What’s wrong with “reality TV”: scripting crapitalism as democrazy

In the graduate course on theory I’m now teaching, we are discussing the performance theory of Erving Goffman. A question has come up about reality TV shows as examples of Goffman’s theory. The specific question is whether reality TV shows “reflect” the reality of North Americans’ everyday social roles.

In participating in this discussion, I kind of got into a critical rant. But it’s helped me identify something I profoundly dislike about the “reality” genre.

Every “reality” program is cast to generate as much character drama as possible. This is as true of talent competition shows as of more game-oriented shows: contestants aren’t chosen just for talent; that may be part of their selection, but I think they’re chosen as much if not more for the drama they bring to their roles (and thus the ratings they’ll be expected to command). And then every show is meticulously edited to exaggerate as much character drama as possible.

And while character drama is common to reality TV and classical theatre alike, there seems to be an exceptionally specific kind of character produced by reality TV programs, and I actually worry about the implications of this kind of character becoming naturalized as a “role model” for viewers — a naturalization nurtured, in part, because of the presumed (but entirely artificial) “realism” of the “reality” genre.

I worry, because the character that seems to dominate reality TV is something of a villain: a selfish schemer, a cunning manipulator. The kind of character who’s always issuing some vapid, vicious threat like “Bring it” or “Game on” or “Don’t hate the player.”

And I worry because of the peculiar kind of game that this character excels at. I’m thinking here of some of the longest-running and most popular shows, like Survivor or American Idol or any number of Bachelor-type shows.

Take Survivor.

The game requires players to “outwit, outplay, outlast” each other. They are required for their own self-interest to co-operate, collaborate (and in the process dissimulate) with each other. Most insidiously, I think, at the end of each episode they are called on to vote — but to vote someone else out. They are called upon to exercise a cruel, inverted parody of the democratic franchise, in which the vote does not help to build the consent of the governed, but rather eliminates the competition. Voting is symbolically transformed from a democratic exercise into a kind of capitalist enterprise. The voting process in Survivor is thus a telling symptom of the disturbing ease with which democracy is confused with capitalism (in the cultural imaginary of the USA in particular, but certainly in Canada and the other overdeveloped nations as well).

The roles promoted by reality TV seem to me, then, to encourage the popular adoption of a very specific kind of ideological disposition. That reality shows represent a now entrenched and increasing sector of the cultural industry, and — moreover — that increasing numbers of applicants and recruits know what reality producers are looking for in contestants (possibly without knowing precisely how or what they know) and can “act the part” of the particular kind of role described above all suggest a particularly insidious colonization of young Westerners’ minds by the norms and values of very narrowly defined and privileged media business interests.

For example, take a look at this promotional sequence for a new Canadian show based on Jersey Shore. Look at the self-aggrandizing, intensely competitive fronting — and the corresponding, bombastic effrontery — with which the participants perform “themselves.” Note, too, the derision with which the hosting website’s commentary describes them. Either nobody recruited for a “reality TV” show realizes they are farce fodder, or everyone does, and plans to leverage it for selfish and commercial ends, like a recording or book or other TV deal to squeeze out of it.

That said, I do like The Amazing Race. It’s the only “reality” show I regularly watch. But why do I enjoy it? Largely, I confess, for the spectacle of North American tourists getting lost in other parts of the world, complaining there about “foreigners” and “how nobody speaks English,” and also, sometimes, reckoning (in however token and insulated a way) with the stark, dire poverty in which most of the world lives. It’s a spectacle that plays all too easily into the increasingly smug and self-assured brand of Canadian nationalism that seems to have started displacing our traditional diffidence.

But that’s a rant for another post.

One response to “What’s wrong with “reality TV”: scripting crapitalism as democrazy

  1. I’d agree that The Amazing Race is one of the few things I can watch that fall into the ‘reality tv’ category. But I wonder what you think of the pair of Canada’s Worst Driver and Canada’s Worst Handyman?

    While I’m under no illusions that selective editing dictates what we see every episode, the footage itself seems to have the character more of documentary rather than the staged theatrics that emerge out of selecting the most inflammatory personalities on many other reality tv shows. And the rehabilitative nature of the shows strikes me as at least superficially a fundamental difference from the spectacle of other reality tv shows.

    Although the participants aren’t presented as models for behaviour, I find they still have had an effect on me as a viewer. In particular as a driver (in Alberta, which seems to be overrepresented in the participants on Canada’s Worst Driver) I’ve found myself more understanding of other drivers’ actions that I might have characterized as bone-headed before beginning to watch the show. I even found myself muttering in frustration at being cut off the other day, “You should be nominated”!

    Do we need a different category for shows like these? Or is there something I’m that I’m missing in my reading of them?

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