Reality stars are just like us

What reality TV says about us
By Danielle J. Lindemann

“Never in the history of showbiz has the gap between amateur and professional been so small. And never in the history of the world has there been such a rage for exhibitionism”, declared in 1978 pop culture critic Albert Goldman “So the question is, what are we going to do with all these beautiful parades? For Goldman, the answer was disco, the dance club as a Dionysian mothership, but a year later, disco died of derision and straight white male backlash.Thereafter, the excess production of narcissists writhing for attention steadily mounted, until reality TV arrives to absorb all that human capital and put its anxious energy to good use. No talent, no training, no inhibitions? No problem!

PBS’s “An American Family” (1973) is generally considered the pioneering reality series, although its technique and tact are faithful to the more traditional and understated humanism of cinema verité. MTV’s “The Real World” (1992), “Laguna Beach” (2004) and “The Hills” (2006) and CBS’ “Survivor” (2000) established the genre as a soap opera, eye-candy and a behavioral lab where every genuine or fabricated levity and misunderstanding could be fueled for maximum friction and possible psychodrama. Inexpensive to produce, quick to shoot, grueling to direct, mounted in a shattered crossfire of reaction shots, the reality show has proven to be a fast, maneuverable vehicle optimized for speed, feel, and easy replication. With its rotating clusters of Housewives, Kardashians, Deck Crew, Dance Moms, Teen Moms, Top Chefs, Top Models, 90 Day Fiances, Singles, Bachelors, Apprentices , house hunters and dragsters, reality TV – once prime time was tacky, tag-along cousin – has mutated into a true-fake pro-am multiverse.

Although it lacks the prestige and starlight of scripted series, with Nicole Kidman’s perspective gracing us with its luminous brilliance, reality television has shown enough influence and durability to deserve serious treatment in plus the usual sneers and condescending snickers, and here she is: Danielle “True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us” by J. Lindemann. A sociology professor at Lehigh whose previous books have studied suburban marriages and the professional dominatrix – excellent preparation for analyzing the adventures of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” – Lindemann argues that by holding up a mirror to society, reality TV has a lot to convey once we get past the histrionics. “It may seem counterintuitive that a genre focused on goofy personalities and outliers has so much to teach us about our own ordinary lives,” she writes, but look hard enough and you’ll notice your own distorted traits turning around. : “We” are voyeurs, but part of what tempts us in these monster shows is that the monsters are ourselves. (I prefer Goldman’s designation of “beautiful displays,” better anticipating the polite hedonism of “Vanderpump Rules,” “Love Island,” and “Too Hot to Handle,” but let’s not dwell on the nomenclature.) The fact is that for Lindemann, watching reality TV is not a passive ingestion but a subtle smoothing process, a phantom codependency. It is a phenomenon worth studying, she writes, “because of what it does ours. The experience of watching these shows, like looking in any mirror, is interactive. We see each other and then prepare accordingly.

Here, grooming time at the zoo is divided into chapters of exhaustive research exploring how the medium portrays, distorts or completely evades the complexities of race and gender (the stereotype of black women as budding volcanoes), class, sexuality, childhood, family, etc. : the intersectional combo board. No matter how dark the shows seem, there is a conservative underlay that keeps the familiar norms in place. Lindemann is instructive on the power differential between men and women in reality TV, how they are viewed and rewarded differently for their antics and facial gymnastics. “With his swagger and penchant for gold decoration, Donald Trump could have made an excellent Real Housewife,” she observes. “Yet these women are still throwing wine glasses at each other on Bravo, and he was president.” As diverse and inclusive as reality TV has become, the male prerogative still occupies the top bunk.

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