Friday, February 28, 2014

Continuing Civic Duties Through Reality Television

Lauren Friedman

Since its birth reality television always seems to have had a bad reputation as being trashy or low culture. As being something that is easily digested, and its viewers are considered to be mindless consumers. Some would even go as far to say reality television has zero educational value and does not fulfill its public service tradition of educating the audience to become better citizens. In the arrival of reality television people, such as scholar John Corner, identified it as a lack of civic purpose and was a purge of “unscripted” entertainment. In Reality TV Give Back: On the Civic Functions of Reality Entertainment, Laurie Ouellette argues that reality television has taken on a new trend since it emerged in the early 90s. This new approach is termed “do-good” reality, which communicates to its audience about public duties on an individual and socioeconomic level. In present day we cannot say reality television has completely shed its skin of its past, but now many can at least argue that it can be taken seriously as a legitimate avenue for teaching.

There seems to be less and less shows on the air that show off the privileged life style; for example My Super Sweet Sixteen, or MTV Cribs, which only show the wealthy spending mindlessly.  I believe the majority of people are becoming bored and depressed from viewing these types of shows. We do not like to see someone spend millions of dollars on a paperweight that will never get used, when there are millions of people who are suffering in today’s poor economy. On the other hand I do agree with the many scholars who argue that people find joy in seeing what we cannot have or how the other side lives, and that is why there will always be a show like that on the air. In the beginning it may have given me pleasure by offering me an insight in the life of luxury, but in the end it left me dissatisfied and even depressed. I felt a sense of helplessness, because I know the only way I could live my life like the #RichKids of Beverly Hills was if I won the lottery.

A subcategory of reality television that has become extremely popular is competition reality shows like American’s Next Top Model or American Idol. The importance of these types of shows is to give aid to the underprivileged who were not born with a silver spoon in there mouths’ like those on the #RichKids of Beverly Hills. Competition shows level the playing field, so not only the wealthy are able to move forward by taking part in the resources that are needed to become successful. For example American’s Next Top Model contestants get the opportunity of having Tyra Banks as a mentor/resource, and get to develop their portfolio with some of the most accomplished photographers in the world. Shows like these teach the privileged or even the upper middle class they have a civic duty to give back to those who are less fortunate. Some of these girls’ backgrounds consist of living off welfare wages and not coming from a stable support system. Without the assistance from the CW Network I believe the majority of these contestants would continue down the same path they were on. Shows like American’s Next Top Model give contestants a chance transform themselves, and hopefully those who are viewing get inspired to do the same.

Makeover reality shows like Extreme Makeover Weight Loss Edition is another “do-good” reality show, because it focuses on showing the viewers how to relate with others who might be different from you either physically or the way they were raised. A show like this teaches us that morbidly obese are not one dimensional who can be labeling as people who like to indulge in the sin of gluttony, but instead people who suffer from hardships just like you. By displaying the character’s testimonial it helps normalize diversity, because most likely we are able to relate to the character who was selected by the Network. Ouellette says, “The participants are selected by casting agents who find the most “deserving” and marketable stories of hardships from tens of thousands of applications weekly.” Viewing makeover reality shows enlighten and educates its audience on how to transform, either mentally by or physically like those in weight loss shows. These mini stories within the show give it that reality documentary element.

The American society is obsessed with transformation, says Dana Heller in her article, Taking the Nation “From Drab to Fab”: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. “A distinctive sub-genre of reality television, makeover shows invite us to participate in a fantasy of physical and social transformation, the complex cultural origins of which connect to myths of American immigration, evangelicalism, and expansionism.” If we are not changing we are not evolving, and if we are not evolving we are not learning new things to continue to move forward. There are people who live their life completely unconsciously with no desire for change, and people who are actively curious about transformation but are doing the bare minimum in order to change. These are types of people we like to watch transform on reality shows. Networks like MTV and VH1 have been restructuring their reality television shows to highlight personal transformation. Charm School, and #RichKids of Beverly Hills are great examples of what many would argue as being trash television, but if you look at it from a different angle its audience might actually be able to take something away after watching. They help form powerful truths concerning appropriate forms of civic conduct and problem solving. Charm School transforms a group of party girls into “model citizens,” and the #RichKids of Beverly Hills the characters start getting jobs and being to transform into independent adults.

All in all I feel like reality television has turned a new leaf, and should be considered as serving its public interest of educating its audience. Those who are watching might not learn facts or other concert information, but they will learn how to be a better citizen in today’s ever-changing world. We have not gotten rid of all the trash reality shows, but we are shifting into what Heller would say a “do-good” reality television. Viewers are reminded that it is still important to give back to those who are less fortunate and to be open to diversity, so we can fulfill our nation’s obligation to continue its move forward.

Work Cited:
Heller, Dana. "Taking the nation “from drab to fab”: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Feminist Media Studies 4.3 (2004): 347-350.

Ouellette, Laurie. "Reality TV gives back: On the civic functions of reality entertainment." Journal of Popular Film & Television 38.2 (2010): 66-71.

Corner, John. "Performing the Real Documentary Diversions." Television & New
3.3 (2002): 255-269.

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