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.

Image Credits:
1. Tyra Banks, America’s Next Top Model

Please feel free to comment.


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  • I really enjoyed this article and I have wavered over how personal to allow my response to be. Should I admit that the main reason I watch reality television is because I want to sit back and judge? And how many countless times have I yelled at the television when someone gets kicked off who clearly deserved to stay? I think McCarthy is right when discussing people’s relationship with reality television. I don’t feel as though I take home the ideas about singing or what not to wear, but instead maybe learn a little bit about appropriate feedback or am at least entertained.I must say also for President of the United States, my vote would go for Simon, cruel but honest and ending your run with a bang.

  • While I do agree with McCarthy that part of the reason why we watch reality TV is to judge others, I think it is more so because, to some extent, we see ourselves in the characters. The common man is not being presented in hourlong dramas where it seems the only professions available in today’s world are cops, doctors, or lawyers. Additionally, within the popular procedural dramas, story comes at the expense of characters’ personal lives. While most of us are not supermodel material, we identify with the contestants on America’s Next Top Model, because we too have dreams which have either been granted or destroyed. When we watch C.S.I., do we think for a second that they won’t solve the case? And if they don’t, do we really believe that for those characters, in the long run, it makes any difference? Reality TV has endured because in conventional dramas, the personal has been separated from the dramatic. While the dramatic situations of this new genre have been criticized for being contrived, and in many cases rightly so, it is the contestants that lend the reality to reality TV.

  • First, I agree with McCarthy that reality TV does not train people to think and/or act in a certain manner. For example, I don’t think that after people watch Real World they throw a fork at their roommate or start complaining about interracial relationships. I also agree that, in some ways, reality TV helps you realize that people are fine the way they are. While watching Extreme Makeover, I kept thinking that the person being made over wasn’t really that bad looking and that all of this surgery really might not be necessary. Shows like this, with crying contestants in pain after numerous operations, make me realize that the things they’re going through to be beautiful just aren’t worth it.

  • As I was reading the article I thought of how unreasonable many of the reality shows are on television but still seem to keep our undivided attention. We keep our fingers crossed in hopes of the bachelor picking our favorites, watch as the simple are turned into figures of beauty, and glorify on contestant’s pain, hardship, and humility. I agree with McCarthy that the audience is not fully affected by the outcome of shows in wanting to pursue the same things or having a great effect on our lives. Rather, I believe that reality TV provides a scapegoat to find faults in others’ lives while potentially dismissing our own. While criticizing reality TV and stating how absurd it is to want a makeover to look like Britney Spears or get the big breasts to have higher esteem, we continue to find ourselves judging but at the same time falling a victim to these programs. I agree that they don’t necessarily promote negative body images but rather do the opposite. In watching Tyra boot off gorgeous women it is in a strange way gratifying in seeing that beauty can fail. So is reality TV persuasive, or is it a form of entertainment in which no matter how ludicrous the show is, we get pleasure in judging and glorifying at others agony and defeat? Regardless of varying opinions, I believe that people will continue to watch these programs because of innate and shameful desire to judge others.

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