A Defense of Reality TV: Identity and Ideology

reality_tv_island

Stories are ingrained in nearly every form of entertainment we consume. Modern Art is an excellent example of the pervasiveness of storytelling. Art is not about the ‘aesthetically pleasing’ or the ‘technically superb’ brush strokes; but rather the story behind the art. Those hidden tales which only the select few in the ‘know’ really understand. For those of us outside of the scene, it seems like a bunch of pretentious crap. But truthfully, it’s just an advanced form of gossip.

People LOVE gossip and the reason is obvious, we love stories. But stories that we enjoy do more than just entertain us. Stories that we truly enjoy hit us at a deeper level; there is some kernel of truth down there that we agree with even if we can’t consciously pinpoint what that is. I want to take a look at reality TV in this guise and answer two questions.

  1. Why is reality TV popular
  2. What does reality TV tells us about ourselves

First let’s take another pot shot at modern art. Because I can’t resist.

300px-Oak_tree

If you were to walk up to this piece of art in a showroom, the description would read “An Oak Tree,” followed by a philosophical discussion (that paper on the bottom left) of why this glass of water, high up on a shelf, is actually an oak tree. The idea being that by reading this logically dubious exchange between artist and unknown bystander that you suddenly see this glass of water for what the artist says it is, an oak tree. There are many layers to this display art that I won’t touch on but it illustrates a point; this art is a story and this story gets better for those who pry into the layers.

Modern art is an advanced form of gossip and expression for people who feel a little too insecure about watching E! News or don’t have the reading comprehension to open a book.

Reality TV and Truth

I enjoy reading about reality TV because it is unashamed ideology being continuously consumed and reproduced. Other forms of storytelling are always trying to interweave some underlying message; it is obnoxious when I have to read a supplementary book on the history of a book just to understand what the point of the book was (Notes from Underground)… but I digress.

There isn’t much wine swirling going on with reality TV. There is no hidden agenda. Producers put a bunch of people together, give them the promise of temporary fame (and maybe even fortune), set up some imaginary rules, and film as people make fools of themselves. The formula doesn’t tire because people always interact in new and sufficiently trashy ways. There are many reality TV shows one can do this exercise with, but I want to focus on one of the most perverse.

1389047393_the-bachelor-zoom

The Bachelor/Bachelorette

The Premise is this

One attractive “all American” man/woman is looking for love. So the only reasonable thing to do is to pack a group of 20ish members of the opposite sex together competing for “the one’s” attention. Next “the one” hazes them through trials of social humiliation (including nude photos, if you’re a female), expressions of deep personal struggles, and intimate ‘date nights’ all to select America’s most driven sociopath. Finally we do all this till we have 3 contestants. Then “the one” can have sex with them all, then pick 1 and propose. No surprises are had when a few months later we discover that this formula almost never leads to marriage after the lights are off. But we all feel a heaping dose of moral superiority after watching because our lives didn’t end up like that. Great work viewers!

So what’s my point?

The Bachelor is a show about our modern dating ritual; but it treads on such extremes that it becomes a parody of itself. Any viewer is aware that this is not how modern dating truly works, because every piece of the ritual has been expanded to completely ridiculous and outlandish proportions. Such as, 3rd dates occurring in a foreign country (walking down the streets of Pairs after talking to some guy for the total of 1 hour ‘this could be my life!!!’), dealing with ‘competitor’ suitors or ex-lovers (as typified by having 15 guys staring at the suitor while he/she anxiously professes deep found love after a 1 minute conversation), and of course, the fear of rejection. The fear that you profess your love so openly (after a 1 minute conversation…) and you get shut down immediately; shown to the extreme in the show by rejecting suitors every episode by not giving them a red ‘rose’.

Soules262A willingness to embarrass yourself amid your harem mates is key

The show professes our fears for typical dating, meeting the family, doing social things out of our comfort zone, and cold hard rejection. Watching the bachelor is like watching a perpetual failed love story which is both completely predictable and unpredictable at the same time. They always have the crazy spirit healer, the control freak, and the well to do minority who gets let go 4 episodes in so we can’t accuse anyone of being racist. It is predictable in the sense that we can normally target the non-crazies who will ‘go far’. It is unpredictable in the sense that temporary fame makes people do outlandish things. It’s a model which feeds on viewer anxiety (oh why did he do that???) based on expected cultural behaviors.

But we wouldn’t find this entertaining unless there was something more to this other than just a love story or outrageous antics. There is some grain of truth or shared experience deep down in the bowels of this beast. To help discover that I watched a few episodes and spoke with some people who are longtime viewers.

bachelor-meganWho doesn’t spend their 5th date dressed in a suit next to a fire?

Why is This Popular?

The Bachelor is about ritual and cultural norms. Every episode is filled with mates behaving as they are ‘expected’ to via our shared culture. Male suitors are shown as aggressive, straight forward, and charismatic with a special focus on their line of work. Female suitors are shown as having ‘easy going’ attitudes, hollow personal life (unless there are kids in it), and being emotional (they just fall so deep into love so fast!). The women always cry and the males hardly ever do. In every season of The Bachelor there are a couple girls who go completely off the rails with drunken antics. In every season of The Bachelorette our testosterone fueled males get to do some physical challenge (like boxing) so they can display who is strongest among them, and thus, most worthy of female love.

Any female I’ve spoken to about this show say they love to mock it; that’s the allure. It typifies the ridiculous and the outlandish. But simultaneously it hits on key, unspoken desires for who we find attractive on this show.

We are reminded time and time again that we expect our women to be emotionally unstable and our men to be domineering and powerful to constrain this. The Bachelor is no conspiracy, there is no guy with a cigar in a foggy room explicitly doing this. If we didn’t want these things we wouldn’t watch it. If we didn’t believe in these truths we would rally against it. Because we watch what we believe and we teach our children what we watch.

ideology

What we Learn About Ourselves

What we learn from reality TV is some searing truth about ourselves as a society. If you want to track the ‘pace’ of gender equality, race relations, or dynamics of cultural norms look no further than our stories. Changing society is no picnic, it is painful, tiring work. For all the snubbed noses at reality TV, those elitists who swirl their wine and mock the ‘trash’ television; I think it is clear they are losing touch with the society they live within.

At least we can say this with certainty, reality TV displays truth. Unashamed, unfiltered truth. These stories are like a diary without any editing. Your real diary, not the one you edit so your partner can read. Every grueling awkward detail of life in clear ink. That entire passage outlining the time you were caught masturbating, what happened when sitting in class and your first period began, that embarrassing moment you asked someone out on a date and they laughed. All recorded and nothing forgotten.

Because reality is unplanned. It doesn’t matter that the people on stage are fueled with dreams of grandeur and fame, they cannot hide from their true self. When the cameras is on our monkeys dance for our entertainment, thinking they are earning fame and fortune, they are but parodies of a culture we all share and perpetuate. Like actors on a stage they never knew existed, they revert to an innate and primal state of self. It is now ideology which bleeds through every second of that drunken fight and through every word of that furious rant. When they can no longer hide behind a mask of what they think they want, they finally release their inhibitions to display what society has taught them since birth. Gender roles, stereotypes, racism, bigotry, greed, and avarice. It’s all here in glorious detail for those with the stomach to look.

And perhaps the reason we are all too quick to discount reality TV as smut is because we are too afraid to admit that deep down we are no different. That if you choose to take off the mask and dance on that stage for narcissistic applause you would behave just as foolishly as the rest of them. Perhaps what we fear most is that reality TV is a reflection of self.

These stories are our lives, just with more attractive people playing the roles. I recommend you watch from time to time, as it may help remind you where you come from and what you can never escape.

At 9pm Eastern Standard Time your ideology is on display. Listen carefully.

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10 comments

  1. Very interesting post. Reality TV is still TV entertainment except the people are not actors, are asked to make fools of themselves, and get paid less than the folks who can act. In the end, the winners are the people who produce the shows and the advertisers because they make money on those who choose to sit and watch. I’m not one of them, but I do wish everyone else a good evening of TV watching. 🙂

  2. I wish this post had been written about a year ago, when I was writing up a study on the manipulation of the truth within documentary film – reality TV offers a lot of parallels to be drawn between the two!

    Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as to say that reality TV is always an accurate presentation of the truth, I came to a fairly similar agreement last year that, by being so brash and so open, documentaries that use Reality techniques are, in a way, more ‘honest’ than the carefully structured arguments you would find elsewhere.
    The use of a camera, and usually the inclusion of editing techniques, can never really reflect unadulterated truth. Reality TV can be dangerous when it uses selective footage to present a skewed version of reality (ie. they show only the tears and the fights and none of the stuff in-between where these girls aren’t acting like ‘sociopaths’). But I agree, people watch these programmes because there is an element of self-reflection that appeals.
    I don’t know if you’ve seen Gogglebox? A show where you watch people as they watch television? It’s bizarre, but it’s popular, because it is as direct a reflection of the viewers at home as it’s possible to get, and gives the viewer that sense of fitting in – I live like that, I think like that, I talk like that – and through the reality star’s moment in the spotlight they too can feel like a celebrity.
    I might get some old notes out again tonight and have a read 🙂

    1. Hi there Katie,

      Of course, the post takes an extreme view. Certainly reality TV will never show the awkward 3 hour silences between feuding couples (as a build up toward the real argument), nor the calm and pleasant 2 hour after math once the tears are washed away. But I argue of course that even in the arguments and in the tales our contestants tell; their true self still shines. Even if we only see a glimpse of it.

      I have not heard of googlebox but this interests me. I will check it out!

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts

      1. A well written point of view, and I can appreciate that. Your comment to Katie, though, explains a lot to me. The “contestants” are not an accurate depiction of everyday folks. Respectfully……….

      1. Thanks for your kind words. Disagreeing with me is of course encouraged. i don’t blog to engage in an echo chamber, I blog to challenge myself and engage with others out there who think differently; all for the sake of bettering ourselves through discussion.

        Take care

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