Ascribing meaning to reality TV
“I’m saying aliens. We started from aliens,” says Shane Warne, who has momentarily decided he shares no common ancestor with monkeys. On the South African set of I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, his fellows let this affront to Darwin pass without comment – Warnie’s always saying tripe like this. Here in Australia, though, Warne’s ET creationism will be a sanctioned topic of media discussion for a week. Such stupid, sunny moments from this or any other top-10 reality show now exceed the program itself and function locally as light news. Darker ones sometimes even make the headlines.
In 2014, The Bachelor provoked hundreds of news reports and dozens of anxious opinion columns on the topics of fidelity and feminism. When winning contestant Sam Frost was forsaken by Blake Garvey for a runner-up and denied her prize of matrimony, thousands of published and broadcast words were given over to the break-up’s serious analysis. You’d think the failure of a made-for-TV love match was so predictable as to be unworthy of report. But it became, as many of our nation’s media producers had it, a teachable moment. “It matters,” said media, and Frost and Garvey retained their use as a morally instructive news item for weeks. Last year, ABC Radio National asked, “Can a real feminist enjoy The Bachelor?”, prompting some RN listeners to ask, “Can an adult continue to enjoy Life Matters?”
Frost, who overcame her public withering to bloom again as The Bachelorette, remains a favourite figure of investigation for television and print news more than a year after her heartbreak. A report this week that the father of her newest fiancé, Sasha Mielczarek, had been denied renewal of his tattoo parlour licence – yes, that detail is as trifling and baffling as it reads – appeared in our most storied newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald. Meanwhile, Warne’s unfavourable dealings with a TV anaconda have been very broadly canvassed, the slight blue dress worn by Australia’s Got Talent judge Sophie Monk last Monday night was referenced in news about as often as Russia’s Syrian ceasefire, and Warne popped up again. This time in relation to alleged liaisons with no fewer than two of the cast of The Real Housewives of Melbourne, who had happened to make their return appearance on television the night before Monk’s splendid cleavage.
There can be no text unturned. Like cultural studies students of the ’90s whose professor has just given them licence to “unpack” Madonna, news and media outlets are engaged in an orgy of explanation.
They won’t shut up. They seem unable to leave us alone to enjoy this trash in peace. And the vision of Warnie in a tank full of snakes, or venomous housewives, is, I would argue, fundamentally enjoyable. It is a small, camp pleasure that is diminished by the big, serious interest of many media outlets. Media can’t permit Warnie to embarrass himself in a reptile enclosure without also publishing serious facts about anaconda injuries. Media can’t permit Warnie to propose that we were are all descended from associates of Agent Mulder without also remonstrating that his is not the theory of evolution. “It matters,” they say, and they offer us thoughtful pieces on thoughtless moments. Apparently, we need them urgently. We higher primates are at such grave risk of denying our ancestry and/or cuddling a dangerous snake that only The Daily Telegraph can save us.
News Corp and Fairfax have long offered tongue-in-cheek recaps of such marvellously silly programs, and these are great fun. Less fun is that more recent trend of “news” that seeks to aggrandise the stuff we viewers know by instinct to be trivial.
It’s not just that such analyses moderate the delight we take in hilarious outings such as Real Housewives or Australia’s Next Top Model when they ask questions such as “Is a televised beauty competition good for women?” – a question of such immanent meaninglessness as “Is poking a stick in my eye likely to cause me pleasure?” It’s that eventually we just give in to the dominant expression that reality shows are morally influential. They then become functionally influential, and if you think I’m overstating the case, I urge you to consider the résumé of the current frontrunner in the GOP’s primary race.
Donald Trump had hosted 14 seasons of the monumentally popular US reality show The Apprentice before resigning in 2015 to seek the presidential nomination he now seems very likely to secure. This is the work for which he is best known and this is a good part of the reason, as commentators on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show said recently in the wake of the February 9 New Hampshire primaries, that he is trusted. There is no longer any reason for voters to think of a reality TV star as untrustworthy or frivolous. Media, both progressive and conservative, have been insisting such shows “matter” for years.
You read and watch a thousand claims in media of all hues that reality TV “matters”, and eventually, it does begin to matter.
Considered for its intrinsic merits, reality TV could be said to “matter”. Or, at least, it did at one time. Produced from more than 300 hours of raw footage, the 1973 cinéma vérité experiment An American Family mattered quite a bit. Produced for US network PBS, the 12-part series, which took an ethnographic approach to its white, upper-middle-class subjects, is still extraordinary. Even if you can’t help but resent this portrait of the Loud family for the foundational role it played in the reality genre, you might agree with Margaret Mead, who told reporters of the era that this new form “may be as important for our time as were the invention of drama and the novel for earlier generations: a new way to help people understand themselves”.
Mead, the anthropologist, may have been wrong about a bunch of stuff. She was, however, quite on the money when she said, “I do not think An American Family should be called a documentary.” This nonfiction/drama hybrid was an entirely new category, she said. And one that would help us explore the terms of a world now saturated with the need for appearances.
Americans watched the Louds not just because they were, as contemporary journalists so often have it in their discussion of reality stars, “relatable” – although certainly, these subjects were. The Louds had initiated a divorce at a time no-fault laws were being passed in many US states. The Louds had learnt they had a gay son in the years following Stonewall. Still, as Mead noted in her discussion with TV Guide, this was something more than a depiction of social reality. It was a means to explore the gap between reality and appearance and a way for people not only to compare their own lives with those of the Louds, but to explore the nature of television, that century’s most influential medium, itself.
The Louds know they are under surveillance. Being the very first people under such surveillance, they are unable to pretend otherwise. You can see them trying, and often failing, to make the camera see them as they wish to be seen and this nascent tug of war with the “authenticity” our own time demands we perform remains as instructive today as it was to Mead 40 years ago.
Here is a family learning the constructed informality so many of us now practise on Instagram or Facebook. Here I am spontaneously enjoying homemade macarons with my madcap kids. Here I am looking fetchingly vulnerable without my make-up. Don’t pretend you’ve never uttered or posted such an informal construction. This would make you as dishonest as those many commentators writing about reality TV who make believe it’s all real and, therefore, that it “matters”.
If it hadn’t been made to matter so much, it really wouldn’t at all. Big, disagreeably wholesome programs such as My Kitchen Rules or The Voice or MasterChef would just peddle the ideology of aspiration in the background. Smaller, agreeably depraved programs such as Australia’s Next Top Model would offer us the pointless but delightful spectacle of gorgeous teenage girls who accuse one another of sustaining an eating disorder. I’m a Celebrity… would just give us more of Warnie’s fantastically narcissistic buffoonery, for which he has been reportedly paid $2 million. These shows would function as family sitcoms and sporting shows traditionally have: a route to uncomplicated workplace bonding and a weeknight way to unwind as someone else laughs and cries on our behalf. It doesn’t “matter” more than any other thing we use to maintain our productive habits. It’s not a morally instructive text: it’s a way to get back to work.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. It could be culturally instructive art of the kind that excited Margaret Mead, and every now and then, we will see reality TV moments with an echo of the self-conscious Louds. Participants and producers have become adept over time at hiding the evidence of a humanity at odds with its own image, and a press eager to have us believe that reality TV is reality further muffles this possibility. The last time we really saw people struggling to adjust to the new, now normal, conditions of surveillance was last decade’s Big Brother.
But we still get moments. There’s still, sometimes, a flicker of the human subject negotiating this strange and still-emerging public space.
When this flicker is extinguished, perhaps we can begin to suppose we were descended from aliens. Aliens genetically programmed to start discussing absolute tosh and forgetting the real in the second decade of the 21st century.
OPERA Banquet of Secrets
Arts Centre, Melbourne, March 1-5
FESTIVAL Enlighten Canberra
Various venues, Canberra, March 4-12
VISUAL ART Luminous: Tom Malone Prize 2016
Luminous: Tom Malone Prize 2016, Perth, until May 2
VISUAL ART Sarah Crowest: #straponpaintings
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until May 29
PHOTOGRAPHY X-ray Vision: Fish Inside Out
Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney, until May 22
SCULPTURE Eighteenth-Century porcelain sculpture
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until December
LITERATURE The Sydney Writers’ Mini March Festival
Carriageworks, Sydney, March 3
Seymour Centre, Sydney, March 4
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2016 as "Altered reality". Subscribe here.