09 May 2011
The Reality Principle
The rise and rise of a television genre.
by Kelefa Sanneh May 9, 2011
On January 6, 1973, the anthropologist Margaret Mead published a startling little essay in TV Guide. Her contribution, which wasn’t mentioned on the cover, appeared in the back of the magazine, after the listings, tucked between an advertisement for Virginia Slims and a profile of Shelley Winters. Mead’s subject was a new Public Broadcasting System series called “An American Family,” about the Louds, a middle-class California household. “Bill and Pat Loud and their five children are neither actors nor public figures,” Mead wrote; rather, they were the people they portrayed on television, “members of a real family.” Producers compressed seven months of tedium and turmoil (including the corrosion of Bill and Pat’s marriage) into twelve one-hour episodes, which constituted, in Mead’s view, “a new kind of art form”—an innovation “as significant as the invention of drama or the novel.”
“An American Family” was a hit, and Lance Loud, the oldest son, became a celebrity, perhaps the world’s first openly gay TV star. But for decades “An American Family” looked like an anomaly; by 1983, when HBO broadcast a follow-up documentary on the Louds, Mead’s “new kind of art form” seemed more like an artifact of an older America. Worthy heirs to the Louds arrived in 1992, with the début of the MTV series “The Real World,” which updated the formula by adding a dash of artifice: each season, a handful of young adults were thrown together in a house, and viewers got to know them as they got to know one another. It wasn’t until 2000, though, that Mead’s grand claim started to look prescient. That year, a pair of high-profile, high-concept summer series nudged the format into American prime time: “Big Brother,” a Dutch import, was built around surveillance-style footage of competitors locked in a house; “Survivor,” a Swedish import, isolated its stars by shipping them somewhere warm and distant, where they participated in faux tribal competitions. Both of these were essentially game shows, but they doubled as earthy anthropological experiments, and they convinced viewers and executives alike that television could provide action without actors.
We are now more than a decade into the era that Mead, who died in 1978, saw coming. “I think we need a new name for it,” she wrote, and in the past decade we have mainly settled on “reality television,” although not without trepidation. “Reality” is, if not quite a misnomer, a provocation—a reminder of the various constraints and compromises that define the form. Certainly, “reality television” is an amorphous category; Mark Andrejevic, a cultural theorist, notes that “there isn’t any one definition that would both capture all the existing genres and exclude other forms of programming such as the nightly news or daytime game shows.” If Mead were alive today, she might be surprised at the diversity of the form, which has proved equally hospitable to glamorous competitions, like “American Idol,” and to homely documentaries, like “Pawn Stars,” which depicts the staff and clientele of a Las Vegas pawnshop. But she might also be surprised to see how many programs hew to the “American Family” formula: one of MTV’s biggest current hits is the riveting “Teen Mom” franchise, which follows a handful of young mothers as they negotiate shifting cultural realities and stubborn biological ones, building American families of their own. This season, one of the stars, Chelsea, unloaded the dishwasher in her new house, watched closely by her father, who had agreed to pay the rent.
“I’m just standing here, watching you pretend like you’re a little housewife,” he said, fondly.
“I am,” she said, and then she drew a fine distinction that any scholar of kinship structures would appreciate. “A housemom.”
One of the biggest differences between today’s reality television and its 1973 antecedent is the genre’s status. Having outgrown PBS, it has inherited the rotten reputation that once attached to the medium itself. In an era of televised precocity—ambitious HBO dramas, cunningly self-aware sitcoms—reality shows still provide a fat target for anyone seeking symptoms or causes of American idiocy; the popularity of unscripted programming has had the unexpected effect of ennobling its scripted counterpart. The same people who brag about having seen every episode of “Friday Night Lights” will brag, too, that they have never laid eyes on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” Reality television is the television of television.
No surprise, then, that a counter-movement has arisen, in the form of books that urge us to take these shows more seriously. Jennifer L. Pozner is a journalist and activist, and in the past decade she has watched, by her count, “more than a thousand hours of unscripted programming,” which is a lot if you think of it as work, but not much—two hours per week, which may be less than the average American watches—if you don’t. For Pozner, it certainly was work. The book she wrote about her experiment is “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV” (Seal; $16.95), and, halfway through, she sums up her verdict: “I’ve found most of it painful (‘Dr. 90210’), aggravating (‘The Bachelor’), or mind-numbingly boring (‘The Hills’).” Still, her target audience is her fellow-viewers, not her fellow-activists, which lends the book a pleasingly unpretentious attitude: readers unfamiliar with Schadenfreude can find a definition in the footnotes, but readers unfamiliar with “Paradise Hotel” are on their own. (For the record, it was a complicated 2003 show, on Fox, in which the evolving cohabitational arrangements of dozens of bronzed young people helped determine which one would be expelled next.)
Having logged those thousand hours, Pozner can attest that reality shows have a tendency to blur together into a single orgy of joy and disappointment and recrimination. In her view, this is no coincidence: the shows are constructed to reinforce particular social norms, she argues, and she finds examples from across the reality spectrum. There is an expectedly acerbic analysis of “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire,” one of the first shots fired in the current reality revolution (it aired on Fox, as a one-time special, in February, 2000), in which the winner of a televised beauty pageant agreed to marry, sight unseen, a “multimillionaire”—who, it later emerged, was possibly a thousandaire, and definitely the target of a restraining order filed by a former girlfriend. That show was a gleeful train wreck, powered by its female contestants’ desperation to be picked, which is to say, married. Pozner detects a similar anxiety in a more venerable show, “The Bachelor,” which recently ended its fifteenth season on ABC. Although the producers pile on signifiers of romance—ball gowns, candles, roses, breathy declarations—the weekly eliminations are what give the show its cruel but satisfying rhythm. Pozner zeroes in on a contestant who, despite having been a vegetarian for twelve years, accepted a piece of lamb from the man she was trying to impress:
“My stomach will probably never be the same, but at least I touched his hand,” she said, grateful for crumbs. After she got the heave-ho, she batted her big brown eyes at the camera and moaned: “You wanna see a girl that’s crushed, you got her.”
For Pozner, this figure—the woman “crushed” for our amusement—is the driving force behind much reality television. She charts the various programs that punish women for their alleged greed, like “Joe Millionaire,” in which the titular millionaire finally reveals himself to be more or less broke, and “Charm School,” which promised to “tear down and rebuild” its female participants. She is aghast at the cosmetic-surgery makeover show “The Swan,” which she calls “the most sadistic reality series of the decade.” (The second and final season was broadcast in 2004, so Pozner’s superlative arrives too late to be of any use to the show’s publicists.) And she is scarcely kinder to “What Not to Wear,” a nonsurgical makeover show in which, she writes, “an ethnically and economically diverse string of women are ridiculed for failing to conform to a single upper-middle-class, mainstream-to-conservative, traditionally feminine standard of fashion and beauty.” For Pozner, the ridicule is more vivid, and therefore more effective, than whatever rote transformation comes next.
This idea—that pernicious images and ideas are more powerful than benign ones—shapes Pozner’s analysis in every case, and explains how she manages to extract clear messages from messy exchanges. To demonstrate that reality television promotes the idea of female incompetence, she mentions a particularly stubborn and notably unsympathetic man from “Wife Swap,” who informed his temporary wife, a police detective, that gender-integrated police departments “put people’s lives at risk.” But she doesn’t mention that the man recanted a few scenes later, after a vigorous training session with some female officers.
In the same vein, Pozner tells the story of Toccara Jones, a curvilinear model—she describes herself as “vivacious and voluptuous”—who was the sixth runner-up on the third season of “America’s Next Top Model.” In a pitch-perfect impression of a “Top Model” partisan, Pozner derides the verdict of Tyra Banks, the show’s materfamilias (who declared Jones to have “lost her drive” and “checked out”), and lists various post-show successes: “To the rest of the mainstream media, Toccara is recognized as one of the most successful African-American plus-size models working today. To reality TV producers, she’s just a fat Black girl who needs to lose weight.” But isn’t she pointing to one of the form’s greatest strengths? Reality stars, unlike their scripted counterparts, outlive their shows, and sometimes find ways to defy them. For millions of viewers, the story of Lance Loud began in 1973, but it didn’t really end until his death, from hepatitis C and H.I.V., in 2001, at the dawn of the reality-television era that he helped inspire.
There is a taboo that left-leaning critics of popular culture are obliged to observe: never criticize the populace. Pozner tries her best to honor this proscription, following the trail blazed, half a century ago, by the theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who lamented that “the deceived masses” were easy marks for a cynical and self-perpetuating “culture industry.” Because she writes about reality television, Pozner must observe this taboo twice over—the deceived masses are represented by the people onscreen, too. Starting in 2004, Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, an African-American contestant on Donald Trump’s business competition show, “The Apprentice,” became reality television’s preëminent villain, possessed of an impressive ability to enrage the people around her; Pozner scrambles to explain this phenomenon without casting aspersions on either the antiheroine or her legions of detractors. First, she assures us that, whatever inspired Manigault-Stallworth’s “Black villainess diva” reputation, “it wasn’t her behavior.” Then, two pages later, she allows that “Omarosa has capitalized on a virulent stereotype about Black women, a path ‘Apprentice’ producers laid out for her.” She is eager to let audiences off the hook: in her account, “American Idol” (which she finds mean-spirited) was a success because energetic cross-promotion “guaranteed ratings gold,” and “Survivor” was a success “largely because the endless, from-all-corners buzz made viewership seem almost like a cultural imperative.”
Read the rest here.