What Reality TV Says About Us
By Danielle J. Lindemann
“Never in the history of showbiz has the gap between amateur and professional been so small. And never in the history of the world has there been such a rage for exhibitionism,” the pop culture critic Albert Goldman declared in 1978. “The question is, therefore, what are we going to do with all these beautiful show-offs?” For Goldman, the answer was disco, the dance club as Dionysian mother ship, but a year later disco died of derision and white male hetero backlash. Thereafter, the surplus production of narcissists writhing for attention continued to mount, until reality TV arrived to sop up all this human capital and put its antsy energy to use. No talent, no training, no inhibitions? No problem!
PBS’s “An American Family” (1973) is usually given the nod as the pioneer reality TV series, though in technique and tact it hewed to the more traditional, unobtrusive humanism of cinéma vérité. It was MTV’s “The Real World” (1992), “Laguna Beach” (2004) and “The Hills” (2006), and CBS’s “Survivor” (2000), that established the genre as soap opera, eye-candy revue and behavioral laboratory where every genuine or manufactured slight and misunderstanding could be stoked for maximum friction and eventual psychodrama. Cheap to produce, fast to shoot, exhausting to perform, edited into a sharded crossfire of reaction shots, reality TV proved itself an expedient, maneuverable vehicle optimized for speed, sensation and easy replication. With its rotating clusters of housewives, Kardashians, deck crews, dance moms, teen moms, top chefs, top models, 90-day fiancés, bachelors, bachelorettes, apprentices, house hunters and drag racers, reality TV — once prime time’s tacky, tag-along cousin — has mutated into a real-fake pro-am multiverse.
While lacking the prestige and starlight of scripted series, the prospect of Nicole Kidman gracing us with her luminous shimmer, reality TV has exhibited enough influence and durability to earn Serious Treatment on top of the customary snickers and patronizing sneers, and here it is: Danielle J. Lindemann’s “True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us.” A professor of sociology at Lehigh whose previous books have studied commuter marriages and the professional dominatrix — excellent preparation for parsing the adventures of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” — Lindemann contends that, by holding up a mirror to society, reality TV has much to impart once we get past the histrionics. “It may seem counterintuitive that a genre focused on zany personalities and extreme cases has so much to teach us about our own ordinary lives,” she writes, yet stare hard enough and you’ll perceive your own warped features goggling back: “We’re voyeurs, but part of what tantalizes us about these freak shows is that the freaks are ourselves.” (I prefer Goldman’s designation of “beautiful show-offs,” better anticipating the buffed hedonism of “Vanderpump Rules,” “Love Island” and “Too Hot to Handle,” but let’s not get hung up on nomenclature.) The point is that for Lindemann, reality TV viewing isn’t passive ingestion but a subtle preening process, a phantom codependency. It’s a phenomenon worth studying, she writes, “because of what it does to us. The experience of watching these shows, like looking in any mirror, is interactive. We see ourselves, and then we groom ourselves accordingly.”
Here, grooming time at the zoo is broken down into exhaustively researched chapters exploring how the medium depicts, distorts or dodges altogether intricacies of race and gender (the stereotyping of Black women as incipient volcanoes), class, sexuality, childhood, family and so on: the intersectional combo platter. No matter how swingy-dingy the shows appear, there is a conservative underlay that keeps familiar norms in place. Lindemann is instructive on the power differential between men and women in reality TV, how differently they’re regarded and rewarded for their antics and facial calisthenics. “With his braggadocio and his penchant for gold décor, Donald Trump might have made an excellent Real Housewife,” she observes. “Yet these women are still throwing wineglasses at one another on Bravo, and he’s been president.” Diverse and inclusive as reality TV has become, male prerogative still occupies the top bunk.