I return! For this post, I’m gonna share my final paper for AMST 102 with y’all, a lot abridged from its 11-pages, and COMPLETE WITH DRAWINGS.
Reality television is the most unpretentious genre of popular entertainment currently around. It does not pretend to be anything other than the emotionally-jarring, backstabbing, hysterical, hyper-exaggeration of reality, shit-show that it is. It has no grandiose fantasy of high-culture standards or obtaining prestigious awards for its groundbreaking footage of the Spring Break culture. It satiates a voyeuristic fascination with how strangers live their lives, and most importantly how these strangers react under pressure. Reality TV is supposed to be life with the addition of a camera, yet the viewer knows that reality TV is actually highly formulaic. This is apparent in the exponential growth of reality TV shows that are on the air. In 2010/2011, half of the most watched shows in the United States were reality television. Reality TV is a form of mass culture, and with that comes a cheapness and thoughtless consumption that makes its viewers vulnerable to manipulation and easily influenced by the message being projected. Even though viewers of reality television recognize that there is an element of exaggeration and insincerity to the programming, it does not seem to make a difference in whether or not people watch it. Most importantly, it does not make a difference in whether or not they are influenced by the messages being spoon-fed to them.
When naming dating reality shows alone, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Joe Millionaire, Next, Flavor of Love, Elimidate, Parental Control, Temptation Island, Friendzone, The Fifth Wheel, More to Love, Blind Date, Married by America, and a slew of others come to mind. All of these shows have similar premises; they are trying to find somewhat compatible, if not predictable, partners for the participants while providing entertainment for the viewers. These shows are homogeneous and offer little authentic insight into the complexity of human relationships and love. Understanding romantic relationships is not the goal of reality television; the goal is cheap entertainment and a pacifying effect on its audience. It does not matter if the situation at hand is absurd and clearly scripted, viewers enjoy it. While the situations are insincere, the emotional response to the stress is real. That sliver of authenticity is enough to warrant attention from the audience. It does not matter that the characters on the show will only last a season (The Jersey Shore providing a notable exception to this), the viewer is invested. In Chuck Klosterman’s novel, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, Klosterman analyzes his favorite aspects of popular culture. Klosterman says, “…[Reality TV] is an extension of your own life, even though you never tried to make it that way…”.
Reality shows become popular when the contestants are memorable. They become akin to a wayward member of the family that is rarely spoken of, but whose antics are welcomed with sympathy and schadenfreude. Reality TV is influential. It is also degrading in its quality and complexity, as noted by Klosterman. “…The reason [The Real World] flourished is because its telegenic humanoids became less complex with every passing season. Multi-faceted people do not translate within The Real World format…” . The result is a low-culture interpretation of people and society. This flattens the perceived complexity of the individual, because individualism is no longer a valuable asset. Reality TV restricts the desires of the individual. There is nothing to pursue beyond the first rung of Maslow’s hierarchy in the world created by reality TV, besides perhaps one-on-one time with the camera in the confession booth, and mojitos .
Male participants do not cry; men are stoic in their resolve whereas women are expected and often goaded into shedding tears. The rise of The Jerry Springer Show is a superlative example of programming that flourished because of emotional appeal. Contestants are brought on and goaded into what can only be described as emotional blood sport. The bouncers half-heartedly restrain the contestants as they rabidly claw at the object of their distress and humiliation.
The cacophonous verbal argument that ensues is punctuated by the bleep of the censor. There seems to be a notion that a willingness to throw down gloves at the slightest provocation translates into strength and not emotional instability. Reality show producers purposefully choose contestants that are powder kegs. The catalyst can range from snide comments about another contestant’s genitalia (That’s Amore, S:1, ep:6), to a suspicious passing glance (The Jersey Shore S:1. ep:1). The lust for conflict creates palpable tension on the stage of reality TV shows, especially in programs that feature communal living over long periods of time.
With the title of ‘reality television’, it is important to remember that it is reality second, and television first.
I’ll be back soon!