A Taste for Trash

a conversation about reality tv

by by Eve Blazo

illustration by by Annika Finne

This is the real world. There are no prizes for piecing together the best office-appropriate outfit or eating bugs in the wilderness. There are no expert celebrity judges determining how well we can ‘smize’ in photographs while being harnessed in mid-air.

The reality we watch on television is a fantasy. Yet even the most scripted reality TV shows reveal something about life—the banality, the little victories and loses, the absurdity—that fictional shows can’t. Whether we watch with irony or sincerity, reality TV has seeped into our cultural consciousness—introducing words like Andre Leon Talley’s ‘dreckitude’ and various Snooki-isms like ‘kookah’ or ‘badonk.’

“We Are Who We Watch: Reality Television, Citizenship, Celebrity,” the reality TV symposium taking place at Brown University this Friday, April 22, addresses the perverse pleasures and complexities involved in watching reality TV—how the form both entertains and moralizes, insidiously instructing its viewers on what it means to be a good or bad citizen. Professor Lynne Joyrich and MCM PhD candidate Hunter Hargraves, organizers of the symposium, spoke to the Independent about the necessity of interrogating the really real affects of this global phenomenon.

The Independent: So why host this symposium now? Why at Brown? What can we learn from reality TV in an academic institution?

Hunter Hargraves: The genesis of this course started in the Fall… I was talking to Professor Joyrich, who said she’s going to be teaching a course on Television Realities, which is a graduate seminar that’s running this Spring in MCM. We were just kind of bouncing some ideas off of one another about how reality television, at least within the field of television studies, has accrued a significant weight of books and articles and scholarship as a whole, and how a lot of that [scholarship] has tended to start thinking through questions of citizenship and what sort of lessons reality TV ultimately ends up teaching the viewer, or its audiences.

Lynne Joyrich: We’re trying to think about it critically from our positions as scholars and as viewers. We really tried to mix who’s there—so we have internationally renowned scholars from different fields, some from a mass communications background, some emphasize more issues of political economy, and some of the other scholars come from a more MCM-ist, textual-theory background. We also really wanted to mix in Brown students. So the panels are a mix of visiting scholars, Jill Zarin, star of The Real Housewives of New York City, and also presentations from Brown graduate students and one Brown undergraduate student. And, obviously, the reality TV viewers who we assume will be our audience.

And, as Hunter was saying, there is a lot of very interesting scholarship in television studies about reality television, obviously because it is such a big and important trend in TV itself—so therefore television studies is trying to analyze why is it such a big and important trend, not only in the US, but globally. There’s a lot of [scholarship] on the economics behind global reality television and what lessons it teaches us on how to engage with the world, about reality television in terms of our culture’s constructions of race, gender, and sexuality. And celebrity—what does it mean to live in a society of instant, real celebrity? So there are all these issues that television studies scholars are debating, and it seemed it would be useful to bring them together and take this thing that a lot of people see as the lowest of the low in some ways, and say it actually raises these very important issues for thinking about our culture. What does it mean that this is such a prevalent, dominant media form now? We have to take it seriously, we can’t just dismiss it, or laugh at it, or cry about it, or whatever.

HH: It’s almost as if within the history of TV studies itself, there’s always a kind of bad object. It used to be that TV studies would critically interrogate the soap opera and actually talk about how the soap opera is a lot more complex than just being daytime women’s trash TV. And then it became the daytime talk show, the Jerry Springer, the Ricki Lake, and scholarship appeared about that. Now I feel like it’s reality TV’s turn to occupy the site of the trash object of TV, where people like to say, “We’re smarter than that.” Audiences can actually watch it with a degree of skepticism or irony. What we’re trying to say [in this symposium] is that, just as much as audiences are responding to this, reality TV is sending some very curious messages back to the viewer about what it means to be a citizen, what it means to be of particular identity groups, or not.

LJ: I feel like people who are not in the discipline immediately think that it sounds so silly to do a whole [symposium] about reality TV. Whereas, again, I would say, TV is the world’s most dominant media form, it pervades our entire society and defines the times and spaces of our lives. We can’t just ignore it. TV studies is not about either approving or disapproving, it’s serious analysis of what does it mean to live in a world where these are the forms that people are seeing, this is what people do in their leisure time, these are the things that they talk about. We are trying to really study this thing that is making up the fabric of our lives and talk about it critically, to produce a media literacy in people.

Indy: Where do you think reality TV fits on the high-lowbrow art spectrum? What are its implications for issues of “taste” in art? Is this the death of popular art or is this creating something new?

HH: High and low culture traffic with one another. Reality TV provides a funny example of that with something like Slumdog Millionaire. It was a reality TV show that was then exported to another country, then a book was written about that reality TV show in another country, that then became a movie. So there’s this really interesting re-circulation of this reality TV text, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, but that literally travels across the globe and across media, but then also across the registers of taste. Which is to say, a movie that won Best Picture at the Oscars was first something that starred Regis Philbin, which we laughed at as a primetime reality TV program.

Indy: Something that is so explicitly about making money can be translated into more of an art form as a film.

HH: Exactly.

LJ: As opposed to wanting to argue about what is high or low, in television studies, it’s better to actually ask: what’s at stake in those very categories? Why do people want to categorize things like that? What does that signify, how does it let audiences make sense of other audiences or themselves? But I do think reality TV tends to be seen, as Hunter said, as the bad object. It’s interesting though, given its dominance across TV, that now there are subdistinctions made within the genre, like high-class reality TV versus low-class reality TV. Actually, one of our MCM alums, Lauren Zalaznick, the head of Bravo, was interviewed in the New York Times about how Bravo is now seen as making high-class reality shows, like Project Runway and Top Chef.

Indy: Not Jersey Shore.

LJ: Yeah, and The Real Housewives series is different from Fear Factor or Survivor. So even with their attempts to create status distinctions within the genre, what’s most interesting for me is to interrogate what’s at stake in people even wanting to do that. What is that code for? How is it itself just a marketing term, a kind of branding, and how does that fit into today’s economic world?

HH: Which is also to say that celebrity culture has turned to reality TV as a fantastic, untapped reservoir of what we now know of as tabloid celebrity. So you look at any of the supermarket tabloids and they’re talking about Teen Mom, they’re talking about The Bachelor, and these are now the kind of sources where we get this celebrity culture that migrates into other media forms such as the Internet. This is why I think having a Real Housewife as part of the symposium makes it precisely that much more fascinating, because there is something about reality television that has now adopted celebrity as both what it produces and what it relies upon. So you need celebrities like Tyra Banks or Heidi Klum or Jennifer Lopez to serve as your judges. But [reality TV] also produces celebrities. You have people who win reality-show competitions that then get another reality show documenting their own lives. So there’s a way in which the notion of celebrity has become part and parcel of the form and the genre.

LJ: And, as with any form, it has certain conventions. There are things you can do with it and there are limitations. So with any of these shows, I would say it’s not that the form in and of itself is inherently good or bad, but it’s the particular way it’s articulated. I feel that you can use some of the conventions of reality TV in interesting, unique ways, and there are even artists playing with that form. Or you can use it in incredibly troubling and exploitative ways. So I feel like one has to really stand back and analyze what exactly is this form, what are the conventions, and therefore start to be able to see how could one maybe play with it, articulate it differently, explode it, or restructure it.

HH: Importantly, this isn’t just an American phenomenon. Many of the reality programs that are considered to be some of the more famous ones, at least in an American context, we actually poached from other areas of the globe. Big Brother used to be Dutch.

LJ: Even American Idol used to be Pop Idol in Britain. That’s a great example of the ambivalence of reality TV. Because it is such a hugely popular global form, it is so easy to import and export. Instead of having to export a whole program and then subtitle it and translate it, you can just sell the format. These media conglomerates will sell the formats to different countries to remake them with their own contestants so it has that kind of local flavor. So you could say, well, it’s totally part of a kind of economic media imperialism. On the other hand, it’s not that simple, because when they are redone in other places, they do take on other local meanings. They’re articulated differently and they read differently in different places. I think it’s important to look at the different ways in which local audiences always make sense of things through their own particular social and discursive frames, so it’s not just like Western culture taking over the world. They’re way more complicated relations.

Indy: I’m so interested in what you said about citizenship and morality. What does reality TV do to its viewers? What is it producing, what identities or ways of being is it naturalizing, enforcing, and disrupting?

LJ: Reality television has offered many more spaces for women, queer folks, [and] African Americans than most TV, but also in very circumscribed ways. So you could ask: is it changing the notion of what it is to be American—for good or for bad? We have a panel that looks at reality TV as a moralizing machine, the way it suggests for people notions of good and bad, and how it enters into ethical discourses. And then we have one panel about reality TV and notions of citizenship, the way reality TV is so much about people actualizing themselves within communities. How do you think about how to literally survive in the world of business or in a social situation and what is this suggesting to people about the ways we enact the self?

HH: We’re also bringing in scholars such as Anna McCarthy, whose work looks at programming in the 1950s and what sort of genealogy of reality TV we can trace in television’s own rich and expansive history.

LJ: McCarthy looks at early developments of television in which there was in an interest in using it as a tool for governance, teaching people what it meant to live in a civil society. She’s interested in the way that’s articulated in Golden-Age documentary on television up through today’s ideas of reality TV that offer these lessons for citizenship. Laurie Ouellette’s work is also about these issues of neoliberalism, governmentality, and citizenship. She’s another one of our invited speakers who’s co-written a book entitled Better Living Through Reality TV: Television and Post-Welfare Citizenship.

HH: That whole book is about how makeover programs, rehabilitation programs, and court TV are very instructive in teaching individuals how to manage their own selves.

LJ: In very particular and historical terms, in that they teach a notion of success and citizenry as managing the self and learning how to be entrepreneurial and self-enterprising, having to both market and make use of the commodity form in our culture—but not too much. It’s interesting and potentially quite troubling how that fits into today’s state discourses. We’re in a society that tells people to take care of themselves, sacrifice themselves, to be entrepreneurial. We have this whole cultural [rhetoric] all about self-reliance, so what does it mean that state functions of government are getting less and less support while this entertainment form based on watching people compete for their self-actualization [is getting more]?

HH: In very direct cases, charity has shifted from the state to reality TV programs like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

LJ: And a lot of the therapy shows, where people can’t get medical coverage. What does it mean that now we can turn on our TV and watch people call in and get their families into an intervention center, or a new home built for people who are established as models of their own civic duty?

HH: It’s always people who have lots of community involvement and volunteer.

LJ: Even Trump’s The Apprentice: what does it mean to prove you’re a wiz at business? It’s TV as a job market. The way that reality TV fits into certain social and historical conditions is really important for people to analyze instead of just dismissing these shows. [These shows], in fact, have a real impact on our world and help construct the way people think. They’re fitting in to what’s going on in our society in ways we really need to interrogate.

Indy: Is it possible that resistances to, or subversions of, dominant culture emerge from this form?

HH: Tyra Banks has always said about America’s Next Top Model that this program for her is a way for her to expand the Western notion of beauty to include more women of color.

Indy: And plus-size women!

HH: Now she calls them “fiercely real.” This reality program is a way for her to—not wage war on the fashion industry, but certainly challenge a lot of their preconceived notions of beauty. But on the other side of the coin, you also have shows that have a much more narrow focus, like a Jersey Shore in which it’s all about a kind of repetition and circulation of what it means to be an Italian-American in your twenties.

LJ: Or even the ones that are broader like The Real World. People joke about how there’s always the angry black-man role and the naive white-girl role and the fiery-Latina role. So in a way it’s opened things up, but in very circumscribed ways. But also I think it’s important to think about issues of reception with reality TV, that when people condemn reality TV for producing these troubling images, it’s always these other viewers that they talk about, these “dumb” other viewers that model their lives on Jersey Shore. But one of the things that a lot of TV theorists are interested in is precisely the real complexity of the way that people engage with television shows. A lot of it is a game that people play with [reality television], knowing that it’s not real life. People play with those levels of what counts as real, what doesn’t count as real. When is somebody the really real or the parody of the real. There are all these different levels that are producing new understandings of what we mean by reality. Nobody puts themselves in that position of, “Oh yeah, I just fall for reality TV,” but we have these patronizing discourses of those other audiences who are supposedly just so dumb that they fall for it. But everybody has a much more complicated spectator relationship, I would argue. Which doesn’t mean we’re also still not falling for certain things, often in ways that are more invisible.

Indy: What is the pleasure or guilty pleasure in watching reality TV? What makes it additive, appealing, entertaining? Is this just voyeuristic pleasure? What is the fascination with watching what can often be banal, mundane things going on?

LJ: I think it’s a mix of a lot of different kinds of pleasures, and different ones in different mixes for different shows. Certainly there is the pleasure of voyeurism, but there’s also the pleasure of playing with voyeurism—imagining oneself as the object of voyeurism, the exhibitionist pleasure—taking Andy Warhol’s “everybody can be famous for 15 minutes,” but now it’s like 15 seconds. Everybody kind of imagines the reality show of their life. It’s about voyeurism but it’s also the critique of voyeurism. I think often people watch precisely to say, “I can’t believe those people want to be filmed.”

I also think part of the pleasure is moving throughout what we think of as different levels of the real. It’s a form of epistemological game playing—[people want to] get a glimmer of the real-real within the reality. But everybody also knows that it’s a fantasy. Many of these shows are unscripted but clearly constructed through editing, casting, etcetera. We still don’t have an adequate vocabulary in our culture to talk about the complex ways in which we all live in a mass-mediated world between virtual realities, fantastic realities, gritty realities—they’re all marketing terms, yet also the realities in which we live. I think that people in their daily lives are constantly making judgments about how you present and perform yourself to the world. We don’t have a good language to talk about this yet, which is partly why scholarship about this is so important to get people to think about: what do we even mean by reality?

“We Are Who We Watch: Reality Television, Citizenship, Celebrity” will take place at Brown University Friday, April 22 from 9:30-7:30pm in Pembroke Hall 305.

EVE MARIE BLAZO B’12 is critically interrogating the fiercely real.