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Why I Hate This “Homeless Veteran Makeover” Video, and Why You Should Too

November 9th, 2013 | Posted by Philip J Reed in internet | personal | politics

Jim Wolf, United States Army Veteran

There’s been a video circulating over the past few days of a homeless veteran getting a makeover. I…am kind of surprised that I could type that sentence and then still need to follow it up with an explanation of why that’s absurd, manipulative and outright demeaning, but with 5.1 million views on YouTube and counting — and a constant presence in my social media streams — it seems that it really does need to be discussed.

So, please, if you haven’t already, add one more view to the video, and we’ll continue. Because as many times as I’ve seen this referred to as “inspiring” and “magical,” it’s really just offensive. And exploitative. And we should be embarrassed by it.

When I first came across the above video, it was spotlighted in this post. The title of that post assured me that the video would give me chills. That was kind of interesting since the thumbnail and description pretty much suggested they were just giving this guy a haircut, but I figured it was worth watching. After all, why would that give me chills?

Maybe at the end his little daughter that he hasn’t seen in years would come out and hug him, or something. That would still be manipulative, but it might also successfully provide “chills” so…okay.

But, nope. It’s a haircut. Oh, and they trim his beard and give him a tie.

Wow, chills. Except for the fact that I grew up in southern New Jersey, and “hairy guy trims his beard and puts on a tie” isn’t uncommon to anyone familiar with the concept of prom night.

So, fine. Chills or no chills, that’s not the point.

This is the point: as a culture — as a society…as a civilization — we’re already doing our damnedest to give every man, woman and child body image issues. All this video succeeds in doing is extending that particular neurosis to the homeless as well.

It’s sickening. And I realize that this requires further unpacking. So, hey, I’ve got some time. Do you?

Then let’s proceed.

The balance of content in the video is the giveaway. Or, rather, the clear imbalance. In a video that’s about two minutes and fifty seconds long, two minutes and twenty seconds are spent on the makeover. The assurance that the veteran Jim Wolf has turned his life around is relegated to two vague slides of text.

Ask yourself what’s more important, as far as the video is concerned. Is it the way he looks? Or is it the more positive direction his life has now taken? It’s not a matter of opinion; there’s a clear answer here. It comes down to the fact that he looked like a hobo, but has now been groomed and dressed up.

To me, it’s more important to know whether or not Jim Wolf left the studio to sleep in a gutter again that night. To the makers of the video, it’s more important to know whether or not he was wearing a tie when he did so. And that’s disgusting.

It comes down to more than just the amount of time the video spends on each, though: the execution is also telling, and more important when interpreting what’s happening here.

We start with an image of our subject, alongside a caption that reads “Jim Wolf, United States Army Veteran.”

That’s a name, and that’s a fact. That’s not a description.

Who is Jim? What’s his history? “Army Veteran” says precisely nothing. Did he serve overseas? Was he involved in any wars or conflicts? Where was he stationed? With whom did he serve? What years was he active? What was his role? What was his specialty?

Does any of that matter when determining whether or not to thank him for his service? Of course not. But it’s meant to illustrate just how vague a descriptor “United States Army Veteran” is. One veteran could have served in Vietnam and been the lone survivor of an ill-fated recon mission. One veteran could have served in Texas during a time of no conflict and filed paperwork all day.

I’m not suggesting that one is inherently better or worse than the other, but I am suggesting that the two human beings would have very different experience from each other. They’re both veterans. Fine. But that means nothing. As human beings, they’re worlds apart.

Of course, the video isn’t interested in treating Jim Wolf as a human being. When we aren’t even made privy to his years of service, there’s your giveaway that this isn’t about helping an individual; this is about the manipulation of the audience.

It’s also telling that Wolf doesn’t get any chance to speak. We don’t get to hear his story. I’m sure he has one, but the video is more interested in the fact that a disheveled man gets a haircut. What, exactly, is meant to be inspiring about this again?

Well, I’ll tell you: the music and the editing. That’s what’s meant to inspire. Not the substance (because there is none), not Wolf’s story (because it actively prevents us from hearing it), and not the assurance that Wolf is going to be any better off (because…well, we’ll get to that).

The score builds and layers and rollicks toward triumph, and the time-lapse nature of the editing hurtles toward a grand reveal. It’s a bait and switch, and one borrowed from the most deliberately misleading film trailers. It wants to generate a certain feeling in us, but it’s a feeling that the material itself cannot provide. It’s the hollowest possible kind of “inspiration,” and it’s one that only works because it withholds the humanity.

What if Wolf spoke? Well, he probably wouldn’t sound like Ryan Gosling or Alec Baldwin so it’s not worth hearing him. After all, he might sound human. Or, worse, he might sound like the actual homeless guy that he is. You know…raspy and sick and probably a little upset that the country he served is now content to let him sleep outside on frigid nights. We can’t let that come across, otherwise the haircut might seem…oh…a little silly.

Wolf has a problem. That problem is the country he lives in. That problem is that country’s approach to dealing with the sick and the poor and the unemployed and the homeless.

That problem is emphatically not going to be solved by a haircut, a shave, and a necktie. And yet this makeover video wants you to come away feeling that it is solved that way. Because that’s easy. That’s visual. And, what’s more, it’s easy on the eye.

This constant whitewashing of our problems is the problem.

You don’t fix what’s wrong with your society through makeovers, through songs, or through speeches. You stand up and you say, “This is wrong. This is a problem. And we are going roll up our sleeves and we are going to fix this because if we see something is wrong and we don’t do that, then who are we?”

And then you know what we do?

We actually do that.

We don’t make a video about it.

We don’t circulate a link on Facebook.

We don’t wear a ribbon or put a sticker on our car.

We get. The fuck. To work.

And if we don’t do that…then who are we?

Of course, all of my points above are moot in the face of the fact that this Homeless Veteran Magic Haircut (patent pending) turned Jim Wolf’s life around.

Right?

…right?

Well, let’s look at all two of the unverifiable sentences that suggest that that’s the case. The first one reads, in its entirety, “Since filming, Jim has taken control of his life.”

Huh. Well, ya don’t say.

What does that mean exactly? What can that mean? The lengths to which the video goes to keep any specific information about Wolf away from us is almost frightening.

Forget Wolf for a moment. Do you have control of your life? Do I? Of course not. How could we? Life is full of curveballs and unexpected obstacles and problems that need to be overcome. What does it mean to “take control” of one’s life?

Does it mean you find employment? Find love? Manage to scrape together enough change to buy groceries? Live through the night? Get handed a blanket by a good Samaritan?

It’s different for everybody. Which is why it’s entirely meaningless. It’s a nice thing to hear, but it says, again, precisely nothing.

Jim Wolf is not a human being. At least, not in the eyes of this video. Jim Wolf is a homeless veteran, brought into a studio to be made a spectacle of. The filmmakers don’t care about him, and they didn’t. If they did, they’d know something about him. And therefore so would we. Instead, for all we know, he’s back on the streets.

Oh, but the second slide reads (again, in its entirety), “He is now scheduled to have his own housing and is attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the first time ever.”

Well, that’s more specific. …kinda.

What does “scheduled to have his own housing” mean? It still sounds suspiciously like “nothing” to me. And does that mean he’s still sleeping on the streets? Couldn’t Degage Ministries — who so kindly pulled a homeless man off the streets to solicit donations and then released him back onto the streets — give him a place to stay? Maybe they did, but then why wouldn’t they say that?

After all, if their objective is to inspire me with this magical video, I can say conclusively that I’d be far more inspired by hearing that some ministry gave a homeless man food, clothing and shelter than I am by hearing that some ministry gave him a haircut and a pat on the back. And I’d hope to God that you would be, too.

There’s also a grammatical issue with the AA claim, as you can’t keep “attending” something “for the first time ever.” Due to that I’m not even sure what the truth is. Did he go once? Does he keep going? I think it’s the latter, but how would they know that? He can stop at any time. And even if he doesn’t, should this really be his priority when he still doesn’t have a place to live?

The video isn’t inspiring. The video is sickening. By taking a homeless man and framing a shave and a haircut as the solution to his problem, they’re robbing the problem of its bite. They’re making it something we need to worry less about. And, what’s more, it makes all those dirty, bearded homeless people look like they just don’t care. After all, if they really wanted to turn their lives around, they’d put on a tie. Just look what it did for old Jim Wolf!

Don’t circulate the video. Please. And if somebody you respect does, send them here. Or talk to them about it.

You’re not stupid if you looked at this and felt inspired. That’s what it was designed to make you feel.

But you shouldn’t feel inspired by anything that takes a serious, profound problem with the very core of the society in which you live, and presents it as trivial and easily overcome.

You’re better than that. And Jim Wolf, whoever he is, wherever he is, deserves better than that. The truly respectful thing to do for Wolf would be to treat him as a human being. This video decidedly does not.

Thank you for your service, Jim. And I’m sorry this happened to you.

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27 Responses

  • Mark Babineau says:

    Thanks for sharing this inspiring video with us Philip! I too agree that this was incredibly moving and motivational. They completely transformed this mans life.

    This story really makes me think and reflect back at life. I think I’ll get another dog.

    • Skippy says:

      Did, um, you read the article? You’re not agreeing that it’s moving and motivational, because Philip doesn’t think so. (And I agree with him. Vague, manipulative and self-congratulatory is more like it.)

  • Lauren says:

    Well done. Would you mind if I use this as an example if rhetorical analysis in my College Writing class?

  • Brian says:

    Hey, good article. I was of the exact (well, similar) opinion, and did a little search to see if my sentiments were shared. I think the most AMAZING part is when they color his hair… it’s so important for homeless and alcohol dependent people to look as good as they can!

    • Philip J Reed says:

      Haha, I wondered what that stuff was. Thanks for letting me know it was dye. This thing gets even sillier the more I think about it.

      Not to mention that this haircut took place sometime in September, and the video was posted not 10 days into October…and they already see it fit to declare it a success story.

      Talk about instant gratification.

  • I’m glad for your post and shocked how much distribution this video has received. I was never critical of Mr.Wolf or his important story… I was always critical of how a time-lapse video lapses over the much needed time it takes to heal and navigate the obstacles it takes to truly start over. I think we live in a moment where media like this “feel good” clip makes the world’s injustices more paletable instead of inciting real activism and awareness. Visual Ideology 101.

    Love your blog.

  • Justin says:

    This video hasn’t cracked the 49th parallel so far as I know and so this is the first I’ve heard of it. Seems like another Kony-esque groaner. Glad people aren’t telling me how inspiring they find it. I’d go nuts.

  • greg bryan says:

    Actually jimmy grew up in neighborhood. My wife worked with him as a college intern in middle school where he had many troubles but likeable. Got tossed out of service for drinking spent years on the street in grand rapids Michigan. Helped out by my brother and others from the neighborhood. Struggled with drugs and booze and after the makeover was just arrested in GR last weekend for drunkedness etc. But looked a lot better for the mug shit. Its sad but j agree, feel good actions by people to make th!e world right are an insult to the human tragedy that shaped his life years ago. Good luck Jimmy…. new meaning to the phrase ” clothes make the man” and soon the man will be undressed, his 15 minutes of fame fade and the sadness of life will overtake.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      Thank you for your comment, Greg. I’m very sorry to hear that. This honestly couldn’t be better evidence of why an “approach” like this doesn’t work…yet Degage Ministries is pulling in the donations and very few people will ever hear this side of the story.

      I appreciate the comment. This is heartbreaking.

  • Justin Archer says:

    First, thank you Phillip for trying to make better sense of this video and trying to address the problems behind the video. But I feel there is another aspect, view point to be taken, on this video that you couldn’t know without more insight from another perspective.

    I served 8 years in the United States Marine Corps and, in recent history, found myself homeless. When you get to that level it’s hard to see yourself worth more than what you currently are. As a homeless person, you can look at someone you consider successful and say to yourself, “I can’t do that, I’m not able to.” The path to success becomes a foggy road. This video is a symbol that change is possible, you can see this when Jim looks in the mirror at the end, that is the pinnacle moment.

    I’d like to share with you my analytical view point as you have with me.

    You mention the video’s content and duration. I see this video as being to the point about the first change that needs to be made. You do have to realize that you can be more than a hobo on the street before you can start moving towards that goal. It sends a quick message that change is possible.

    I’m glad the history of Jim Wolf was excluded. Without a backstory, this video becomes a template for any homeless veteran where they can make the same changes that Jim did. If more information was added, it would simply be a story about Jim and be less of an inspirational piece for others.

    The project of the video is to take a homeless guy, clean him up, and put him in a suit. This may seem like a meaningless gesture but we have to look at the modern meaning of a suit. The business suit is a symbol of power. Whether you agree with the social dynamics of that statement or not is irrelevant, this is the world we live in. At some level, putting on a business suit gives you a sense of power, confidence, determination, and pride. I’m sure Jim hasn’t felt that in a very long time. The suit isn’t correcting the problem, no, but it can help boost his will power.

    Now this is where you’ll see a change in my discussion. You disagree with the wording in the conclusion slide, and I can agree with you on a level. Scheduling a housing and AA meeting is simple and shows no real accomplishment. This is much like scheduling a doctor’s appointment, writing a future date and time on a paper means nothing if you never actually show. And the fact that it is all that they listed shows they didn’t have much else to tell.

    But we can’t blame the makers of the video for this, they gave Jim the opportunity to make the correction himself. In the end, it’s the decisions you make for yourself that determine your place in the world. It was Jim’s decision to attend those meetings or not. And I’m sure those meetings would have spawned employment counseling if attended.

    Reading the comments I see that Jim apparently regressed back to his previous situation and hasn’t made much for himself following the video. This is a personal issue and he clearly hasn’t overcome yet. His internal struggle stopped him from being more productive with the events surrounding the video, no one else.

    I understand feeling badly for someone, but I have no time to feel badly for someone who was given a chance and wasted it. But this is not the case of every homeless person.

    This video should be circulated, but it needs to hit the right audience, the homeless. I don’t think the intention of this video is to show how to help, but to show that there is still hope. When I watch this video I connect with Jim’s emotions so well it brings me to tears every time he sees himself in the mirror, and I’ve watched this several times already.

    With the right level of circulation, this video could hit directors and case managers working in homeless shelters who can show it to the people occupying that shelter and give them the hope they need.

    In its simplest form, without the over analysis, without wondering what’s happening behind the scenes, and directed to the right audience, this is a very magical and inspirational video.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      Justin:
      Thank you for taking the time to comment and disagree respectfully. That means more to me than any agreement ever could, and I mean that sincerely.

      I don’t seek to refute any point you’ve made, especially since — as you correctly point out — there’s a whole other perspective at work here, and it’s one I don’t have access to myself. And I’m happy that you took the time to share that. So thank you.

      I would, however, like to draw attention to what I feel is the salient point in what you said: the audience is important.

      That’s something I didn’t address above, but it’s worth speaking to. You’re right; this is the sort of thing that can encourage the homeless, or even anyone whose life has fallen apart. I’m positive that the final image of looking in the mirror and seeing what seems to be a new man staring back would be far more inspirational in that context.

      However, the video isn’t made for that audience…the video is made as a plea for donations, which is pretty clearly not something homeless people would be able to make.

      This is the sort of thing that may well be inspiration to the homeless, to those who operate shelters, to those who have a family member who has fallen on hard times, or anything along those lines. I absolutely don’t object to something like this being put to those ends.

      I do object to what it’s actually doing, though, which is using Wolf as clickbait so that more people will see their plea for donations. That seems dehumanizing to me.

      I’m glad you were able to see some good in the video. And I mean that. I do think that it knew its intended audience, though…and that was an audience with disposable income. The very people it could help most were excluded from seeing it. After all, if they really wanted to inspire the homeless or those in shelters, they’d put their resources into turning this into a feature in those free newspapers instead.

      • Justin Archer says:

        *like*
        I’m glad I could help you see the other side of the video, but you are correct. The marketing and entrapping aspect of this video is…negative. I guess my reply was fueled by your choice of wording in the title. I agree with your idea of it being manipulative, and likely intended to be so, but I hope you see now how “hating” the video might have been a bit much.

        • Philip J Reed says:

          No worries at all Justin. Your reply may have been fueled by a disagreement with my methods (irony at work, considering what I was complaining about!) but you were thorough, thoughtful, and fair. None of those things are prerequisites for expressing your opinion here, but I did want to take a moment to express how glad I was to see that that was the case.

          Thank you for taking the time, and thank you for your service. I’m saddened to know that you did find yourself homeless for a time, but it sounds as though you’re in a much better situation now. While I wouldn’t hold anybody’s unfortunate circumstances against them, I think the fact that you’ve managed to rise from them says a lot about your strength of character.

          Glad to have you aboard. :)

  • Pingback: Veteran Makeover Confuses Issues | House The Homeless

  • Philip J Reed says:

    Everyone should absolutely check out the Pingback link just above this comment. Great read.

  • Pingback: Upworthless | Noiseless Chatter

  • Andrew says:

    What did you do Philip? Nice speech Sir. What did you do? For country or for JIm. Think about it.

    Andrew
    Former USN Combat Veteran

  • Skippy says:

    Thanks for posting this. Awful video. I had the same expectations as you going in, but the end result was terrible. I’m sure many people will think that it’s better than doing nothing, but I’m not so sure. The message is clear: homelessness, alcoholism and mental illness can be fixed with a haircut and a suit. That’s a dangerous idea because it just reinforces the notion that they’re simple problems to cure, and that people in such situations just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

    The video should be pulled and re-edited, along with news of Jim’s subsequent arrest. That should be the message here — lifelong problems need constant and continued attention, not a brief spotlight.

  • Emily says:

    I would like to use this article as part of a project in my COMS class. Would that be ok?

  • Sarah Portland says:

    Ugh. This is the problem that I had with that stupid “First Kiss” video: manipulation of the viewer for monetary gain. In this case, they use him as clickbait to get donations. In the kissing video, people think they are watching some sweet interactions which are later to be revealed as being set up for an ad.
    All aboard the bus for a feels trip!

  • MissSea says:

    I’m curious as to how you would expect a non-profit to generate funds for their work in this digital day and age? Almost everything is “clickbait” … and this is a COMMERCIAL. Plain and simple. It may not run on ABC or TBS, but it’s a quick and easy way to generate interest in a cause. Your recommendation to show what happened to him later (the rearrest) is TERRIBLE. I’m going out on the proverbial limb here, but I hardly think folks would want to open wallets if the group HAD mentioned his subsequent rearrest. Why would anyone want to give money to a group who demonstrated failure? Of course, that has nothing to do with the group’s actual message, purpose or success record in helping those they’re committed to helping … but it’s the knee-jerk reaction our culture seems to have when presented with failure.

    And I have a problem with this comment: “Couldn’t Degage Ministries — who so kindly pulled a homeless man off the streets to solicit donations and then released him back onto the streets — give him a place to stay?” What, is he a stray dog the ministry is adopting? Is it the ministry’s job to provide him with that? No! He is still a man with free will and choice.

    Incidentally, I didn’t see the message as “a suit and tie will make you successful”. I saw a man who looked at himself and saw something worthy. As an individual who suffers from depression, I can tell you, there are plenty of times when I look in the mirror and see nothing of value. Doesn’t matter that I’m “successful” by society’s standards (educated, married, mother) … it’s a psychological issue. From earlier comments, this man has seen enough to want to drown those images in a bottle. He has trauma that needs to be addressed BY him putting himself on the right track with counseling. But the NPG is at least trying to make an effort to point out where those tracks are.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      “I’m curious as to how you would expect a non-profit to generate funds for their work in this digital day and age? Almost everything is “clickbait” … and this is a COMMERCIAL. Plain and simple.”

      I don’t think it’s plain OR simple. When it’s being done on behalf of a church or any kind of religious institution, one would expect a certain degree of ethical or moral consideration. The fact that it’s “clickbait” isn’t what’s troubling. (Or, at least, that’s a whole other conversation.) The fact that an actual human being in need of actual help was being exploited by an organization to generate funds which they then…didn’t actually use to help him or anyone like him, that’s what I’d call problematic.

      “I hardly think folks would want to open wallets if the group HAD mentioned his subsequent rearrest.”

      Well, quite. One might argue that that’s why they shouldn’t be making a public spectacle of homeless vets with serious mental health issues for the sake of getting folks to open their wallets in the first place.

      “Why would anyone want to give money to a group who demonstrated failure?”

      …is the solution to trick people into giving money in spite of their failure? I’m not sure what you’re asking here. If you’d like to speak to the effectiveness of the advertisement, that’s fine. But I’ll return to my first point about the ethical and moral obligations of a religion-based non-profit. If Pepsi had done this, it would still be shitty. But at the same time, Pepsi is running a business, and its obligation is to make money. A religious non-profit should be held to higher and much different standards, especially since a lack of ability to generate funds without exploiting those they claim to be helping is probably a sign that the responsibility should be left to more efficient and effective non-profits.

      “What, is he a stray dog the ministry is adopting? Is it the ministry’s job to provide him with that? No! He is still a man with free will and choice.”

      Why feed a hungry person? Is he a pigeon? Why offer a job to an unemployed person? Is he a mule? The fact that the mere suggestion of sheltering a homeless man is absurd to you speaks to, I have to conclude, a fundamental difference in how you and I view humanity. You see such outreach as reducing him to the status of an animal…and I could not disagree more. I think kindness, charity, and meeting need head-on are very human things to do.

      “I saw a man who looked at himself and saw something worthy.”

      But it wasn’t a solution. And it is not a solution for anybody. As you yourself said, when you struggle with issues like that, you need actual help. You look in the mirror and see nothing of value, even though you know that’s false. A new dress or fancy hairdo or a night on the town might well lift your spirits for a time…but it’s not a solution. If they really wanted to make an impact, that money should have been spent on mental health sessions for Mr. Wolf. (Look up how much this production cost, incidentally. I don’t know how easy that information is to find as it was delivered to me anonymously and I was asked politely not to post it, but I can promise you it was far more expensive than a haircut typically is, and would have easily covered several months’ worth of sessions with a licensed therapist.) The problem is that they went the visual route with Mr. Wolf, applying a camera-friendly patch to a serious problem and setting him loose to face every demon that was still there waiting for him. That’s exploitation. By applying that money to therapy and bookending the commercials with interviews showing how much it’s helped him, they could get the same message across…but it wouldn’t have looked as nice on camera, and would have taken a longer time. When an ostensibly charitable organization puts the actual charity behind appearances, I have a major problem with that. In this case, it’s outright inhuman.

      “He has trauma that needs to be addressed BY him putting himself on the right track with counseling.”

      Which is precisely what any real charity would have helped him with.

      “But the NPG is at least trying to make an effort to point out where those tracks are.”

      I didn’t see any tracks pointed out except for the ones that demonstrably didn’t work. These people are by no means the only charity that are in a position to help people like Mr. Wolf. And being as they objectively did NOT help Mr. Wolf, I’d say they’re the least deserving of contributions. But that’s just my opinion; what I wanted to do was take what I thought was a very high-profile case study and dissect what it does to a viewer. If it pushed buttons, that’s a good thing. You should never feel obligated to agree with anybody’s conclusion (especially not mine), but the fact that you’ve been led to think more deeply about it is, I feel, crucial to understanding who we are as human beings.

      Thanks for commenting!



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