Welcome to the Low-Brow

Reality TV is cheap. That’s why there is so much of it on television today. Over the past decade or so, Reality TV has reformed so-called “arts” or assumed high-brow networks into low-brow pop-cultural phenomenons. An example of this is the television network A&E – or what was known as the arts and entertainment network. Gone are the days when A&E would showcase biographies, documentaries and drama series to focus on the decline of arts and entertainment on television. After the influx of Reality TV shows due to cheap production, A&E quickly changed their tune. Now the network is known for shows like Dog the Bounty Hunter and Chris Angel Mindfreak. TLC was once known as “The Learning Channel”. The same goes for the Bravo Network which began as an advertisement-free premium channel dedicated to the performing arts and indie films. It’s almost impossible today to think of Bravo today without conjuring up images of The Real House Wives of… Reunions past.

So why do millions of Americans tune in to Reality TV shows every week? Why do I have The Real Housewives of New Jersey on my DVR? The first question I can address right now without the need to soul-search, and that it because Reality TV is difficult to escape. It’s everywhere, not only on the cover of tabloids, but also available 24-hours online. According to an article in Psychology Today, one of the appeals of Reality TV is it’s pop-culture relativity. Reality TV is embedded into our country’s pop-cultural dialogue and thus it can be relative to just about any water cooler convo at the office.

Viewers who associate with the likes of Reality TV also can identify with the desire for status and prestige celebrity and fame promise.¬†The Real Housewives of…, Jersey Shore, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo every week we give these shows our attention and witness ordinary people (okay… somewhat ordinary people) achieve celebrity status. Then views can immediately fantasize about how they, too, can achieve instant status through Reality TV fame.

According to the same article in Psychology Today, the desire for status is just a means to get attention. So what does that say about the millions of Americans who tune in? Are we not getting enough attention? Possibly, and this leads us into tricky waters. Because an unidentified, or even an identified but unanswered need leaves a person vulnerable. And when a person is vulnerable, they become impressionable. And when they are impressionable, they are impressed upon. By Reality TV.

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?