Sunday, May 15, 2011

No Reality But Reality

Kelefa Sanneh, a writer for The New Yorker, recently wrote about reality tv, and far from the hand-wringing moralizing that you tend to get when hoary publications deign to examine the genre, the article has quite a number of insights that are worth highlighting.

After dismissing one author of a book who approaches reality television in a reflexively denigrating and superficial way, Sanneh introduces Brenda Weber, who is a lot more nuanced when she focuses in Makeover TV: Self-hood, Citizenship, and Celebrity on makeover programs (which gets defined so loosely as to include Dog Whisperer and American Idol in addition to The Swan and What Not To Wear).
Makeover shows inevitably build to a spectacular moment when “reveal” becomes a noun, and yet the final product is often unremarkable: a woman with an up-to-date generic haircut, wearing a jacket that fits well; a man who is chubby but not obese; a dog with no overwhelming urge to bare its fangs. The new subject is worth looking at only because we know where it came from, which means that, despite the seeming decisiveness of the transformation, the old subject never truly disappears. “The After highlights the dreadfulness of the Before,” Weber writes. “In makeover logic, no post-made-over body can ever be considered separate from its pre-made-over form.” She might have added that no makeover is ever really finished; there is no After who is not, in other respects, a Before—maybe your dog no longer strains at the leash, but are you sure that sweater doesn’t make you look old and tired? Are you sure your thighs wouldn’t benefit from some blunt cannulation? Weber’s makeover nation is an eerie place, because no one fully belongs there, and, deep down, everyone knows it.
Sanneh alludes to an old reality tv axiom, that is, the genre appeals to viewers because we can easily imagine ourselves in the places of a program's subjects, and so what happens on the program reflects personally back on us -- in a word, projection. However, I use "subject" here instead of my usual "contestant" because I think that while this projection relates directly to makeover shows, it's less apt for or less directly connected to competitive programs -- even accounting for Sanneh's insight that the makeover subtext runs through a surprisingly diverse number of reality series -- because the worlds depicted in this sub-genre are posited as self-sustaining and insular. Moreover, any gestures to an existence beyond the confines of the show are peremptory and mainly serve to bolster the narrative (e.g. the editors including footage of a contestant talking about a difficult upbringing to garner viewer sympathy), which invariably culminates in a coronation of the narrative's winner.

Likewise, the mood of the coronation is always "happily ever after" -- the winner and its judging apparatus might claim that the victory is just the beginning of a journey, but considering the long history of prizes failing to live up to expectations (ANTM, Project Runway, etc.), if the shows admit the stark, tenuous reality (and I mean meat-world reality, not reality tv reality) that awaits their winners after the show, then the producers would undercut the triumphalism of their finales. Consequently, the reality program is inwardly directed, an end in itself, a self-sustaining world (at least for the viewer of the competitive series), one in which the second point I highlighted from the passage -- that the Before and After are inextricably linked -- becomes relevant. After all, when the winner is crowned, the show tacitly (or in some cases explicitly) asks of the winner (and of us viewers) to Look How Far The Winner Has Come! The victorious glow and edification of the winner is generated by its distance from the starting point -- in other words, "no post-made-over body can ever be considered separate from its pre-made-over form."

I want to add that viewers do still project themselves into competitive series in a moral context, though in such instances, they're more likely casting judgment on the contestants than reflecting on themselves, though maybe that's what Sanneh means with his remarks about the liminality of the place where "no one fully belongs there." In any event, the first point he makes -- about how revelation (no matter how mundane) is the raison d'etre of the reality genre -- is spot-on.

Sanneh brings up another provocative theorist, Mark Andrejevic, whom I'm disposed to liking because he recognizes that "there isn’t any one definition [of reality television] that would both capture all the existing genres and exclude other forms of programming such as the nightly news or daytime game shows" -- an observation that can't be emphasized enough. The more interesting bit comes here, though:
Although reality television is often mocked for its frivolity, Andrejevic argues that its success is symptomatic of an age in which labor and leisure are growing ever harder to separate. He tells the tale of DotComGuy, a briefly popular Internet celebrity, who planned to live his life online, funded by corporate sponsors. “To the extent that his life is the show, he is working all the time,” Andrejevic writes, and the same could be said of anyone who appears on any reality show. Pozner asserts that “on series from the ‘Real Housewives’ franchise to MTV’s ‘Paris Hilton’s My New BFF,’ ‘real life’ is all about leisure.” In fact, Hilton’s show, in which she claimed to be searching for a B.F.F. (best friend forever), was an example of how reality television turns social activities into professional ones. Similarly, the “Real Housewives” shows, despite the name, feature very few actual housewives and lots of working women (not all wives or mothers), every one of them eager to sacrifice time, not to mention privacy, for a small payment and a less small portion of notoriety. This is the opposite of leisure, and it may also be a sign of the end of leisure—the end, that is, of our ability to spend long stretches happily engaged in non-work. If this possibility makes us anxious, we’re not alone: judging from their frequent and intricate disagreements, the various “real housewives” are feeling a little anxious, too.
As is my wont, viewing this conflation of leisure and work through the lens of the professional reality sub-genre is fruitful, since, after all, such shows present the interview process maximalized over the course of 13 weeks. First, leisure gets squeezed out by work in a literal sense on Project Runway, which sets out tasks that consume the majority of time (both onscreen and in the lives of the competitors) on the show. (On occasion, designers who don't work -- either through laziness or sleep deprivation or preternatural speed -- have caused minor scandals, because a show that brandishes an unofficial motto of make it work doesn't take kindly to idleness.) Beyond the demands of its various challenges, I figure that part of the reason Runway contestants are worked so hard is to wear down their inhibitions in the hopes of provoking extravagant fights. Of course, in this way Runway is an extreme example, because on other hand, we get plenty of fights on ANTM despite the comparative paucity of work, and in fact, the girls fight probably out of an overabundance of leisure. Either way, both shows are stylized by their unnecessary blow-ups, and Sanneh would argue then that leisure is getting exchanged (Project Runway) or transformed (ANTM) into the work of reality television.

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