Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tyler Clementi, Wheel of Fortune and social transformation. . .

After Tyler Clementi's suicide last month, I found myself wondering why it is so difficult for us to take each other as we come. I recognize some people have religious reasons for not condoning homosexuality, but whose God really expects them to harass sensitive 18-year-olds to death?

All this made me remember a memorable half-hour I spent last January watching Wheel of Fortune. 

I like Wheel of Fortune. As a journalist, my days are full of deadlines, malfunctioning equipment, complicated logistics, etc. At the end of a particularly savage day, I like to relax amid the pleasantness emanating from Pat Sajack, Vanna White, and the disembodied voice of their buddy in the booth. I have never, in twenty years of occasional viewing, heard or seen Mr. Sajack, Ms. White or the Voice say or do anything mean or snide or ungenerous—either to each other or to a contestant. I find their company as relaxing as I used to find double Manhattans, of which, sadly, I drank up my lifetime allotment years ago.

So what profound social transformation am I talking about?

That night on Wheel there were as usual three contestants lined up behind their counter like chickens at a feed trough. The two end ones said, as is customary for married contestants, that they were married to wonderful persons, and the middle one — Robert — announced he was engaged to a wonderful person.

Well, engaged Robert turned out to be a whiz at Wheel. He spun lustily, clapped prodigiously, and in due course won a trip for himself and his fiancée, quite a bit of money, and the chance to play for the ever-invoked “big money” in the bonus round — coming up right after some words from the show’s sponsors.

It has always seemed to me that the Wheel of Fortune ads say a lot about Wheel of Fortune demographics (the socio/economic norm of people who watch the show). Wheel ads are invariably for such things as dentures, depression medication, and pills for men in need of sexual enhancement — in other words they’re for things that appeal to regular Americans, leading regular lives. This show must be beloved by millions of people who, like me, find real life chaotic and turn to Wheel of Fortune for a dose of unchanging and unchallenging entertainment.

So, after a long set of such ads, we reconvened on the Wheel set to watch Robert do his best in the bonus round—during which he would have ten seconds to figure out a word or a phrase filled in with just the letters RSTLNE, plus 3 consonants and a vowel of his choice. I had my fingers crossed for Robert. Anyone who succeeds in the bonus round wins something extra grand.

It’s traditional for persons playing the bonus round to introduce the friends or family members who have come with them. So the camera parked itself on a smiling young man, Pat Sajak asked Robert who he was, and Robert said that the young man was his fiancée, Chuck. The audience and Vanna White clapped an enthusiastic welcome, Robert went on to nail the bonus round and win 40-thousand dollars. Chuck came running over and the two of them hugged, while the camera panned the audience who were all smiling like newly crowned Miss Americas.

I sat up straight up in my chair and and  looked at my husband. “Charlie,” I said, “this is truly a memorable month to be alive and American! First we inaugurate a black President; now we welcome an engaged, same-sex couple onto Wheel of Fortune.”

I remember so clearly being stirred to my counter-culture, anti-war demonstrating toes while listening to Bob Dylan sing that “The Times They are a Changing.” I watched Robert and Chuck celebrating their good fortune on Wheel of Fortune and asked myself if it could possibly be, after all these years, that the times have finally, really changed.

If so, I guess, that change has yet to trickle down from Wheel of Fortune into college dorms. Let's just hope we haven't degenerated as a culture to the point that people find the kind of cruelty visited upon Tyler Clementi entertaining.


  1. For some reason that story brought tears to my eyes. I'm a gay, former drinker, you hit all my buttons.

    The Tyler Clementi suicide, shameful. Shame on a culture that has encouraged such behavior, I know I sound like my mother, but i don't care.

    I love your blog. Thanks for writing such meaningful posts.


  2. After 23 years in juvenile court, I believe that teenagers learn from the experiences of their peers, not just from being lectured by those in authority. Consequently, “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” was published in January, 2010.

    Endorsed by Dr. Phil on April 8, 2010 ["Bullied to Death" show], “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” presents real cases of teens in trouble over their online and cell phone activities.

    Civil & criminal sanctions have been imposed on teens over their emails, blogs, text and IM messages, Facebook entries and more. TCI is interactive and promotes education & awareness so that our youth will begin to “Think B4 U Click.”

    Thanks for looking at “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” on http://www.freespirit.com [publisher] or on http://www.askthejudge.info [a free website for & about teens and the law].

    Respectfully, -Judge Tom.

  3. I loved this, Martha, thank you!

  4. Thanks for an excellent article Martha! Two of the nicest people I've ever known are a married couple, Allen and David. They crack me up because they are so incredibly typical as partners, laughing, mildly bickering, and just being happily in love. One is a doctor, the other an owner of 2 businesses.
    I was raised by religious parents who taught me that homosexuality was a sin to be condemned. It took me a long time to shake that mentality. I, too, am happy that this country is finally coming to see the true picture, and that we can celebrate gay couples as easily as straight ones

  5. ok so that episode was great, I mean the staff at wheel was supportive and friendly to both me and chuck... they never edited out anything and they knew he was there and he was my fiance cause they ask ahead of time before the taping they never once regulated how I acted or what I said and I am grateful to have this opportunity, I mean they knew from the beginning I was gonna be myself and make no quams about it... and I thank everyone for their feedback about the show... thinking about it now I was not trying to make a statement I was just being who I normally am with no apologies.... my philosophy has always been take me as I am or not at all.... and the Wheel of fortune Show did... thanks a bunch everyone, Robert A Kent..

  6. Robert, thanks so much for the post. And for being you!