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Friday, November 12, 2010

Reality Bites Back

A compelling post today from Danielle Bean, a regular writer for the National Catholic Register, on the corrosive cultural influence of reality TV. She cites a book by Jennifer L. Pozner, the executive director of Women in Media & News. The book is called, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV. Here’s a bit from the blurb on Pozner’s website:

On The Bachelor, twenty-five interchangeable hotties compete for the chance to marry a hunky lunkhead they don’t know from Adam. Weepy waifs line up to be objectified for a living (or simply for a moment) on America’s Next Top Model. Wealthy ladies who lunch backstab while obsessing over brand-name clothes, cars and jewels on The Real Housewives Of…everywhere. Branded “ugly ducklings,” appearance-obsessed sad sacks risk their health to be surgically altered on The Swan and Dr. 90210. Starved women get naked for Oreos and men gloat about “dumb-ass girl alliances” on Survivor. Women of color are ostracized as deceitful divas on The Apprentice, lazy or “difficult” on Wife Swap and Bridezillas, and “ghetto” train wrecks on VH1’s Flavor of Love and I Love New York. And through it all, slurs like “bitch,” “beaver,” and “whore” are tossed around as if they’re any other nouns.

And it’s all happening in the name of “reality.”

A few weeks ago the poet Dana Gioia, who served as director of the National Endowment for the Arts during the George W. Bush administration, gave a talk at Baylor University, where I teach. In his remarks he aptly said about reality TV that it gives us “the pleasure of smug superiority over our inferiors.”

What else does reality TV’s take on “reality” tell us about where we are as a culture? As Pozner asks on her website, what is reality TV saying about our understanding of men and women, race and class, love and sex, beauty and violence, advertising and consumption?

I especially liked one comment on Danielle Bean’s post on the Register website. This person quoted Father James Keller, the founder of The Christophers, who said: “There is some value, of course…in turning off vulgar, boring, or subversive radio and TV programs….But the cure does not lie there, for it is like objecting to bad food without providing anything better….New and better writers can be found. They will come from among you…the vast group of Americans who constitute the backbone of our nation and of our Christian civilization.”

It is easy enough to curse the awful food. But who are the writers out there who will provide us with better fare? Who will lead us, by engaging entertainment culture with consummate craftsmanship, from “reality” to reality? Are you one of them?

Let’s hear from you.


  1. It occurs to me that "reality" shows suffer from what behavioral scientists call the Hawthorne Effect. Quantum physics has a similar theory: the very act of observing affects the behavior of the observed.

    There can be little doubt that "reality" shows reflect not even the reality of their subjects' lives, much less reflecting anything to which the viewer might relate.

    It does seem strange, in a nation with twice the population it held in 1945, there are fewer quality screenwriters than ever before. I agree with you, Dan - that can't be true. I wonder how many are holding themselves back, and how many are blocked out by the economics of the entertainment industry.

    Fortunately, I think technology is changing those economics. There is more quality entertainment available than we know, but it is gradually becoming more accessible. At the same time, the economics of exhibitionism and voyeurism may lower the perceived entertainment value of "reality" shows on television.

  2. Or maybe it's the "WWF Effect"--there's no spontaneous action to observe, it's all scripted. On a brighter note, Tim, I think there are a lot of emerging screenwriters out there who have no intention of holding back. The ACT ONE Program in Hollywood, for example, has been doing some fantastic work in recent years training--and placing--young screenwriters. And it's not like there aren't some excellent things already out there, both on television and in the movies. The voyeuristic aspect of reality TV will always grab attention, but the superb writing in a series such as "Foyle's War" endures, though in a much quieter way. You're so brilliant, Tim--we must be related!