of workaholism.  On the one hand, the often self-designed working hours that grad students and professors keep permit a hyperactive nightlife. As a professor, one doesn't have a boss hovering over one's shoulders.  When asked by interviewers three reasons why I entered the Profession, I've always been tempted to reply "June, July, and August." On the other hand, our work comes home with us, as technology keeps us emotionally yoked to the constant demands of the profession.

For me, the very nature of intellectual labor and my Protestant work ethic fueled a nearly insatiable hunger to enjoy also the ephemeral frisson of gay nightlife. (Or did the insatiable hunger fuel my choice in careers?) Alas, this gay nightlife feeds one's nostalgia for youth, like an implacable beast. Our society's worship of youth and beauty is perhaps nowhere more pronounced than among urban gay men. Johnny Symons' documentary Beauty Before Age offers a gay male perspective on a stereotypically female issue, social mania over youth and physical beauty. This mania, according to this trenchant doc, is intensified in gay circumstances because of a single-sex male-dominated sexual milieu; the lack of positive older gay role models; and the ways in which AIDS both intensify and confuse the fear of aging. Indeed, I personally know gay men who began Botox treatments by their 30th birthday. Gay social life in cities equals a coarse contemporary ode to Dorian Gray.

As a philosopher said, our virtues often double as our faults. In my case, youth -- or my youthful appearance, more precisely -- has been a source of pride and pain. On the one hand, I have internalized our national fixation with youth. I had completed my doctorate from Stanford well before turning 30, secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) wanting to play the part of the prodigy professor. Spending all of my 20s in New York, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley, I accepted as gospel the supposed virtues (market assets, really) of youth: newness, beauty, energy. When people commented on my young appearance, I feigned disgust.  "What a lame comment," I complained, rolling my eyes.  But, in my mind, such an observation never failed to register as a compliment, no matter its intention. (Such comments never failed to flatter me -- even though some people clearly meant them as barbs.) It didn't bother me that I'm constantly carded.

In the past decade, Silicon Valley and Hollywood ratcheted up the national worship of youth, endlessly celebrating their dreams and feats.  The culture industry invents and markets the apparel, the cosmetic fixes, the digital gadgets, the entertainment filler, and the requisite drugs (legal and illicit) to keep us young.  In short, the culture converged into one huge blob worshipping all that was fast, shiny, facile, and new.

Especially when combined with America's anti-intellectualism, youth worship has created a toxic cocktail for my identity and self worth. From Benjamin Franklin's scolding Protestant proverb, "Better done than said" to Nike's ad campaign "Just do it!" America has always fancied deeds over words. In its most extreme form, our obsession with action over reflection becomes rank anti-intellectualism. Not only does America often favor action, it spews a deep suspicion and hatred for intellectualism, or the life of the mind.

It comes as little surprise, then, that wisdom -- best associated with age -- is undervalued in this society, while youth and active vigor are put at a premium. Thus I've carried mixed baggage over being an intellectual in a can-do young society. A society that cherishes certain forms of achievement over others. Our social values coax us that unless you're making money -- or you see yourself on television -- you haven't achieved much. Like my American just-do-it brethren, I've always felt very ambivalent and unimpressed by my own academic accomplishments. 

But slowly I've come to realize that my obsession with youth -- my own and other people's -- bordered on crippling stasis. The premium on looking, feeling, acting, and being young bears large responsibility for the country's chronic cultural vapidity. This premium has often held my judgment and intellect hostage, as I grew too willing to embrace expedience, mediocrity, emptiness, and/or the lowest common social denominator.

Well, ultimately I declined WB's offer to compete in its show. Given my advancing years, I'll just have to hold out to compete legally on Survivor XXVIII, where contestants compete to survive the world's most brutal island: Manhattan.


Rich Benjamin is a cultural critic in New York City. He earned his doctorate in media studies from Stanford University.


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