Topic: Images of Reality: Reality Television and Popular Culture
Reality television has become one of the most popular genres of television today. Shows like American
Idol have spun off international sequels, and talent competitions like the 1980s Star Search have
become popular summer prime-time viewing through America’s Got Talent, Last Comic Standing, and
even chefs compete for top honors in shows like Top Chef and Chopped.
But beyond competitive shows that feature talented people, reality TV has also gone so far as to
introduce the Real Housewives of… and shows like Jersey Shore have spawned from Paris Hilton and
Nicole Ritchie’s The Surreal Life. Women (an men) compete for a marriage proposal in The Bachelor (and
The Bachelorette , and there was even a series of shows that featured competitive plastic surgery.
In a 3-4 page (1000-1500 word) essay, your task is to examine the rise of reality TV through the readings
we’ll do in class (see below), and the attached essays, and answer the question: Why is reality TV so
popular and what drives people not only to watch, but to participate through voting or auditioning for
You will want to draw on the essays read for homework and provide quotes to show support for your
ideas. Make sure to have a solid thesis statement in which you show your opinion and develop
paragraphs that will support that point.
First draft due (workshop): April 25
Second draft due (revision): April 27
Final draft due (revision) May 2
“The Oprah Effect” by Erin Aubry Kaplan pg 430
“Vote the Bitch Off!” by Amanda A. Putnum pg 434
“Is This Reality?: The Bachelor Feeds Our Desire for Fame” by Bob Batchelor pg 445
“Reality TV Meets Plastic Surgery: An Ugly Shame” by Anita Creamer pg 451
“The Bachelor: Paris” by Samantha Bornemann (attached)
“Mind Over Matters: Kill Your Television Before it Kills You” by Terry Sawyer (attached)
MIND OVER MATTERS
Kill Your Television Before It Kills You
[5 May 2004]
by Terry Sawyer
:. e-mail this article
:. print this article
:. comment on this article
I'm on the brink of leaving television behind forever. It's been a long time
coming and perhaps I should have done it sooner. But like just about
everyone in America I'm a TV junky and I've had to wean myself off
gradually, using my inner nun to punish those times when, rather than do
something productive or meaningful, I plopped down for a night of the dead
ecstasy of a flickering inanities. I honestly believe it used to be a much less
guilty pleasure. When I think of the naivete and comparative rebelliousness
of shows like The Dukes of Hazard, I can't help but become one of those
disgusting people pining for a golden era that may or may not have existed.
One thing is for certain: television has become an endless field of Sadean
cruelty; a bloodied public altar where people sacrifice their privacy and
decency for a sick shot at ephemeral fulfillment. In short, it's coming for us.
When reality television first began to crop up with dandelion tenacity, I had a moment of utopian hope. In
principle, it seemed like a rejection of the star system, a popular revolt against the cult of the celebrity by
people who'd collectively snapped out of their pagan worship of all those shiny wads of aluminum foil in
Hollywood. I've always considered the whole system of celebrity to be some crude tribal ritual whereby
chosen people are lavished with the resources and adoration we all want but can't have before we carry
them to the lip of the volcano and hope that their public destruction will make the fates a bit kinder to
each of us. They're like Greek Gods who are one step removed from ordinary life, moving among us with a
vague, transcendent glow, but plagued with human flaws that they wear like small children's bones turned
A teensy, impish part of me hoped that reality television would end up being some kind of entertainment
apocalypse that the democratization of fame would lead to its collapse. I dreamed that we would be sitting
around watching our own lives on the flickering box and then it would dawn on us how much of our
existence we waste in front of a yawning tool of sating stupidity. That it might occur to us that all that
television seems to do is generate a perpetual void — a phony litany of inadequacies that can only be
healed with consuming products that you previously hadn't realized were so crucial to your happiness.
Now, with pharmaceutical companies free to whore out the latest in neurological tinkering we're even
bombarded with a new era of pathologizing the wholly normal and justified. "Ever feel uncomfortable
around other humans? You're fucked up, man, you need some drugs and you'll need to take them for the
rest of your life so that our executives can afford to use the word 'summer' as a verb."
But any radicalizing potential that could have emerged from reality television was quickly quashed when
marketers realized that people truly are dumb enough to be sold what they already have. The star system
has in fact exploded, making it's senselessness much more bold and shameless. You become famous now
simply by being on the television — in what capacity, it matters little. Whether you sucked the ex-
President's cock or simply sold your every last shred of dignity to have American touchtone vote a spouse
for you, we ingest our newly-breeding celebrity culture at a rate that makes crack seem homeopathic.
I came to these realizations while having the misfortune of watching both The Swan and MTV's I Want A
Famous Face. The Swan seems to be the more evil of the two shows, though perhaps this is one of those
moral arguments that's academically cute, like figuring out whether Hitler or Stalin was a bigger asshole.
The Swan is a greater feminist nightmare than Republican women who crusade for the right of inferiority.
There's no philosophical equivocation on The Swan, no moment when cooler heads prevail to suggest that
maybe, just maybe, these women are beautiful in their own right, at worst needing a trip to the gym and a
few items of clothing that aren't sweat pants. No, on The Swan it's straight to cut-rate surgeons who find
tons "wrong" with these women — several areas that could stand to be sucked out, sawed off, or ground
down. After judging their natural physiques defective in reference to some implicit Platonic ideal
snipering in the periphery, these women get treated to further ego brutality by being pitted against one
another in a beauty competition. Basically, the show's goal seems to be creating women whose psyches are
so potholed by the show's scalpel-imposed beauty cages that they will probably spend the rest of their
lives between surgeries.
MTV (or the network formerly known to play music) has minted its own youth-oriented version of the
body mangling fad. It's hard not to find this show a little insidious for taking advantage of young people
who are hit particularly hard by shallow social hierarchies that ostracize other people based on how they
look, how "cool" they are, or how much money their families have. It's a particularly Lord of the Flies
period that, if you survive, you look back upon in total bafflement, especially at the melodramatic
molehills that comprised many of your waking hours. I used to believe that MTV had a plucky, smart-
assed counter-cultural edge, epitomized by Kurt Loder's dour, bemused delivery of the "news". But this
show is the apotheosis of conformity and the death of anything that could be considered social bravery or
the virtues of rock n' roll bravado. After all, these people don't even want to look beautiful in some way
that would maximize their intrinsic physical attributes, they simply want to be shoddy facsmilies of safe,
saccharine, shitty pop celebrities — many of whom are probably only weeks away from a VH-1 Where are
they now? episode. If Janis Joplin were alive today she's be getting botox referrals from Courtney Love.
Plastic surgery used to be something dirty and hidden, a product of cancerous vanity akin to pedophilia in
its sick unnaturalness. Celebrities vigorously denied their morphing, expecting us to believe that yoga and
kabala had magically rearranged their faces. That it now has a marketing vehicle in reality television is
one of the most disturbing developments in the history of television. That people seem so cow-eyed about
this ghastly new low has as much to do with television's sensory-dulling as it does our collective apathy
toward other people's suffering. Why say anything when it passes the time so deliciously?
That there are people with medical degrees willing to perpetuate the idea that it's quite alright to go get
your skull shaved so that you can look like Christy Turlington speaks volumes about the ethical depth of
the profession. Why hasn't the American Medical Association condemned the dark arts of its most
bottom-feeding specialty, plastic surgery? I'm not saying that burn victims or people born with serious
deformities shouldn't have reconstructive surgery done to make them comfortable with their lives. But
that's an order of magnitude removed from running a televised carny booth advocating that people
butcher themselves because they stumble a flattering J Lo ass shot in People. I can't decide anymore if,
collectively, we're bigger dipshits or sick fucks. I'm leaning toward sick fucks.
There was a time when television's greatest harm was its subtle messages of emptiness and herd banality,
pestering us with images of families that didn't exist and prodding us to buy expensive things in order to
make us more likely to get laid. Now, it wants you under the knife, indulging every petty masochistic
moment of self-loathing you've ever had, even if it endangers your health and life in the process. It's
increasingly hard to find television programs that don't exploit ordinary suckers and implicate us in
voyeuristic violence. It was only a matter of time before our Frankenstein creation came back for a piece
of its creator. Like Old Yeller, despite our love for the suckled glow of the boob tube, it's time to take it out
behind the woodshed and put a bullet in it for the love of God, Country, and the pursuit of a life where
fame and infamy aren't the only reasons for existence.
THE BACHELOR: PARIS
Regular airtime: Mondays, 10pm ET (ABC)
Cast: Chris Harrison
by Samantha Bornemann
:. e-mail this article
:. print this article
:. comment on this article
He's like every other stupid doctor I know. He's intimidated by another
professional woman. Maybe I just won't date anybody anymore. Maybe I'll just
join a convent.
— Allie G.
You know, he asked a question, and he kind of seemed like he was interested in
the answer. That's, you know, that's kind of a first for a man. I'm just gonna
play it by ear and see what happens.
With all due deference to Beauty and the Geek's marketing campaign, "reality dating show"
and "social experiment" are not mutually exclusive terms. Both are key components of the
Bachelor franchise, now celebrating its eighth round of disappointment, rejection, and
"romance" on ABC. This time the series ups the fairy tale ante by moving its action to "the
most romantic city in the world," Paris, France. The city deserves the series' "best bachelor
ever," says host Chris Harrison, and that latest square-jawed prince is Nashville ER
physician Travis Stork. Like dreamy Doug Ross before him, this doc "has held many hearts
in his hands," Harrison tells us. "But can he handle 25 at one time?"
Ooh la yuck.
Tone-deaf as ever, Bachelor pours on the schmaltz by showing 33-year-old Travis at work,
including an unlikely follow-up checkup with a former patient. "I credit Dr. Stork for saving
my life," says Jacalyn. "My kids still have me because of him." The meet-the-bachelor shtick
gets worse as Travis confesses that he needs to learn some French ASAP, illustrated by
shots of him playing clueless American at a Parisian cafe.
This is all familiar, as groan-inducing humor is the method of choice when presenting each
bachelor. For darker comedy, the show relies on its 25 wannabe Mrs. Bachelors, who must
preen, banter, and scheme to keep their dream alive past opening night. Last week's
premiere devoted a full 15 minutes to their arrivals, which is both curious, given the
repetition (hug, chat, hug), and understandable, since "first impressions matter," and, more
important, this might be their only conversation of the night.
For viewers, it's a chance to judge the Miss America-esque gowns and parse their words of
greeting. Who tries to mix it up? Who plays it cool and simple? Who overplays the Paris
angle? And finally, who stands out? April is the unfortunate klutz, as her shoe falls off
halfway between limo and bachelor, and Yvonne is the maneater, immediately offering an
assessment ("Beautiful eyes, beautiful tie, all well-coordinated. Love it..."). Allie G. tries too
hard by unleashing an introductory speech in French (her college minor, she explains), while
Sarah, just 23, is so jumpy that she doesn't even go in for a hug. (Then again, she's
Canadian; she might not know the drill.)
Like The Real World, Bachelor has honed its casting process to a few types. The slightly
zaftig Kristen ("I'm a hugger, I gotta give you a hug") is like Amanda, the last woman
standing in Season One. Elizabeth has the dark eyebrows, blonde hair, and sweetheart
smile of Jen Schefft, who (briefly) triumphed with bachelor Andrew Firestone before
delightfully imploding her own Bachelorette season. Sarah's youth marks her for future
attacks (she's not ready to settle down, her elders will argue), and Yvonne seems destined
to keep the hot doc's attention far longer than viewers want her around.
On this first night, however, the focus is on who won't get a callback. Fifteen women go
home without a rose (the bachelor's invitation to stay, in case you live under a rock) and
one stressed-out, likely drunk drama queen often steals the show. This time it's 33-year-old
Allie G. A Florida oncologist, she is just pointing out their mutual love of medicine when
Yvonne plops down on the bachelor's other side ("I don't mean to be rude. I'll just sit here
for a second 'til you guys finish"). Travis is amused; Allie is annoyed. Struggling to get back
on track, she rambles through her pitch: she is comfortable in her work life, and "I sorta
wanna kinda move on to the next phase, the reproductive phase." The what?
Yvonne smirks on the couch, and Travis takes a beat to make sure he heard that right, then
laughs. He gives her kudos for coming all the way to Paris and taking the chance. It's clearly
the brush-off, yet Allie is infuriated when she gets her walking papers at night's end.
Standing in the cold outside the 14th-century chateau where Bachelor has made camp, she
tearfully pleads her case to fellow rejectee Ali D.
Allie G.: "The only reason that I came on this show is because conventional methods aren't
working. Internet dating, blind dating, dating services, I've tried all of that."
Ali D.: "Mm hmm."
Allie G.: "I told him that I was ready to, like, get my reproductive life going. Because the
only one reason to be married is to have kids."
Ali D.: "But that's your opinion."
Allie G.: "No! Because... he's in his 30s, he should be willing and ready to proceed with that
part of his life. I just think that men are [bleeped]. Really, I mean, what are they waiting
It's both fun and horrifying to see a real moment of pain and frustration break through
Bachelor's carefully calibrated Dating Game. Allie could be anyone bemoaning her lot in love
late one evening. (Tell me again, Ashton, that your show is the social experiment.)
But Allie's not done. In a masterfully wicked bit of editing, she stomps back into the chateau
and demands to know why Travis did not give her a rose ("You don't find me attractive, I'm
too short, I have small boobs, what?") while word of her predicament spreads among her
fellow castoffs, who sit shivering under blankets outside the chateau (first class all the way,
that Bachelor). "Wait, like that? She said those words?" they gape. "I think any guy would
It's reality tv's latest water cooler moment -- and, with ratings dwindling, this franchise
needs as many as it can conjure. Contacted by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, executive
producer Lisa Levenson lauded Allie's empowerment. "She's the one woman in the history of
hundreds that actually stood up to the bachelor and gave him a piece of her mind.... I love
it when someone makes their mark." Allie told the paper she was spurred on by 12 hours
with little food and lots of liquor. She plans to capitalize on her notoriety by selling T-shirts
with slogans like "Let's reproduce" and "My eggs are rotting," through a new web site,
And you thought her story wouldn't have a happy ending.
— 16 January 2006