Reality TV and the Harmful Effects of Display

Reality TV exploded as a pop-culture phenomenon around 1999-2000 with shows like Big Brother and Survivor. Before this we had The Real World. Today, the influx in Reality TV and Reality TV Celebrities has blurred the lines between “average” person and celebrity.

In his work Reality TV: More Mirror Than Window author Richard Breyer notes the increased sense of democracy we see within the world of Reality Television. A consistent cycle of nobodies morphing into American Idols or Bachelorettes inspires similar unknown individuals. They, too, can achieve celebrity status in America! This allows audience members to connect deeper with the so-called characters they see on Reality TV shows because they feel as though there is a similar authentic connection shared.

The importance placed on authenticity can be noted in Paradox and the Consumption of Authenticity through Reality Television. Authors Randall L. Rose and Stacy L. Wood site that authenticity is what connects audiences so intimately to these reality series. Even though authenticity is desired and the companies who produce these Reality TV shows promote authenticity within their programing, consumers of Reality TV delight in the mash-up of the factitious and the spontaneous lives of these people on Reality TV series. Rose and Wood refer to this obsession as a “postmodern paradox”.

Our society is faced with a modern dilemma surrounding the reality of Reality Television.

But what of the harmful effects involved for these individuals who find their lives consistently on display in either social media or broadcast media? In the film We Live in Public created by Josh Harris,we see the harmful effects continuous surveillance has on individuals. After experimenting on strangers, Harris created We Live in Public with his girlfriend and they subjected themselves and their relationship to same digital surveillance. Their relationship crumbled in front of an online community.

Extending into the world of Reality Television, we see similar effects of surveillance on reality celebrities. After the Reality Show Newlyweds, couple Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson divorced, even after their wedding was televised publicly. Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries experienced a multimillion dollar wedding on E! Entertainment Television only to be divorced days later.

This authenticity can have a harmful effect on society’s perception concerning what is or what is not “authentically” acceptable. The infamously violent characters Sammi and Ronnie on MTV’s Reality Show, The Jersey Shore became so violent towards one another that MTV posted domestic violence PSA’s after the episodes. Regardless of the PSA’s the footage was still aired and the violence was seen. Social damage had been done.

These issues are considered feminist issues, because this authenticity affects our society simply because it is deemed “real”. On the opposite side of this spectrum, we can argue that these “real” characters on Reality TV shows have become characters of themselves and thus are not held accountable for their actions. Case and point the violence between Sammi and Ronnie. Or the feminine ideology surrounding the weddings and honeymoon bliss of bombshells Jessica Simpson and Kim Kardashian. Who’s reality is this?


The Camera Phone: Weapon of the Future

Yesterday my Honors 201 class had the opportunity to Skype with author and professor Alondra Nelson. We were discussing her book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination and students had the chance to ask Ms. Nelson questions concerning her book.


photo courtesy of Shasha Y. Kimel

One student posed an interesting question in regards to the Black Panther Party, their public display of firearms and how this public display of weaponry has left a lasting impression of the BPP on society. Today, a stereotypical image of the Black Panther Party is one that evokes radical sensation and fear. We think of guns, leather jackets, and loud voices. But, as Nelson notes in her book, the Black Panther Party was not participating in unlawful activity. In fact, at that time in California (Black Panther Party members and co-founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton were both operating out of the Bay Area), it was legal for an individual to carry loaded firearms in public. The Party had taken a radical, but lawful, stance in policing the police who they felt were victimizing them.

At this time, Ms. Nelson made a similar argument about policing those who police us today with social media and hand-held devices. Camera phones.


photo courtesy of David Shankbone

Think back to last Fall and to the events surrounding Occupy Wall Street. If you remember or if you were there or in any one of the many cities where these protests were taking place, you might remember being constantly glued to your phone. Tweets informed you of police raids, or marches, or where to organize. Independent filmmakers were providing us with live-streaming 24-hour news from the front lines. Tim Pool filmed most of his live-streaming footage with a camera phone. With these small devices, protesters were able to weave around activity capturing every moment as the events unfurled. Weaponry had evolved to an iPhone.

Protestors used their cameras to capture the truth. Again, we saw activists and protestors policing the police. The police must have known this because many of the camera phones and digital cameras of arrested protestors had been found erased after they were released from holding.

“Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” was a chant echoed throughout the streets during the Occupy Wall Street movement. It was a call of shame directed at police. It was not a rhetorical question.