What a Long, Bad Trip It’s Been

Temptation Island

Temptation Island

When the giant data-mining company ChoicePoint announced its plans to sell background-check software at Sam’s Club, private investigators complained the company was threatening their livelihood by making the tools of the trade available to the masses. They may have been bucking a trend: ChoicePoint’s open invitation to the public to become amateur P.I.’s represented just part of the proliferation of technologies, products, and services for do-it-yourself spies, ranging from background check Websites to keystroke monitoring software, home spycams, and even downloadable voice-stress analyzers. This multitude of peer monitoring tools, many of which piggy-back on new communication technologies, caters to a reflexive savviness about the staged character of our public personae and offers a default strategy for getting behind the façade.

The omnivorous trend-digesting genre of reality TV has picked up on the theme of peer investigation, spawning a variety of shows that feature friends, family members, and significant others spying on, investigating, and videotaping one another – all in the name of extracting a moment of authenticity, even if that moment merely highlights the inevitability of artifice. Such shows add one more reflexive twist to reality TV, insofar as they stage the search for behind-the-scenes reality, sometimes in the guise of a reality-show-within-a-show. Temptation Island, Average Joe, Room Raiders, and One Bad Trip, all feature segments in which cast members watch “backstage” footage of one another, sometimes with the added element of forensic searches, hidden cameras, and disguises. We, the viewers, watch a second audience engaged in practices of investigation and verification.

The point of lining up examples of what might be called techniques for peer investigation alongside their representation in reality TV is not to suggest that TV encourages viewers or trains them in the pursuit of such practices (nor is it to rule out this possibility). Rather it is to propose an angle of approach to the critical interpretation of media texts that sidelines the effects question construed in the broadest sense. My own recent experience of reality TV discussions has been that the tendency is to yoke together interpretation and effect. An interpretation of what takes place on a show – its portrayal, for example, of surveillance strategies for minimizing relationship risks – can be readily assimilated to an “effects” question: are audience practices and/or attitudes affected by exposure to such shows? Anna McCarthy invoked such questions in her FLOW article on TV and governance when she asked whether “the pedagogical voice of reality TV [is] actually persuasive or effective as a program of rule.” Similar questions of effects, again, in the broadest sense, propel a familiar merry-go-round of debates in media studies (at least in some quarters; in others they’ve largely been settled, albeit in opposing ways). Their persistence derives not just from the depth of their roots in the field – and in ongoing popular and political debates – but also, it seems, from persistent concerns about the purpose of critical interpretation. Why bother studying texts, if not to consider issues of broader social import? How else to avoid the pathology of Rorschach interpretation, which exhausts itself in the repeated discovery in texts of the theories we bring to them?

Perhaps one useful alternative critical approach for an analysis that focuses on textual content is what might be described as a symptomatic analysis. From such a perspective, the split between media and culture or society remains solely one of interpretive convenience. The point wouldn’t be to ask how culture affects itself, still less to ask what media texts do to audiences, or what audiences do with (and to) texts, but rather what such texts, viewed hologrammatically through the lens of theory, can tell us about the society from which they emerge. The test of such an approach would lie in its fruitfulness – the extent to which it illuminates hitherto un-remarked patterns and connections and extends the analysis not solely of media texts, but of the society within which they emerge.

By way of a brief and underdeveloped example, I’m going to focus on MTV’s One Bad Trip – and in particular the changes undergone by the format once cast members figured out the show’s gimmick. One Bad Trip is a parasitic show: producers tell cast members they’re going to be on an episode of something called MTV’s Ultimate Party Show, which documents the hijinks of the young and judgment-impaired at play in well-known party destinations. The twist is that, unbeknownst to the partiers, producers bring along their family members or significant others to spy on them as they let it all hang out for the cameras. The show’s gimmick is that it stages the scene of surveillance: a behind-the-scenes look at people peering behind the scenes. We are presented, for example, with the spectacle of two fathers spying on their college-aged daughters as they frolic on Lake Havasu, drinking, making out with one another, flashing the crowd, and so on. “This might be too much information,” says one father peering through binoculars from a nearby boat, “I don’t think she’s going to end up being a school teacher.”

The show invokes the anxiety catered to by the promise of peer-to-peer monitoring technologies: that since self-presentation is always a performance, it can double as a form of deception – one to be thwarted (along with its attendant risks) by adopting the techniques of the do-it-yourself private investigator. If, as the Abika.com background-check Website puts it, “most people lie a minimum of 25 times in a single day,” we are invited to wonder along with the promotional blurb for the reality show Fake Out, which teaches lie detection techniques, “Is your teenager being untruthful? Is your spouse not telling you the whole story? Is your employee late to work again the fifth time because of a car accident on the road? Can you spot a lie?” A savvy mistrust of representation – what Slavoj Zizek (1999) has described as the erosion of symbolic efficacy – coincides with a default to empirical investigation: don’t trust what people say, see what really goes on when you’re not there. Protect yourself. Order a spy-cam. Sign up for One Bad Trip … or not. The point is not to suggest (or deny) that TV trains us but to consider what we might learn from representations of peer-to-peer surveillance about an era that witnessed the transformation of Google from proper noun to verb.

From MTVs One Bad Trip

From MTVs One Bad Trip

By staging the scene of surveillance, One Bad Trip foregrounds not only the façade of self-presentation, but also the use of reflexive strategies for getting “behind” the façade. After its first season, the show’s producers found that the kids they recruited had figured out the gimmick: they’d seen the ads for the show and had read about it on MTV’s Web site, and they suspected they were no longer on the Ultimate Party Show. In response, the producers “flipped the script” as they put it, adding one more twist. They let the partiers in on the fact that their family members or significant others were spying on them, and then helped set up the spies by staging outrageous scenarios for them to react to. So, for example, a young lady whose parents had signed up to spy on her Las Vegas trip pretended that she was eloping and marrying her boyfriend in a Vegas wedding chapel.

The “script flip” resulted in wholesale role reversal: the investigated became the investigators, the spies were on display. And it is this reflexive reversal that suggests two aspects of contemporary peer-monitoring practices. The first is the default of the voyeur/spy to exhibitionist: the watcher engaging in the process of verification with an eye to the gaze of an imagined audience to which s/he strives to avoid appearing as a dupe. It suggests, in short, the internalization of the discipline of surveillance not just by the watched, but – in an era of reflexive savviness and generalized risk – by the watchers. Perhaps the reality on offer in a show like One Bad Trip is that it stages the redoubling in the figure of the do-it-yourself spy of the imperative to watch and of submission to a monitoring gaze: the default of voyeurism to a desire to be seen as not being fooled.

The second suggestive aspect of the show, which might be described as the George W. Bush moment, is its portrayal of the default of savvy skepticism to a point of fixation that ostensibly bypasses the pitfalls of mediation – the resuscitation of gut instinct as the obverse of generalized savviness. If representation is not to be trusted, we need direct access to presence via cultivation of the kind of x-ray soul vision that Bush famously invoked to gauge Putin’s character (and that his supporters repeatedly invoke to gauge his own). The same faith-based access to authenticity is invoked in the debriefing sessions of One Bad Trip‘s post-flip season. In the first season the spies were exposed to behind-the-scenes realities portrayed as both surprising and troubling (the conservative father who saw his daughter pouring hot wax on S&M entertainers in a Miami bar; the woman who saw her boyfriend hitting on other women). The final debriefing portrayed the impact of this reality upon the watchers – how would they absorb the shocking truth behind the façade?

By contrast, finales in the post-“flip” season revealed this shocking truth as just one more façade. The result was not the universalization of skepticism, but rather an incitation to declarations of trust that bypassed the debunked realm of representation. We see a man explaining to his girlfriend that the very fact that the scene of his infidelity was staged should prove that he would never cheat on her. Those who engaged in outrageous activity used the fact that it was all a set-up to suggest that they would never really engage in such acts. In this respect the show staged a second aspect of contemporary savviness – its correspondence with the promise of direct access to the real: the default of the mistrust of mediation to a desire for the immediate. This staging reflects and perhaps reflects upon its cultural context – a society in which savvy debunkery of media representations, political deliberation, and scientific discourse coincides with the rise of Intelligent Design and the popularity of The Da Vinci Code. One bad trip for the rest of us.

Image Credits:

1. Temptation Island

2. From MTVs One Bad Trip

Abika.com (2005) Psychological and personality profiles. Web site. Retreived 2 November at: http://www.abika.com.

Zizek, S. (1999) The Ticklish Subject. London: Verso.

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Editorial: Why The Amazing Race: Family Edition Doesn’t Suck

The Amazing Race: Family Edition

The Amazing Race: Family Edition

I must begin with a word of thanks to my oldest brother Chris, for without him I might never have watched The Amazing Race (TAR), let alone become a fan. You see, about a year and a half ago he started telling me about this great reality show where people travel all over the world and that I simply must watch it. Given that my brother is a world traveler himself (at time of writing he’s been to over fifty countries and more than 700 airports), I could understand why he’d want to watch such a show, but I just wasn’t that interested, and so ignored his recommendation the first time, and the second time (and the third, and so on). But eventually I grew weary of hearing “So have you watched it yet?” every time I talked to him, and finally gave the series a try with the premiere episode of the sixth season. I haven’t missed a show since, and caught up on the rest of the series thanks to GSN reruns.

So yes, I’ll admit it, my brother was right. I am now an avowed fan of the show, though I’m not typically one for gamedocs or competitive shows, and view most reality series as guilty pleasures rather than quality television. Accepting this reluctant path to fandom prompted me to consider just what it is about TAR that makes it so compelling, and why I’ve become just as annoying as my brother in urging others to watch it. Formal innovation has been one key to the series’ critical and commercial success, but without pre-related teams, the show could have ended up as some bastard child of Survivor and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles instead of an Emmy-collecting powerhouse. I address formal elements and teams in turn.

The Amazing Race skillfully melds gamedoc, docusoap and travelogue. Its premise is, as with most gamedocs, delightfully simple — whoever gets there first, wins. Along the way are the requisite arbitrary challenges and regionally-themed roadblocks, end-of-leg rituals, and elimination twists. The series is shot in a docusoap/day-in-the-life style, where cameras are always present but rarely if ever acknowledged. Breaks in the otherwise invisible, mobile surveillance endemic to reality series shot in uncontrolled environments do crop up in TAR from time to time (most notably in shots of crowds and passers-by understandably gawking or smiling at the camera), but for the most part the show is masterfully edited down to what appears to be a seamless retelling of the race. These gamedoc and docusoap elements are then situated within a travelogue visual style that offers viewers every kind of voyeuristic perspective imaginable, from the air to the sea, from the street to the tops of skyscrapers, from static pre-shot sequences to the real-time teams’ views of the passing landscape. The cohesive amalgamation of these varied formal elements, each present in equal measures, allows for numerous points of entry into the series.

That said, what ultimately makes TAR such great TV are the teams and the team dynamic. Instead of individuals, TAR pits teams (of two) against each other. The significance of this construction of competitors emerges not from number, but rather from familiarity — the team members are all closely related in some way, whether they are friends, couples, siblings, or parent and child. The importance of these bonds cannot be overstated, as these pre-constituted alliances elicit far more drama than ones that are arbitrarily or “organically” crafted in front of the camera as on numerous other reality shows. It is one thing to see people who have known each other for days cohabit, argue and bond, but quite another to see the same from people who have known each other for years or even decades, and to witness it all happening while they are on a manic race around the world, plopped down in unfamiliar locales and situations and chasing the unknown on a daily basis. When situated within the formal context described earlier, the processes of relationship strengthening and breakdown constantly on display serve to create a more believable constructed reality narrative than in most other series, one that has more in common with serial drama than game show. The relationships between team members (as well as between teams themselves) produce a number of intertwining plots and sub-plots, as well as a host of identificatory scenarios.

The Schroeder Family from Amazing Race

The Schroeder Family from Amazing Race

It is these sorts of scenarios that I find even more fascinating in The Amazing Race: Family Edition (TAR: FE), and unlike many critics and fans, I think the introduction of a four-member, “family” team dynamic proves a nice twist on the series’ format. As a fan, I too lament the preponderance of race legs within the United States, and the contestants themselves have seemed annoyed by the amount of time spent in America this season — as matriarch Marian of the recently-eliminated Paolo family put it, “What the hell are we going to Phoenix, Arizona for? I want to go to New Zealand!” Still, even without the exotic locales, TAR: FE still has much to offer in the forms of interpersonal drama and viewer identifications. It does for me, anyway. For example, from the comparative lack of travel has emerged uncomfortably accurate portrayals of family excursions in America, such as of the ubiquitous road trip replete with missed exits, pointed bickering, random discussions, and instances of utter boredom. As I’ve traveled through and to nearly thirty states on road trips with various family members over the years, I found myself alternately laughing and cringing at the automotive escapades that dominated the first part of this season. Resonant scenes abounded – getting lost in New York, angry driver switches, knowing button-pushing, even coping with loss.

TAR: FE also successfully articulates the multiplicity of relationships within families (father-mother, father-son, father-daughter, mother-son, mother-daughter, big sis-little sis, big bro-little bro, brother-sister, sister-brother, father-son-in-law) and their often-uneasy coexistences. As the youngest of seven, I am all but too aware of these, but never have I seen so many of them represented on one show! This season offers up myriad examples of the imperfect nature of familial relationships, of power struggles and favorite-playing, of how conflicts between two family members still impact those not involved. Occasionally these types of direct conflicts — such as the scream-fights between Marian Paolo and her son DJ — are quite difficult to watch, but they speak a mediated truth about the frustrations of blood relations. Thankfully, what also emerges from these representations of family dynamics is a curiously inevitable solidarity. No matter what transpired during a particular leg, all of the families come together on the mat at the end, appraise their performances, and reaffirm their bonds in an earnest, upbeat coda. Of course, this is a false, televisual coda, since the race is not yet over and the next episode will surely produce yet more conflict and interpersonal drama. Yet each episode’s progression from one end of the family love-hate continuum to the other satisfyingly mimics the repetitive nature of familial relationships.

I find pleasure in other aspects of this season’s race, such as how teams have fashioned snarky, televisual nicknames for each other (Cleavers, Desperate Housewives). (I also find myself annoyed by the Weavers’ tiresome invocations, some suspect clue-box site choices (the World’s Largest Office Chair?!?), and increasing numbers of product tie-ins.) I initially got hooked on The Amazing Race by the competition and the travelogue, but while I would like to see the families cross one of the oceans sometime soon, I’ve realized that I no longer care who wins. What has kept me glued to CBS on Tuesday nights this time around is not the race at all, but the cacophony of familial dynamics and their, well, familiarity. Each week I am reminded of one or more of my many, many family members and various situations we’ve muddled through, and I inevitably end up thinking about and honoring those in my life and in my heart long after the credits have rolled. All that just from a silly reality TV show.

The Amazing Race: Family Edition
The TARFiles
Television Without Pity: The Amazing Race

Image Credits:

1. The Amazing Race: Family Edition

2. The Schroeder Family from Amazing Race

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Cybernetic TV

Andy Dick on The Reality Show

Andy Dick on The Reality Show

Toward the end of an early episode of MTV’s The Reality Show, a recursive show devoted to selecting a reality show for the network, host Dan Levy told the audience, “OK America, it’s time to vote! This is your chance to program our network.” Such promises of participation and shared control have become a recurring theme in the marketing of incipient forms of interactive TV technologies and formats that directly incorporate viewer feedback. By pressing a few buttons, couch potatoes are collectively transformed into talent scouts and production assistants with the power to award recording contracts, dole out millions of dollars in prize money, or kick someone off a show.

This promise of empowerment via interactivity is a slippery one: it envisions a Ross-Perot world of perpetual electronic referenda as a strategy for information gathering and audience monitoring. In the name of shared control it encourages viewers to become emotionally invested in a show by telling them it’s “their” show and then enlisting them to participate in a nationwide focus group. The term interactive is too general and misleading for such shows; they have become cybernetic in their attempts to incorporate feedback into flexible marketing and promotional campaigns.

American Idol is perhaps the most successful example of this sub-genre of audience-participation shows. Its ultimate product is a chart-topping album, and the show doubles as both advertising and market-research. Instead of paying for market testing and talent scouting producers have transformed them into a money-making spectacle by promising behind-the-scenes access to the production of popular culture. Let viewer voyeurs participate in marketing to themselves.

Recent formats that fit into the cybernetic sub-genre include The Reality Show and the USA Network’s Made in the USA, which allows viewers to pick among inventors competing for a chance to hawk their creations on the Home Shopping Network. As spot advertising confronts the threat of digital demise, such shows transform content into advertising with an interactive twist: a convergent hybrid of cyber-advertainment.

Thanks to the popularization of the ubiquitous prefix “cyber-“, its original sense has dissipated, leaving in its wake only a vaguely hip, high-tech afterimage. In its original formulation, cybernetics refers to the science of feedback-based control: the ability of self-governing mechanisms to adjust on the fly. One of the inspirations for Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic theory, famously, was his work on guided missile systems, an experience that led him to express guarded pessimism toward the theoretical developments he helped pioneer: “there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power…I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope” (39).

To describe interactive TV as cybernetic is to highlight the distinction between feedback as a strategy of control and participation as power sharing — a distinction too often obscured by the digital-era promise of interactivity, which tends to treat the efficacy of feedback as evidence of shared control. A heat-seeking missile may be cybernetic insofar as it adjusts to signals from its target, but to call it “interactive” or “participatory” would be to suggest a misleading commonality of interests between projectile and target. In the somewhat less ballistic realm of TV programming (notwithstanding the persistent vocabulary of target markets and audiences) the promise of interactivity implicitly identifies the imperatives of programmers with the best interests of those who provide feedback. They are, after all, both contributing to the same goal.

To call a format cybernetic is to invoke the further distinction between those aspects of production that are governed by feedback and those which are exempted from audience participation. Cybernetic control incorporates feedback to achieve pre-programmed goals that remain beyond the reach of interactive participation. We can thus differentiate between two layers of feedback in its broadest sense: the first allows for the adjustment of strategies to achieve a given end (boosting records sales, destroying rockets); the second has purchase upon the goal-setting process itself. Cybernetic TV deploys the promise of shared control at the second level as an alibi for exploiting the marketing potential of the first.

American Candidate

American Candidate

As an example of the limits of cybernetic interactivity, consider the case of American Candidate, an attempt by producer and documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler to realize, literally, the ostensibly democratic character of interactive TV. As Cutler envisioned it, the show would transpose the model of American Idol into the realm of politics, allowing “non-professional politicians of conviction” — “real” people with political passion and talent — to bypass normal political channels and run for president. Viewers would select their favorite candidate, who would then, thanks to a cash prize and a TV season’s worth of national publicity, be poised to run for office as a third-party candidate.

For Cutler, who devoted several years to developing it, the show represented the possibility that TV might heal the wounds it had inflicted on the political process in the form of prohibitive campaign costs and junk-food news coverage regurgitated by media conglomerates unwilling to hold power accountable (Cutler, 2005). For our purposes, American Candidate might be considered an attempt to jump the gap between feedback and shared control by channeling audience participation into the realm of the political — that of goal setting, not just strategy adjusting.

The F/X Network, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, picked up the show — and then, after roughly a year in development dropped it, citing costs. The show was eventually produced as a mock presidential campaign, poorly promoted and relegated to the ratings hinterlands of Showtime, too late in the election season to allow the winner to run for office.

As someone who continues to work with News Corp outlets, Cutler confines his frustration over the fate of the show to speculating that it might have been too political and participatory for the political elites upon whose good will Murdoch’s media empire depends. Since cost estimates didn’t change significantly, he insists that, “The reported reason could not possibly be the full story” (Cutler, 2005). As originally envisioned, the show represented an attempt to deliver on the promise of participation as power sharing — a promise that, regardless of the show’s actual potential (for good or ill), stretched the limits of interactive TV beyond the cybernetic comfort zone of U.S. commercial TV.

Cutler, R. J. (2005). Telephone interview with the author, Sept. 19.

Wiener, Norbert (1961). Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine. New York: MIT Press.

Image Credits:

1. Andy Dick on The Reality Show

2. American Candidate

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Marriage as the New Trend

Desperate Housewives

Desperate Housewives

Many critics have noted television’s zeitgeist-affirming shift from the urban singles of Sex and the City (all neatly coupled off by the show’s end) to Desperate Housewives’ suburban marrieds. Indeed, a closer look at contemporary television reveals that marriage and motherhood have never been so desirable. While 1950’s media normalized domestic life, husbands and children have become today’s must-have luxury item, both ubiquitous and somehow not easily attainable, especially for women. This tendency is not confined to the small screen: October’s Vogue features cover-girl Gwyneth Paltrow speaking out “On Marriage, Motherhood and Making a Comeback” with her career, naturally, coming in third place. Elsewhere the issue includes spreads on “Super Brides” and a fashion feature starring super-model, super-aristocrat and super-mother-of-four Stella Tennant on her Scottish estate. Tellingly, the magazine’s nostalgia column (on 1970’s working-girl fashions) is titled “The Feminine Mystique.”

Current television shows glorify marriage and motherhood in a variety of ways, presenting them as alternately hip, comforting, rare and hard-to-find, under attack, and even a little rebellious. New shows like CBS’s How I Met Your Mother present single life as from the perspective of a married man in 2035 talking about his youthful search for a wife. CBS’s crime procedural, Close To Home, focuses on a new mother/prosecutor who has to deal with her unsympathetic childless female boss. Even Lorelei from WB’s The Gilmore Girls finally wants to be married, but she’s the one who has to ask for it. And then there’s reality TV, from UPN’s Chaotic to Bravo’s Being Bobby Brown and MTV’s Newlyweds, perhaps the granddaddy of them all.

From My Fair Brady

From My Fair Brady

VH1’s current Sunday night “celeb-reality” shows play with this constellation of desirable, difficult to attain, and dangerous marriage. My Fair Brady focuses on Adrianne Curry’s efforts to persuade her much older boyfriend, Christopher Knight (aka Peter Brady) to marry her. The winner of America’s Next Top Model, season one, Curry repeatedly asserts that she does not want a casual relationship, as she walks around naked, showers with her best (female) friend, and dresses up in S&M outfits, underscoring that her overt sexuality and dangerous edge are compatible with today’s racier marriage. The far more harrowing Breaking Bonaduce depicts fellow former child-star, The Partridge Family‘s Danny Bonaduce, and his wife Gretchen undergoing marriage counseling. Faced with the possibility of losing his wife, Bonaduce injects steroids, chugs alcohol, becomes violent and cuts his wrists. Both Bonaduce and Curry despairingly speak to the camera about their single-minded desire for stable, traditional marriage and parenthood, as they remind us of their histories with drugs, rebellion and self-destruction.

A suitably knowing, postmodern show, Desperate Housewives engages with these current trends and the representations of femininity and sexuality that preceded it. Most obviously, its casting makes it a quasi-update of the iconic 1990’s night-time soap, Melrose Place. Marcia Cross, a Melrose fan-favorite as psychotic, love-hungry Dr. Kimberly Shaw, (who has her own schizoid housewife alter-ego, Betsy) has become Housewives’ uber-married (then widowed), uptight and possibly similarly deranged Bree Van Der Kamp. Melrose‘s sole gay resident, the nice but sexless, Matt (Doug Savant) now plays nice but professionally impotent house-husband, Tom Scavo. If Kimberly and Matt were respectively Melrose‘s most excessive and marginalized singles, ironically they are now reincarnated as the characters most defined by marriage and least able to function without it.

In another echo of Melrose, Housewives’ Tom and wife Lynette are both advertising professionals. Her (currently) unnamed boss (Joely Fisher) has Amanda Woodward’s shrewishness without her intriguing private life. In the episode broadcast October 9, 2005, she refuses Lynette time off to attend her son’s first day of school, explaining that it would be unfair on childless colleagues who have to pick up the slack. She adds that she has not even had time to go to the hairdressers in months. Although this sacrifice of personal care might evoke sympathy in Melrose or Sex and the City, it here highlights her inhumanity and reiterates the cultural shift away from single life.

Still, as any viewer of Friends or Sex and the City can attest, television has generally cast its glamorous singles in narratives of romantic disappointment. While this focus on single life granted them the visibility that is so central and validating in an image-obsessed culture, their unhappiness humanized them and evoked identification. Desperate Housewives uses a similar strategy: it makes marriage and motherhood visible while its frustrations produce sympathy, identification and comedy. This humor, in turn, offsets any critique of marriage as an institution, transforming the show into a sympathetic, media-savvy, and hip play with married women’s experiences.

It is unsurprising that television — a domestic medium — would position marriage and motherhood as fashionable, glamorous and desirable. But in the post-network age of niche markets, this involves a more complex negotiation between many different forms of marriage: Vogue-style high-end glamour, MTV’s post-modern MTV playfulness, Desperate Housewives’ camp irony, and Breaking Bonaduce‘s very absence of distance have little in common. Their only constants are the desirability and potential scarcity of marriage, a development that is enough to drive characters both real (Bonaduce, Curry) and fictional (Bree Van Der Kamp) to the edge of insanity.

Image Credits:

1. Desperate Housewives

2. From My Fair Brady

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Desperate Citizens

The Cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

In the family hour timeslot proceeding ABC’s guilty pleasure Desperate Housewives, over 15 million viewers regularly tune in for the Sunday evening’s feel-good reality hit Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (EMHE). Premiering in December 2003 as a spin-off of ABC’s primetime surgical expose Extreme Makeover, each week the peppy EMHE design team surprises a needy family with a good morning wake-up call, then sends them away for a week’s vacation while their home is completely transformed. Unlike its predecessor and dozens of other makeover programs which train their subjects to better govern themselves through buying the right clothes, cooking the proper foods, shedding weight, surgically altering their faces and bodies and changing a number of consumption patterns to attaining individual health and happiness through upward class/taste mobility, the contestants on EMHE are presented as model citizens and deserving families whose problems are not the result of deficient self-management but rather of misfortunes that are no fault of their own. Many of these families have suffered severe health issues such as a daughter with leukemia, a parent recently diagnosed with adult epilepsy, a child with brittle bone disease, a baby that required a heart transplant, and perhaps most heartrending, a deaf couple with a blind, autistic child. Other families have lost loved ones due to car accidents and gun shootings while some have suffered property damage from flooding and fires. The families are often large (several have 8 or more children) including many who have adopted children and live with extended family members. In struggling to meet healthcare and housing costs many parents work multiple jobs and most work in the moderate to low-wage service sector from retail (hardware, toys, electronics) to social workers, teachers, youth counselors, nurses, postal workers, cafeteria workers, insurance agents, firefighters, national guardspersons and bank loan officers. For example, in one episode a single father worked as a firefighter and barber to support his five kids, two of which were adopted. The families are more racially and ethnically diverse than most network primetime programs (more than a third are African American or Latina/o). The series received a nomination for an Imagen Award which recognizes Latina/o accomplishments in TV — two of the rotating design team are Latina/o.

While the problems of many of these families seem exceptional, these Sunday evening glimpses into the lives of struggling families give exposure to the daily situations many of us face under the policies of centrist Democrats and Republicans who have transformed welfare as we know it through a consensual distaste for government sponsorship and an embrace of market liberalism. As Mark Robert Rank has elaborated in his recent book One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, at any given time one fifth of the US population is either in poverty or on the brink and most Americans will experience poverty at some point during their adult lifetimes. While Rank argues that the social sciences have largely framed poverty as the result of individual inadequacies, this is far from the case on EMHE as these struggling families are embraced as model citizens — hard working, family oriented and community minded. In exposing the inadequacies of individual hard work and family values as avenues to prosperity and happiness in the land of opportunity, each week on EMHE the door is opened to exposing the structural sources (inadequate healthcare, unaffordable housing and unlivable wages) which produce our underprivileged nation.

However, it is no surprise that this commercially sponsored series makes every attempt to mask these structural sources of inequality by suggesting that the heroic efforts of its program sponsors can solve these problems via corporate benevolence and volunteerism. Indeed, in a digital TV era of time-shifting and multichannel audience fragmentation EMHE serves as a model for financing programs through product placement and corporate sponsorship. The housing construction, finance and design industries line up to pitch their products and services under a veneer of corporate good will. Ironically (or tragically) it is this housing industry, in-part, which has supported the real estate boom that has made it so difficult for the show’s recipients of this corporate goodwill to get by. Sears, the main sponsor, pitches its line of appliances and other moderately priced home furnishings designed by the hyper-energetic EMHE host Ty Pennington. The corporate synergies of Disney/ABC are on display as families are often sent to Disney’s theme parks while their homes are renovated. In one episode the Disney imaginers helped with designs and in another Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs helped renovate. During a time when the FCC and advocacy groups such as the Parent Television Council (who endorses EMHE) are scrutinizing the networks for indecency, the sanitary EMHE helps buffer the arrival of the decidedly more saucy Desperate Housewives (which the PTC does not endorse). And when a young child who suffers from Leukemia looks into the camera and thanks ABC for building her family a new house and redesigning the children’s hospital cancer ward, the corporate good will for ABC is priceless while the gruesome commodification of a child’s suffering is glaring. Meanwhile the series often vilifies social welfare workers for threatening to take children away from their loving families.

This corporate good will is indeed powerful as we cannot help but be moved by these powerful narratives of family rescue. (After long discussions with my students about the structural origins of inequality and the marginal effects that this corporate benevolence has in addressing it, they are often still appreciative that ABC/Sears are at least doing something to help out). Still, there are moments when these thousand points of corporate light do not always convince that they are enough to solve otherwise structural social problems. When the design team rolls into Watts (accompanied by the typical collage of barbed wire fences, garbage filled vacant lots and graffiti covered walls) to help a woman known for her community involvement recover from a flood, the design team is faced with the larger problem of improving the entire neighborhood for which “Sweet Alice” has so tirelessly dedicated her life to improving. When Sears distributes mattresses and bedding to a dozen residents on the block and the construction workers build front-yard fences, the inadequacy of their efforts to renovate the neighborhood is stark. In another episode, the design team comes to the aid of two families who were living in temporary housing. The father of one family of four lost a well-paying manufacturing job and couldn’t find work while a mother of two who worked two jobs at 80 hours per week could not afford her rent when she separated from her boyfriend. The design team added a duplex to the Colorado Homeless Families complex, but when confronted with a more systemic issue of homelessness, one designer said, “I think we should be able to pull together as a culture and a society to eradicate homelessness altogether, and most especially for kids.” When a corporate sponsor gave one of the homeless men a job as a security guard another designer said that this was the greatest thing the show has ever done. Meanwhile, the hedge fund that orchestrated the $11 billion merger between Sears and Kmart in the preceding year that resulted in 850 lost jobs made a 23% return for the year (much of this coming from its 39% stake in the new Sears Holdings) and the fund manager who led the merger made more than $1 billion that year. Also, corporate benevolence is undermined when families sue ABC for shoddy construction or hold them responsible when families breakup over disputes on how to share the loot.

UKTV Style

UKTV Style

While these moments of contradiction at times destabilize the commercial ideologies of corporate benevolence that EMHE strives to maintain, Thomas Streeter’s suggestion to focus our critique of TV on advertising and commercial sponsorship is particularly relevant for understanding how programs such as EMHE frame the range of causes and solutions to structural inequalities. In addition, when discussing alternatives we should take seriously the representational modes through which EMHE engages large audiences (and winning the 2004 People’s Choice Award for best reality show and the 2005 Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program) in stories of hard working, community-minded families that struggle to attain even the basics of the American dream. Fan chat is filled with empathy for the families with warnings such as “don’t watch this episode if you don’t want to cry,” and the feel-good moments when these deserving families receive the surprise bounty during the dramatic reveal. There is also a “how did they do that” fascination in watching a hundred workers tear down and rebuild a home in only a week, and the suspense of “will they actually finish it in time.” The made over homes seem to grow increasingly enormous and the designers mostly share the normative metrosexual taste cultures of other makeover shows, favoring elegant clean lines, “sophisticated” looks and designing around style themes referred to as Serengeti, Tuscany, or Island Escape. There is more fun in watching the design team construct high-concept rooms for the children such as a spy room replete with a fingerprint-activated door lock: gender norms are often codified as girls get princess and ballerina rooms while boys get dinosaurs and race cars. Sometimes high-concept landscapes undermine otherwise status-conscious decor such as a backyard scaled-down replica of Yankee’s Stadium and a pirate ship. The designers’ tastes sometimes clash with the families’ — in one of the how-are-they-doing-now follow-ups viewers might have noticed that the beige siding and chocolate front door had been repainted ocean blue and violet. Pleasures also come from sex appeal — in 2004 People magazine chose host Ty Pennington as “one of the sexiest men alive.”

In evaluating British makeover television Charlotte Brunsdon argues that realist modes which lack dramatic reveals and are more explicitly instructive should be valued over “showbiz”melodramatic modes. In thinking about non-commercial alternative reality TV in the US context I wonder if this evaluative criterion holds. Consider an upcoming episode of EMHE. When George W’s handlers got wind that EMHE would shoot a show in Biloxi they volunteered Laura Bush to come help out. Her spokeswoman said Mrs. Bush shared the conservative values of the show that support the private sector’s corporate benevolence over the slow-to-react federal government. But with federal recovery dollars dwarfing corporate or individual donations how might a public television-sponsored reality show depict this extreme gulf-coast makeover? Imagine the dramatic before and after reveals of new schools, entire neighborhoods, town halls and hospitals all made possible by government provisions and our collective social insurance programs. There would be narrative suspense in wondering if that high school football stadium sod would be laid in time for the opening game and feel-good stories of seeing deserving residents who had endured hardship and the loss of loved ones find new jobs and careers thanks to the public and private partnerships that made rebuilding communities possible. There would be sex appeal when Kayne West hosts a special edition on replacing Trent Lott’s million dollar ocean-front estate with community planned and developed affordable housing and a public promenade. While ABC, Sears, Laura Bush and their fellow corporate PR philanthropists help to rebuild the lives of a few in one tiny corner of Biloxi, imagine how a vibrant public television service could cover hundreds of extreme community makeovers, replete with suspense, melodrama and sex appeal, all made possible not only by the voluntary contributions of individual viewers like you, but through the billions of tax dollars, social service programs, housing subsidy initiatives, city council efforts, urban planning coalitions, state healthcare boards and local chambers of commerce. As a new genre of commercially sponsored good Samaritan TV propagates notions that corporate benevolence can solve structural inequality (think of The Scholar sponsored by Wal-Mart on ABC, Mobile Home Disasters on the WB, Trailer Fabulous and Pimp My Ride on MTV, and the upcoming Three Wishes on NBC), let’s imagine the possibilities that an extreme makeover of public television could have if it developed melodramatic, suspenseful and sexy reality TV programs that accounted for the necessary public and private partnerships needed to address the structural origins of our underprivileged nation.


Brunsdon, Charlotte. “Lifestyling Britain: The 8-9 Slot on British Television.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6.5 (2003): 5-23.

Rank, Mark Robert. One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

2. UKTV Style

Please feel free to comment.

Celebrity Nepotism, Family Values and E! Television

Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive

Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive

While thirty years ago second-generation Hollywood stars (Michael Douglas, Tatum O’Neal, Mia Farrow, Jane and Peter Fonda) were coming to be regularly associated with the era’s highest-grossing films, today it seems there are endless numbers of celebrity progeny in film, television, literature, music and fashion. With Rich Kids and The Simple Life having established the viability of reality franchises built around celebrity children and the children of the superwealthy, late summer 2005 has seen the debut on E of a new series, Filthy Rich Cattle Drive. In it, the (mostly twentysomething) offspring of various sports, music and television celebrities and moguls attempt to drive a hundred cattle across the open Colorado range in a fusion of new survivalism, frontier re-enactment and celebrity endurance. There are elements at work in the series that suggest it should be viewed as more than just another facet of the trend in which as one New York Times critic recently noted, “semi-celebrities are enjoying astounding notoriety” and the “B-list, it appears, is the new A-list.”

In a June 2003 excerpt in the UK’s Sunday Times drawn from his book In Praise of Nepotism Adam Bellow (the son of novelist Saul Bellow) diagnosed and defended the “new nepotism” he believes is a flourishing force in contemporary societies officially dedicated to meritocratic principles. Bellow contends that “It is high time for us to get over our ambivalence about the ‘return’ of dynastic families. The risks involved have been exaggerated and fail to take into account both the progress of meritocracy and the power of the market in determining social outcomes. . . The new nepotism springs from the initiative of children, not the interest of parents; it tends to seem ‘natural’ rather than planned.”

I agree that the new legitimacy of nepotism is worth thinking about, particularly under a political administration that has unashamedly and repeatedly placed relatives and cronies of the president, the president’s father, and cabinet members into powerful political roles.

Unlike Bellow, however, I don’t find a generalized belief in the transcendence of merit and the virtue of markets to be sufficient checks on the consolidation of inherited power and wealth. More often, trading on the seeming universality of such concepts operates as camouflage for nepotism in an era in which phenomena like “talent dynasties,” the mega-celebrity couple and the “accidentally” well-connected celebrity (like CNN broadcaster Anderson Cooper [Gloria Vanderbilt’s son], or the musician Norah Jones [daughter of Ravi Shankar]) are increasingly naturalized.

It seems clear that a certain strain of reality programming that requires celebrities to prove their worth in endurance contests/scenarios of teamwork and discipline has emerged a very useful form for negotiating the contradiction between meritocratic discourse and nepotistic practice. In addition, scenarios of celebrity abjection like I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and Celebrity Fear Factor engage questions of celebrity toughness or endurance while other series like Celebrity Fit Club and Fat Actress assemble casts whose waning celebrity is connected to their failure to maintain bodily discipline and extend the possibility of rehabilitation. These television series emphasizing the disciplining of minor, declining or aspirant celebrities stand in interesting relation to other trends focusing on ever more microscopic adulatory attention to the style, earnings, vacations, homes, etc. of the most high-profile stars.

In thinking about the new nepotism in the context of family values I would frame the question rather differently from Bellow asking instead: how does the “natural” way in which so many stars’ children become stars themselves interact ideologically with the strengthened sense of belief in contemporary American culture that one’s family capital is more reliable than any other form of social or political capital? One of the most striking features of Filthy Rich Cattle Drive is the way the series both draws upon and strengthens the kind of biological/genetic essentialism that seems to hold so much currency these days. The show hypes expectation from one episode to another through recognizable melodramatic structures but it frequently ties these expectations to an implicit promise that we’re going to see celebrity progeny do and say things to confirm that they are exactly like their parents. Thus, Shanna Ferrigno (daughter of Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno) is shown to be physically capable and tough on the trail, while Anthony Quinn’s son Alex is cast as a potential heartbreaker romantically interested in at least two of his fellow cast members. Most significantly, by its third episode the series was using program teasers to prompt us to expect some type of meltdown from the angry son of Robert Blake. Filthy Rich Cattle Drive‘s use of Noah Blake illustrates the free-floating textual connections that can now be built between different forms of reality tv, the discourses of scandal and entertainment court coverage. Widespread public perception that Robert Blake killed his wife Bonnie Bakley (despite his exoneration) will seemingly be corroborated through the “natural” and “unscripted” inherited behavior of his son under the adverse conditions of the cattle drive.

Certainly, Filthy Rich Cattle Drive engages the ambivalence of celebrity nepotism; its pleasures are at least in part tied to the abjection I allude to above. A key moment in the series’ third episode involved Beverly Hills princess (and daughter of Yahoo CEO Terry Semel) Courtenay Semel being compelled despite her obvious repugnance and anxiety to help a cow deliver its calf. And of course the phrase “filthy rich” in the series title ironically engages audience expectation that these wealthy/privileged young people will be dirtied/debased in the course of their experience on the trail.

Filthy Rich Cattle Drive appears at a moment when the relationship between work and success in American life has grown significantly more dubious. In an earlier Flow column, Heather Hendershot has offered astute arguments about the contrived yet essential nature of work on reality tv. One of the most interesting aspects of this new reality series is its effort to retain some degree of belief in worthy, collective enterprises that are quintessentially American in character. Clearly, the series speaks to a new sense of contestation over bedrock beliefs in the stability of the relationship between fame, talent, commitment and effort as it assembles its semi-famous cast under the promotional slogan “Cows don’t know who your daddy is.”

Finally, though I haven’t mentioned it thus far, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge how the series’ meanings are refracted in relation to its producer, Joe Simpson. Simpson, the father of daughters Jessica and Ashlee, regularly deploys ministerial credentials and pronouncements of his patriotic, Christian family values to deflect perceptions of unseemliness in his role as promoter of his daughters’ multi-faceted media stardom. Filthy Rich Cattle Drive premiered the weekend of The Dukes of Hazzard‘s theatrical release and was preceded by an E True Hollywood Story entitled “Jessica, Ashlee and the Simpson Family,” an account of the coming to celebrity of the Simpson sisters (largely through reality television) and their sponsorship by their father. In the broadcast Simpson repeatedly emphasized the individuality and ambition of his daughters but added that “As a father, there’s nothing better than making your child’s dreams come true.” While Simpson’s daughters have given him a degree of fame, rather than the other way around and the double bill of these two broadcasts significantly challenges the precept that the new nepotism must appear artless, the juxtaposition nevertheless makes the Simpson family appear all the more entitled to their fame in contrast to the celebrity progeny on the cattle drive. Whatever the series’ resolution (as I write the first three episodes have now been broadcast), for me the most important aspect of Filthy Rich Cattle Drive is its emergence from an industrial/cultural milieu of increasing familial promotion and nepotistic hype.

In this context one might also include a series like “My Super Sweet Sixteen,” which profiles the planning of opulent birthday celebrations for the teenage daughters of the superwealthy.
Lola Ogunnaike, “B-List Rivals Bring Their A-Game to Reality TV,” The New York Times, August 4, 2005, p. E1.
“Are They By Any Chance Related?” The Sunday Times, June 29, 2003, News Review, p. 3.
When given the opportunity to name the calf, Semel decides to call him “Fred Segal” after the Beverly Hills store she has been pining for.
In the third episode, in a gambit reminiscent of the more rigorously survivalist celebrity endurance programs cited above, the group are fed bull testicles disguised by the camp cook as “swingin’ sirloin.”
See “Belaboring Reality” in Flow 1.11.

Image Credits:
1. Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive

Please feel free to comment.

Pass the Remote: Catch and Release

by: Chris Terry and Cory Maclauchlin

Catch and Release

Welcome to Flow’s latest experiment in academic discourse, Pass the Remote. Over the course of each bi-weekly issue of Flow, three or more scholars will exchange open letters on a topic of shared interest. Check back to see the discussion’s progress, and feel free to comment below. If you are interested in contributing to Pass the Remote contact Christopher Lucas at clucas@mail.utexas.edu.

Dear Cate and Cory,

Away from my graduate studies and my radio career, I still manage to cobble together a bit of a personal life and one of my favorite “free time” activities is to go fishing. Living in Wisconsin, fishing season is only a few months long, so I pass the winter months by watching lots of fishing shows on the cable networks.

I find these shows fascinating despite their poor production value, obvious staging and cheesy dialogue. I’m a self-confessed news junkie, but throw in some edited hot fishing action by a guy who is as, if not more, overweight than me, and each episode is like a half-hour of pure mindless ecstasy. I often wish I could be that guy on the screen, living his full-size pickup truck dreams.

I’ve never quite been able to figure out why I am drawn to such low-brow entertainment. After all the characters in these shows are little more than caricatures. However, after some late night, third-shift thinking, I have come to the conclusion that fishing shows are just like pornography.

Think about it. Both porn and fishing shows portray something I’d rather be doing myself, done to a remarkable standard, by professionals in a staged setting. Both feature a “you are there” approach to the camera work that gets a viewer close enough to the action to appreciate what’s happening. And just for good measure, they both add in some barely audible grunts and a touch of bad theme music. In the end, you just have a matching pair of male-dominated fantasies. If you wanted to get down to the base level, one could even throw in a joke or two about “rods” or “mounting trophies.”

Therefore I’m compelled to pose the question, are fishing shows really just a form of clean pornography? Do these shows, by appealing to a masculine fantasy, serve as some sort of proxy testosterone? Are these shows appealing because they are simply about subjects/hobbies that men enjoy? Or is there something else about this programming that draws me in week after week?

Chris Terry
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

Dear Chris and Cory,

Wow, I did not see that topic coming…
Well, I don’t watch porn and I don’t watch fishing shows. So, where does that leave me to respond to your argument?

Part of me shrugs my shoulders and says, “Okay, I guess.” And it ends there.

Part of me wants to look past my immediate reader response shrug and put on my theoretical Lacanian lens and ask, “What is the objet petit a that we ­ meaning you ­ search for, desire in these shows?” But I think that is pretty obvious ­ we desire what we can’t ever have

Part of me wants to say, “Well, if you are going to compare those two, then you need to continue on and make that same observation of any sort of visual entertainment.” As a reader already astutely commented in her post, we watch, not just makeover shows, cooking shows, and painting shows, but The OC and everything else.

I am here in NYC for a few days and in my social rounds yesterday, I asked a variety of gentlemen what they thought about your post, Chris, and asked (pleaded) for suggestions for possible responses. I got no suggestions and two responses. One: “You’re not going to find many guys in Manhattan who watch fishing shows.” The other, from a gentleman who resides in Vermont: “A friend who is a professional fly fisherman just gave me a fly fishing tape to watch. He called it ‘salmon porn.'” So, at least I had some verification of your argument there.

Now, I guess I will ask you, Cory: what about the people who don’t watch any of these shows? Are they living a fuller, richer life than the rest of us? Are they out there doing it, painting it, fishing it, sexing it while we are inside, sitting on our sofas, dreaming about it? ­ Chris watching yet another hour of Bass Fishing with Phil, me watching back-to-back episodes of Ambush Makeover?


Dear Chris and Cate,

I am convinced that most people, especially those who spend their days cultivating their minds, have their moments of decompression, when the intellect takes a break. I know English professors who confess (only after a few drinks) to having a substantial collection of Harlequin novels; a fellow student recently admitted to me he was addicted to Dr. Phil; and my brother, while getting his PhD, regularly retreated to Fear Factor. For me, I need my regular dose of XMC, on SpikeTV, especially during exams. For those of you who don’t know XMC, it is an old Japanese game show where contestants undergo physical challenges that usually result in painful falls. The American version has comical English overdubs, reminiscent of Mystery Science Theatre 2000.

Much like Chris with his fishing shows, I usually watch it alone with much enjoyment. When my fiancée joins me she shakes her head in confusion as I laugh so hard I cry. I suppose I could use the same Freudian steps to analyze my attraction to the show. Perhaps it provides me with a masochistic outlet. But then what? What do we do with sexual undertones or overtones that we identify in media, other than calling them sexual? Does it enrich the experience? Does it detract from the experience? Does it ever lead us to meaning?

In answer to your question Cate, I’m not sure how to identify full or rich lives. We who watch television shows certainly want to indulge in a fantasy. And I suppose I would qualify fantasy as a factor in a full or rich life. From fishing to exercising, activities look better on television. But this holds true in other forms of entertainment: books, theatre, film, even our own imaginations.

I suppose the danger in every fantasy is actually construing it as a reality: the Don Quixote complex. If one accepts the experience of watching as doing then deficiencies take hold. Chris, if you completely stopped fishing so you could stay inside to watch your fishing shows that would indeed be sad. But whether you find it erotically titillating or blissfully mindless it seems it serves the same function. I pose a broader question in terms of television and fantasy: does the array of media output lead Americans to the Don Quixote condition? As a culture inundated with information and images, are the lines between fantasy and reality becoming blurred in the minds of Americans?


Dear Cory and Cate,

I apologize for my tardy response. Cory’s response has taken this discussion to a new level from its tongue in cheek approach.

In media, I believe the concept of reality itself is suspect. I have never quite understood this term “reality television.” If a bunch of backbiting, oversexed teenagers engaging in fiery challenges of physical skill is reality, I must have missed the train at some point.

Perhaps my questions about reality television are quite similar to my original comparison. The programming, be it fishing, pornography, or scantily dressed 20 somethings eating road kill, offers an escape that allows us to live beyond our abilities. At its most basic level, isn’t this what fantasy is?

As a long time radio producer, I find reality comes in two forms. The first is the public face; the one seen heard or read by the public. In my specific case, this involves a conservative talk radio station whose hosts represent the archetype of kool-aid drinking true believers. The other side of reality is the one I see that happens behind the microphone, the one where the loudmouth afternoon drivetime host is geeky, quiet and introverted.

But, I digress from the issue Cory passed to me. Has the line between reality and fantasy become blurred? I would argue, at least in the case of the media, there is no line to blur. Everything is a fantasy. Programs which are presented as reality are scripted and edited; even shows like Cops are cut to fit a mold. I myself haven’t abandoned reality for fantasy; I still go fishing as much as I can. But if Cory is right, and the line is blurring, two questions come to mind. Is the blurring of the fantasy and reality a bad thing? And if so, what do we need to do about it?

Chris Terry

Dear Chris and Cory,

What can we do about it? Well, for one thing, I think we can do what we are doing here – talk, critique, question. And while we, ensconced in our graduate programs, can easily and willingly realize the blurring of the lines in visual entertainment between reality, staged reality, and fantasy, I think of my high school students that cannot and will not. Again, what can we do? Specifically, what can I do? As I move from my graduate programs at the university and into the high school classroom, I can introduce to this next generation of scholars to theory and to concepts of critical studies. I can show my students that popular culture is worthy of analysis and deconstruction. I can, in fact, introduce them to forums like this one as a model and mimic its format in class discussion and writings.

In Clueless in Academe (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2003), Gerald Graff notes that college and high school students (and perhaps some readers of this particular post) will voice reluctance when asked to critique popular culture: “Hey, it’s just a movie.” (Or, more to the point, “Hey, it’s just a fishing show.”) Graff elaborates: “The view that popular culture products either have no meaning or none that is worth discussing is pervasive among academics as well as journalists, who periodically issue derisive editorials whenever an academic is caught attributing gender attitudes, say, to a performance of […] Madonna or an episode of […] Friends. To be sure, the elaborate allegories academic critics claim to find in popular or high culture do sometimes stretch the reasonable limits of credibility.

Nevertheless, analysts of popular culture seem to me right that such works influence our beliefs and behavior all the more powerfully because they come embedded in seemingly innocuous entertainment that is not thought worthy of close scrutiny” (51).

Again, I think we continue to do what we are doing here; we take another look at that “seemingly innocuous entertainment” and we discuss, analyze, and write angry letters to John Stossel. (Yes, I’ve done that. You haven’t?)

Yours truly,


I agree with you Cate.

As a society I think we have an obligation to discuss, question, and critique the facets of our culture, be it opera or fishing shows. But while I agree that popular culture is a valuable topic to discuss, I hesitate to give it too much credence. How much cultural value do we place on the latest television shows? Coming from a literary perspective I despair at the corporate shadow that looms over most of the creative work that most Americans consume. They tend to impose a formula of sound bytes or plot twists regurgitated until the consumer gets bored. Does every episode of the OC have to include a posh soiree where someone publicly humiliates themselves? You bet it does!

I question at what point does media output become a part of our cultural fabric? Because the Fox Network executive decides to air a show does it become a cultural artifact? Or does the moment that we start discussing it make it a cultural artifact?

On this last posting I should not pose so many questions, but I can’t say I’m ready to offer answers either. Hopefully, as you point out Cate, discussion will make us more active as discriminating consumers. I think once we start questioning cultural value we start identifying the things we actually do value. Whether it is Porno fishing or Pavarotti, a questioning of “why do we like it” seems a beneficial exercise for the entire culture. But I say this hoping that we might not dwell too long on analyzing the sexual undertones or overtones of the hundreds of 30-minute cable shows currently airing. If anything, I think this questioning should be an exercise for tackling the more prevalent cultural artifacts, those that will last. However, maybe “Sport Fishing on the Fly” will prove one of our lasting cultural gems.

Cory Maclauchlin

The Remote Passed:
April 1-15, 2005 Carnivale
April 15-29, 2005 Adult Swim

Image Credits:
1. Catch and Release

Please feel free to comment.

The Republic of Tyra

by: Anna McCarthy / New York University

Tyra Banks

Tyra Banks, America’s Next Top Model

There has been a lot of talk recently, in these “pages” and elsewhere, about reality television as a technology of rule. Once you start thinking about things this way — and it is hard not to after reading Laurie Ouellette’s persuasive essay on Judge Judy — reality TV seems to illustrate with seductive ease the form of power Michel Foucault dubbed governmentality. One can argue that these television programs, teaching the “conduct of conduct,” are media versions of community policing. They demonstrate forms of individual self-management through lessons derived from the behaviors of others, behaviors displayed for our horrified pleasure and then corrected by the expertise of a variety of non-state disciplinary figures: juries of experts, psychologists and childcare specialists, professionals of all stripes. These authorities work in consort with devilishly clever social structures that not only create seriality and suspense but also embody ideas about justice and personal responsibility. These structures enable the various forms of elimination and transformation, some of them very humiliating, on which these shows rest. I can’t imagine suffering through those ambushed makeovers that send people whose style seems perfectly acceptable into sobbing shame spirals, or the endlessly escalating screaming matches America’s Top Model stages between very hungry women.

But is the pedagogical voice of reality TV actually persuasive or effective as a program of rule? Despite the applicability of the governmentality paradigm to reality TV, I am not convinced that these programs do literally train citizens to think or act a certain way. Indeed, to see media images as direct instantiations of the art of government is to reduce Foucault’s theory of governmentality to an Orwellian theory of social reproduction. I don’t think that those scholars who have identified the undeniable parallels between neoliberal principles of governance and the lessons in personal responsibility taught by reality TV are making any claims about the effectiveness of these lessons, nor indeed are they assigning causal agency to media images in the manufacture of a neoliberal consensus. But I do wonder where the argument is going to go once we’ve fully enumerated the multifarious ways that reality programs embody particular political rationalities. As Pat O’Malley, Lorna Weir, and Clifford Shearing have noted, there’s a danger that the focus on political rationalities in their ideal form, rather than in their “messy implementation,” will lead work on governmentality to “lose its dynamism and degenerate into ritualized and repetitive accounts of ‘governing’ in increasingly diverse contexts.”

The question for those of us who are interested in thinking about historical and institutional discourses on governing by television is how best to avoid ritualized and repetitive analyses. No one wants to see the highly relevant critique of neoliberalism transformed into one more example of an argument that writes itself. I am hopeful that this can be avoided because it seems to me that there are a lot of nuances and differences that remain to be addressed as we think about reality TV’s relationship to programs of rule. These shows may indeed play a pedagogical role in our lives, but I don’t think they necessarily teach by example. As Heather Hendershot pointed out a few weeks ago, seeing women with monster melon boobs on TV doesn’t promote negative body images — indeed, extreme make-over programs are likely to reinforce female viewers’ feeling that their current rack sizes are really quite sufficient.

On a different scale, the need for nuance is important because the kinds of governance we see being acted out in these shows are sometimes difficult to reconcile with any conception of the modern era’s liberal art of government, understood as motivated by the problem of how to maximize of the freedoms available to citizens, the latter conceived as fully autonomous, sovereign individuals. The trials that people endure in reality TV, dependent on mental and physical ordeals, scapegoating, and bodily mutilation sometimes seem pre-modern in their punitive bodily intensity, reminding us of the gruesome description of torture at the beginning of Discipline and Punish. Indeed, journalists frequently compare these programs to the Roman Coliseum. This commonplace suggests that reality television take us into a realm that is very other to advanced liberalism as a political rationality. In fact, where it takes us is the horrific realm in which this rationality is actually implemented. As evidence mounts of the illiberal techniques of rule, from torture to the denial of civil rights, on which neoliberal governmentality rests it strikes me that what extreme makeover shows demonstrate is not the neoliberal ideal but rather its deep contradictions.

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1. Tyra Banks, America’s Next Top Model

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Elevating Servants, Elevating American Families

by: L.S. Kim / University of California, Santa Cruz

The pursuit of domestic bliss has been around since our country’s forefathers declared the pursuit of happiness as one of America’s founding principles. What constitutes a good home has been in the making (and in the cooking and cleaning) ever since. In the Television Age, “household help” has meant more than just domestic workers; the television box itself has been the central educational device to help housebound women learn domesticity. From Julia Child to Martha Stewart, and with companies such as Procter & Gamble, a producer of soap as well as soap operas, television has introduced women to cleaning products and other goods and services rendered essential for the proper maintenance and management of the American home.

The figure of the domestic servant and the television, come together to teach Americans parenting skills. In the form of British nannies on television who parachute into dysfunctional homes, this class of workers enables American mothers (and fathers, too) to reclaim the domestic skills that somehow have degraded along with the rest of traditional “family values.”

The British Are Coming
In two new programs, Supernanny on ABC and Nanny 911 on Fox, regular folks employ the help of British women to get their house in order. The offer of assistance is appealing and welcome: “When your kids are full of trouble, help is there on the double. The British are coming … on Nanny 911.” In each episode, head Nanny Lilian (who amazingly has her own butler, Fraser) is given cases of American families in need — of domestic help. She has a cadre of trained professionals to choose from, who she assigns to different American households, each of which undergoes an “extreme makeover” facilitated by their nanny.

The nannies are “professionals” trained in child-care. By deploying the figure of the British nanny who is accustomed to a class system and who is temporarily placed in the American family’s home, and by focusing her on child-rearing (rather than toilet-scrubbing), the odd contradiction of ‘middle-class’ Americans living in a so-called classless society yet having servants in their homes is smoothed over. Moreover, that the servants are white and not American, avoids the sticky real-life history and contemporary situation of employing (legally or informally, paid or enslaved) servants of color in American households.

Maids Since the Beginning of Television
Of course not all servants are alike. A domestic is different from a housekeeper, and mammy is very different from nanny. There is a built-in hierarchy among servant work according to tasks, as anyone who has seen the British series Upstairs, Downstairs or who has read about house slaves and field slaves, has learned. In the history of television, the representation of servants is steadfast and yet specific to social and racial contexts: Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award for playing Mammy in Gone With The Wind in 1939, reprised the role a decade later in Beulah, one of America’s first television series. Japanese star and Hollywood film actress, Miyoshi Umeki, famous for her role as bath-giving wife to American G.I. Red Buttons in Sayonara, played maid Mrs. Livingston in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father in the late 1960s, providing a pleasant alternative to the images of a losing war against the Vietnamese (and a different kind of portrayal than small, Asian women as Vietcong soldiers). Notable among numerous television servants are: Alice in The Brady Bunch, Marla Gibbs’ character in The Jeffersons, Mr. French in the 1960s, Mr. Belvedere in the 1980s (both were significant eras in which women pushed from the private space of the home into to the public spheres of work and school), and of course, The Nanny — whose striking Queens accent is perhaps rivaled only by Rosie the Robot’s Brooklyn accent in The Jetsons. Even cartoon families have maids in America.

As middle-class American culture became suburbanized, both the maid and the television set became components of a household’s status and success — a mark of upward mobility and an idealized family lifestyle. Domestic perfection and the private sphere of the home have long-been married to the notion, and the representation, of a feminine head-of-household in American television history. The television was, after all, a piece of furniture to be placed (and dusted) in the home. Moreover, television programming acknowledged and hailed female viewers, offering stories and characters to which women could and can relate. Most specifically, these stories and characters portrayed, and continue to portray, the family ideal.

In her recent Flow article, the structural format that Allison McCracken observes in episodes of Wife Swap (which like ABC’s Supernanny, it has its Fox knock-off, Trading Spouses) are common in the nanny shows as well. In both sets of Domestic Reality programs, there are three major similarities: 1) the situations presented emphasize the ‘feminine’ in relation to domestic life, placing the burden of responsibility (and blame) on the woman, 2) the programs provide a venue for patriarchy to be called out, though clearly not overturned, and 3) houses and home-life are evaluated and judged, by the exchange-mothers or the visiting nannies, and by viewers as well.

Supernanny to the Rescue
The interpersonal exchange that occurs in bringing a “new mommy” into a household (the real switch is not in spouses, but in mothers; there is no “wife swap” for families without children!) is more definitively positive — even sparkling — in Supernanny and Nanny 911. These programs tell the (fairy) tale of a magical lady who brings about astonishing changes in a family and their home. Episodes are structured according to a one-week schedule; likewise, the solution for the families with children who have run amok and with parents who have lost control, is the schedule of rules which the nanny establishes and works to enforce in her 7-day stay. The usual schedule goes something like this:

Day 1: Nanny arrives and observes harried housewives, distant non-contributing husbands, and wild-wild children (hopped up on carbs and boldly ignoring bedtime) heading towards real trouble (divorce, maybe?).
Day 2: Nanny dispenses the new rules to establish order and discipline in the household.
Day 3: the rules don’t work, because they aren’t being followed by truly malbehaved children.
Day 4: the rules don’t work, because they aren’t being enforced by reluctant or doubting parents, and by specifically the mother, who often clashes with the nanny.
Day 5: when children and parents listen to nanny, their home life is miraculously improved (and suddenly the images edited into the scenes are of smiling faces rather than of screaming children and shell-shocked parents).
Day 6: Nanny goes away for a day, having access to footage from “hidden cameras” in the house — a twist on the “nanny-cam.”
Day 7: Nanny returns to tutor, but also to praise and affirm that the family is on the right track. Her job is (well) done. She says goodbye.

It is notable that all ten families on Nanny 911 thus far have been white; Supernanny, too, sidesteps race and questions about race relations by having a white servant in a white family’s home. Perhaps “appropriately” so. Since Nanny (and not Mammy) is here to save.

Nanny is also here to teach. How else would otherwise industrious Americans accept the fact that they are faltering as parents? (Parents are quite often in denial and shown as offended by Nanny’s comments, at first.) In comes British nanny whose accent might belie that she is not part of the “uppercrust,” but who, to most Americans, has the voice and demeanor of authority. She is just what today’s laid-back American family needs. That is, we are willing to acknowledge the existence and practice of “domestic help” in ways that do not delve too deeply into questions of assigned gender roles, of racial positioning in the labor market, and of class stratification. This willingness is demonstrated through at least two mechanisms — the expression of gratitude to the nanny (she is showered with thanks, kisses, and hugs at the end of her stay), and moreover, she is elevated while simultaneously being a servant. (She is now a TV star, after all, isn’t she?) The bio for “Nanny Jo” Frost on the Supernanny website describes her admiringly: “Her practical, no-nonsense style was honed over 15 years of nannying in the U.K. and the U.S. Now American families can tap into the secrets of this modern-day Mary Poppins.”

Collapsing class differences and hence, ignoring the fact of class privilege, denying that there are racial boundaries, and blurring gender prescriptions that are, nonetheless, there, these are cultural and political projects that promote a contradictory and yet very American sense of identity. Racialized domestic servants (which include white British ethnic identity) portrayed on television serve to idealize family dynamics and racial harmony and to mythologize middle-classness and the American Dream.

Happy Ending
The figure of the domestic servant appears in television precisely at times when both race relations and the structure of domestic life are undergoing profound change, and when national identity is under scrutiny. British nannies, like their Prime Minister, serve as reassuring allies in battles to preserve “traditional values.” Mary Beth Haralovich’s fascinating essay analyzing the links between reality television and Italian neo-realism, and its roots in social documentary is relevant here. The website for Nanny 911 is designed around the family portrait, the picture of the perfect, “normal” American family. There is a “before” picture of a maladjusted family “in crisis,” and the happy “after” picture of a healthy family, echoing the happy conclusion to each episode. The images in the web pages as in the television programs themselves, sit on what Haralovich calls a “continuum of hybrid photographic arts,” telling a particular story of family, happiness, and nationhood.

Jo Frost, “Supernanny,” has authored a parenting book, recently released in the U.S. Is this proof that a miss from the working class can, indeed, pull herself up by her Mary Poppins bootstraps? Hattie McDaniel is known to have said, “I’d rather play a maid, than be one.” Amazing Nanny can do both.

Supernanny homepage (U.S.)
Supernanny homepage (U.K.)
Laurie Ouellette’s column on Nanny TV from Flow Volume 1, Issue 11

L.S.Kim is finishing a book on the figure of the racialized domestic in American Television. Please feel free to comment on this essay, or the topic in general.

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Nanny TV

by: Laurie Ouellette / Queens College


Supernanny on ABC

Are your kids a handful? Are you exhausted? Is your house a “zoo?” Do you need help juggling the demands of work and family? Me too. The recent birth of my son catapulted me into the ranks of harried parents everywhere. So when Supernanny (ABC) promised relief, I paid attention. This reality program dispatches a “top” British nanny to U.S. families who’ve answered “yes” to the above questions (The format was developed in the United Kingdom; when ABC won the bidding war over the United States version, Fox developed a virtual clone called Nanny 911). Reversing the power dynamics of domestic servitude, the nanny surveills everyday life inside the home, corrects faulty parenting and implements new household management techniques. She doesn’t stay long, for the goal is to swiftly educate before moving on to “save” the next stressed out family. Like so much popular instruction on television today, Supernanny does make ordinary difficulties more visible–but it ultimately ignores material conditions (daycare crisis anyone?) and places the impetus to improve and reform on individuals.

The program opens with Jo Frost in a posh English cab, watching video footage of the week’s needy family on her laptop computer. With her British accent, authoritative demeanor and nostalgic Mary Poppins-like appearance (matronly dress suit, tight bun, umbrella), she’s marked as clearly “different” from the masses of female childcare workers, shamefully devalued as they are in the United States. That’s important, because after observing “family dynamics” and taking mental notes for a brief period, Frost establishes tyrannical rule over the household. After explaining where the adults have gone wrong, she introduces a “tried-and-true” approach to domestic science based on the principles of order and discipline. No matter how large trouble looms, it can be eradicated with a Household Routine, a list of Household Rules, and a methodical approach to handling the children’s misbehavior. Of course, achieving domestic nirvana does take effort: “It’s a tough lesson for a parent to retrain themselves,” explains one frazzled mother.

The episodes are highly redundant, with a revolving cast of exhausted mothers, peripheral fathers, and preschool children who commit such unpardonable misdemeanors as bickering with siblings, talking back to parents, snacking between meals and throwing the occasional temper tantrum. While its hard to watch Supernanny cast these kids as deviants (more on that later), I do appreciate the chance to see overworked mothers with eyebags the size of mine on television. Since the double shift is still deeply gendered, Frost pitches her lessons in domestic time-management to the women. On one episode, Mom manages the family plumbing business from home, while also doing the housework and caring for two youngsters. She’s wiped out to the point of tears, but the program promises to “fix her broken spirit” in less than two weeks. Toward that end, Frost systematizes her workday with a color-coded, wall-sized schedule, allowing several hours “off” from the business to focus exclusively on the misbehavior-prone children (the time is made up in the evening when they are in bed).

On another episode, Mom works full-time as a telemarketer, while also keeping house and tending for preschool twins and a nine-year old. She thought working from home would facilitate more “mommy time” (and reduce childcare costs), but her “flexible” job has become a living nightmare. We see her perched at the living room computer taking calls on a headset while the children run amok; when the inevitable squabbles and mishaps force her to abandon her work station, she worries out loud that her boss will fire her. At the end of the day, she’s so tired she falls asleep with the children, leaving her husband feeling abandoned and single (“unacceptable,” according to Frost, who fails to suggest that he help out more). While it remains unclear exactly how an improved Household Routine can help this woman, there’s no mention of hiring a babysitter, let alone corporate reforms like subsidized on-site daycare. Like many of the makeover/advice programs now populating television, as in James Hay’s latest Flow article, Supernanny values self-reliance over “dependency” and social upheaval.

While household routines are important, domestic harmony also requires compliant children. At least one child per episode is branded as trouble, and the problem is blamed on faulty parenting. Occasionally parents are lectured for shouting and/or using force, but most of the time they’re charged with softness and leniency. To “prevent bad habits” from breeding and show kids that the “adults are in charge,” Frost establishes a non-negotiable set of Household Rules (no sassing, no aggressive play, no picky eating) and shows how to enforce them rationally. Each week, she demonstrates the same step-by-step approach to discipline, beginning with a “warning in a low tone” and culminating with a punitive trip to the “naughty mat” (the information also appears in captions, extending the lesson to TV viewers at home). She also demonstrates “tried and tested” methods for regularizing bedtime. To ensure the techniques will be properly implemented in her absence, Frost monitors the home via surveillance cameras for a few days; if Mom forgets a disciplinary step or Junior decides to climb out of bed, it’s all caught on camera. In the final review session, these mistakes are duly noted and the process is fine-tuned.

Supernanny is not entirely unhelpful, but it does reduce the complex and subjective practice of parenting to a rote behavioral science. It’s worth noting as well that the docile, predictable, routinized and (eventually) self-disciplined children it teaches parents to help produce, are precisely the sort of citizens-in-training that late capitalism depends upon. Perhaps someday television will address the many challenges of contemporary parenting (particularly for working mothers) with more substance. Until then, Supernanny is casting . . .

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I’m A Celebrity – Analyse Me: The Appeal of Celebrity Reality TV

by: Kirsty Fairclough / University of Salford, UK

The sight of author and feminist icon Germaine Greer entering the Big Brother house was surely a signal that celebrity reality TV is firmly entrenched in the television landscape in the UK.

Over the last few years we have seen various C-list celebrities desperately attempting to revive their flagging careers by appearing on the UK’s celebrity focussed reality shows, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here (ITV), Celebrity Big Brother (Channel Four), Celebrity Fit Club (ITV) and Hell’s Kitchen (ITV), but the surreal sight of a woman who had publicly vilified reality TV four years earlier gleefully entering the house was somewhat surprising. In fact, Greer had previously publicly stated in The Observer in 2001,”Watching Big Brother is about as dignified as looking through the keyhole in your teenage child’s bedroom door.” Yet in 2005 we see her become part of the phenomenon of reality TV that currently pervades our culture. What can we make of Greer’s participation? Is it shameless self-promotion or a shift in the character of celebrity culture? Greer is well known for her outspoken attitude and love of the spotlight, but an esteemed academic appearing on Celebrity Big Brother? A step too far or a sign of the times?

The appeal of celebrity reality television is easy to see, from the carefully constructed facades of C-list celebrities quickly disintegrating to the voyeur factor providing a quicker hit than the slow character build up of the unknown wannabes seen in traditional reality shows. Whatever the specific appeal for individual viewers, celebrity reality shows are naked television. There is a certain perverse pleasure in watching the fragility of the celebrity ego stripped of its usual indulgences and take a beating during its incarceration process in the house or the jungle.

Certainly, the choice of C-list caricatures explains some of its success. The contestants for the most recent series of Celebrity Big Brother saw, amongst others, Kenzie, a 19 year old boy band member; Brigitte Nielsen, known to most UK viewers as Sylvester Stallone’s ex-wife; John McCririck, an eccentric 60-something horse racing commentator; Caprice, a 30-something model, and, of course, Greer herself. Undoubtedly the most interesting aspect of this series was that the producers of Big Brother appeared to take one step further into the contestants’ “private” lives when Nielsen’s ex-mother-in-law, Jackie Stallone, whom Nielsen had not seen for twenty years, entered the house a few days in. This move was clearly meant to create conflict, but actually backfired when the two made amends by the time Stallone left, with Stallone even going so far as to say that she wanted Brigitte to win.

The fact that most of the participants are vaguely familiar rather than instantly recognised faces seems, at least in part, to be the key to celebrity reality TV’s success. Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Endemol UK, which makes Celebrity Big Brother, states that in fact, the C-list factor has become an essential part of a celebrity’s credibility for reality TV and that people with problems are far more interesting than those whose careers and emotional lives are under control.

“With Celebrity Big Brother we got Jack Dee and then put in a couple of people – Anthea Turner and Vanessa Feltz – whose careers had gone into reverse,” says Bazalgette. “The papers were saying ‘Is that all you could find?’, but it became far more clear than we’d realised that people whose careers are going down rather than up are more interesting because of the crises in their lives.” (The Guardian Mon 9.2.04) Since its inception, reality TV has made a specific claim to expose the process of the construction of fame, whether in terms of following hopeful wannabes from the audition stages to their entry into the media, or by offering the viewers unprecedented “access” to existing celebrities by stripping away the celebrity facade. Indeed, the last series of Celebrity Big Brother took this idea of access a step further by probing the celebrities past in order to find a weakness that would ensure explosive television.

What remains interesting about celebrity reality TV are the increasing numbers of celebrities inclined to laying themselves emotionally bare and in the practice of confession and disclosure on national television. There is inevitably a focus upon exposing a sense of the celebrity’s “true self,” which in turn ensures discussion of their personal lives. Celebrity Fit Club (ITV), for example, presents celebrities willing to subject themselves to public scrutiny and often humiliation about their eating habits and lifestyle.

Indeed, there appears to be a quest for self-validation in this type of programming, which in turn makes the celebrities appear somehow “ordinary.” There are, of course, financial interests at work in seeing celebrities on screen in this way. Celebrities are commodities and are often intensely aware of this fact, and it is this awareness which is entertaining for the audience to observe. The appeal for celebrities clearly lies in the possibility of reviving a flagging career as we have witnessed with Tony Blackburn (winner of I‘m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here Series 1 [ITV]). Yet the public emotional unravelling of television presenter Vanessa Feltz on Celebrity Big Brother Series 1 (Channel Four) illustrates how problematic this can be. What was interesting was her failure to understand how she might be represented. In most cases celebrities are only too aware of the manipulative nature of television, yet careful editing can acutely alter the public perception of a celebrity, making appearing on Big Brother and the like always a personal and financial risk.

What celebrity reality TV offers as opposed to its celebrity-constructing counterpart is not the transformation of the “ordinary” person into the “extraordinary,” but the opposite trajectory. Indeed, it is in the transformation of “celebrity” into “ordinary” person, through which his or her “extraordinary” status is incongruously reaffirmed.

Big Brother

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Belaboring Reality

by: Heather Hendershot / Queens College CUNY

In season one of The Simple Life, the apparently soulless Nicole Ritchie and Paris Hilton spend a month in rural Arkansas disappointing the Ledings, the humble, hard-working farm family that has agreed to take them in. Each day the girls French kiss the local boys, ignore their chores, assemble slutty outfits, and make a half-assed attempt to work a blue-collar job. They don’t even feel gratitude for the freshly slaughtered chickens offered to them by good ‘ol grandma Curly, the only person in town who sees goodness in them despite the depths of bitchdom they sink to. The Simple Life seems to offer a Simple Moral: rich people are stupid assholes (but sexy), while working class people are saints (but fat).

A Marxist parable? Not exactly. The “working class” Ledings have a big house, an above-ground pool, and at least one nice car. They aren’t poor, they just have working class tastes. The show is really about Nicole and Paris, so it is hard to glean many details about the Ledings, but one has to wonder how Fox found these farmers who seem to have no giant machinery, let their chickens breathe fresh air in outdoor coops, and manage a large farm without any hired laborers. Didn’t agribusiness wipe out this Little House on the Prairie lifestyle some years ago? Altus, Arkansas, it seems, is a Southern working class Stars Hollow, the fantasy New England town of The Gilmore Girls. Both towns feature quaint pie contests and sack races, but in Altus the locals are likely to sport mullets and beer bellies.

As on The Gilmore Girls, the little private dramas of The Simple Life are wedged in between public dramas at work. Though TV has pictured the workplace for years, reality TV is the first genre to emerge that is obsessively focused on labor. Indeed, it seems that there is no human activity that cannot be turned into labor on a reality show. On The Apprentice, participants construct business strategies, and the effort displayed is often mental. On the other hand, their labor also has a physical dimension, as contestants are often asked to pound the pavement and do grunt work. (Also, one cannot fail to notice the labor of self-production on the program. Contestants put together special outfits to catch Trump’s eye, and the taut female participants have bodies that are the visible result of labor in the gym.) Notwithstanding The Apprentice, on most programs the “work” demanded is not the kind of thing one would normally be paid for. Often, the labor is emotional: participants on The Bachelor are working really hard to make someone love them.

In real life, your job involves stacking things on shelves, balancing ledgers, plugging information into a database, or cleaning people’s teeth. But on TV your job is to cheat on your girlfriend, pretend to be a millionaire, eat slimy bugs, pretend to marry a jerk, lose a ton of weight, or live with fellow washed up celebrities. If you do your job well, you can win a million bucks, or a Chapstick contract, or the chance to be on other reality TV shows. In regular jobs, the people who work the hardest don’t necessarily advance, but if you do your job on TV, your effort is often rewarded. Moreover, in an information economy where manufacturing has been sent overseas and where minimum wage service jobs are among the few remaining jobs that require rigorous physical activity, reality TV is one of the few places where you can do hard physical labor for big bucks—if you win, that is.

The roots of genres such as the sitcom, soap opera, and drama date back to radio, but reality TV is a bit of generic puzzle. It may contain moments indebted to soap opera, and offer a sprinkling of cinema vérité pastiche, but it is really a new genre. Though reality programming might seem to have some kinship with game shows, game shows have never been so labor-intensive. In fact, before the money pots increased in the 1980s, shows like What’s My Line? and Match Game were more about clever banter than actually winning prizes. The sly quips of Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly are sorely lacking from the gotta-get-things-done (or die) work ethic that drives the competitive reality programs.

The heroines of The Simple Life lack this ethic, of course. The saddest illustration of this occurs at the Sonic fast-food restaurant, where a young manager desperately tries to get the girls to do their work. In other episodes, the older, self-employed male bosses have the option of firing the girls (after telling one of them “you’re a real screw-up!”), but the fast-food manager knows that these nubile, lazy screw-ups are jeopardizing her own job, and there’s nothing she can do about it. She works hard but has no money; Nicole and Paris do no work, are rich, and enjoy wasting money. Can anyone hear Thorstein Veblen shouting, “see, I told you so!” from the grave?

The Simple Life

The Simple Life baldly reveals the shaky foundations of the American myth of class mobility. Unlike on the competitive shows, where merit is rewarded, here doing a bad job brings no real punishment, and people who work hard do not necessarily advance. It seemed to me as I watched it that the show’s underlying moral message was that hard work was better than slacking off. After all, it ends with the sympathetic Ledings saying that they hope the girls have benefited from the values the family has tried to teach them. But I cannot help but fear that many viewers find this about as convincing as Jerry Springer’s “Final Thought,” a tacked on moral that does little to mitigate the rich-and-lazy-and-proud-of-it ethos that has preceded it.

Given reality TV’s relentless focus on work, one might naively imagine a behind-the-scenes team of empathic laborers creating the shows. The BBC’s scripted faux-reality show The Office, for example, obviously springs from an impulse of proletarian solidarity: only writers who have endured the proverbial boss-from-hell could create the monstrous David Brent. Alas, American reality programs do not spring from a similar impulse. For, in theory, reality TV has no writers. Instead, videographers shoot endlessly, and editors then step in and collaborate with “story producers” or “story editors” (actually writers) to attempt to create dramatic tension, a Herculean feat that often requires the addition of goofy sound effects, voice-overs, or music (a recently heard ditty on Strange Love: “He’s a jester, she’s a fox. She likes smoking, he likes clocks.”). According to a Washington Post article, the story editors “use the expression ‘frankenbites’ to describe the art of switching around contestant sound bites recorded at different times and patched together to create what appears to be a seamless narrative.”

The premise that the people on reality shows are real translates into one thing as far as producers are concerned: free labor. These are regular people, not actors with SAG cards. And once you’ve gotten rid of unionized actors, why not get rid of the unionized writers? In fact, it is rare for any of the workers creating reality TV to be unionized — not the directors, not the carpenters, not the camera operators. The Screen Writers Guild has made reality TV central to its contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers but has had no success in attempts to get reality writers unionized. These young workers have lower salaries than Guild members, no health care, no pension, and, of course, they don’t get a writing credit for their work, since no producer wants his show tainted by a credit acknowledging that stories are managed and banter is often scripted. The shows have much shorter shooting schedules than regular programs, so writers typically work 12 to 18 hours a day, but they tolerate such conditions because reality TV is seen as a steppingstone to better gigs for young writers. Willingly overworked, and desperate for a permanent job with benefits, these kids would be perfect candidates for The Apprentice!

In fact, I have a great idea: how about a reality show about workers on a reality show? I can imagine how the networks would respond to my brilliant pitch: “You’re fired!”

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The Simple Life

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