When Re­al­ity TV gets too real

Guru Magazine - - Contents -

Are we liv­ing a lit­tle too vi­car­i­ously through oth­ers? If you’re a fan of re­al­ity TV shows, opin­ion colum­nist Leila says you should take heed. Could watch­ing re­al­ity TV shows de­grade ‘real life’?

The last decade has seen a huge in­crease in the num­ber of re­al­ity shows on tele­vi­sion – and I must con­fess to be­ing a bit ad­dicted to some of them. A re­al­ity show that ar­guably changed the di­rec­tion of tele­vi­sion in the UK is Big

Brother, which is based on an idea in Ge­orge Or­well’s clas­sic novel 1984. On the off chance that this tele­vi­sual phe­nom­e­non has passed you by, Big Brother fea­tures con­tes­tants that live in an iso­lated house un­der the con­tin­ual gaze of TV cam­eras. Other re­al­ity se­ries in­clude the in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar ‘ doc­u­men­taries’ of life in dif­fer­ent parts of Lon­don: Chan­nel 4’s Made in

Chelsea, which fol­lows a group of so­cially elite, af­flu­ent, twenty-some­things and doc­u­ments their ex­trav­a­gant life­styles; and ITV’s The

Only Way Is Es­sex (af­fec­tion­ately re­ferred to as TOWIE), which, in much the same way, records the lives of a group of friends in Es­sex. Th­ese Bri­tish shows have been in­flu­enced largely by the cul­ture of re­al­ity shows in Amer­ica, such as The Hills on MTV, which fol­lows the lives of a group of young adults liv­ing in Los An­ge­les, and Jersey Shore, which also ran on MTV and fol­lowed eight house­mates as they spent their sum­mer on New Jersey’s shore­line. The premise of th­ese shows is one of watch­ing peo­ple live their real lives in the pub­lic eye. As Grace Dent wrote in her Guardian ar­ti­cle

Grace Dent’s TV OD: “[th­ese pro­grammes] show real peo­ple in mod­i­fied sit­u­a­tions, say­ing un­scripted lines but in a struc­tured way”. To me,

it seems a bit like The Tru­man Show – the block­buster star­ring Jim Car­rey in which the life of the epony­mous char­ac­ter, Tru­man Bur­bank, is a con­structed, per­ma­nent re­al­ity show that is broad­cast to the world. How­ever, un­like other re­al­ity shows, Tru­man is the only one who is un­aware that his whole life is be­ing broad­cast, whilst his friends, fam­ily and col­leagues are all in on the se­cret and col­lab­o­rate to cre­ate this con­structed re­al­ity. Per­haps the most out­ra­geous of all of th­ese re­al­ity shows is the forth­com­ing Mars One

re­al­ity show, which will see con­tes­tants bat­tling for a place to be­come an astro­naut on a very real one-way trip to Mars. It has the po­ten­tial to fea­ture some in­spir­ing char­ac­ters, but I ex­pect it will pa­rade the usual col­lec­tion of ec­centrics, who are des­per­ate for their lives to be broad­cast to the rest of the world.

In th­ese Re­al­ity Shows, we see raw, real life: we see break-ups and make-ups; we see friend­ships built up and bro­ken down. Per­haps most im­por­tantly, we see peo­ple like us. Be­neath the money, or the ac­cents, or the fake-tan, what we re­ally want to see is some­one who is liv­ing the same kind of life as we are and we laugh at those who are dif­fer­ent. Ul­ti­mately we are look­ing for peo­ple who have the same kind of prob­lems and who strug­gle with the same sit­u­a­tions. We are look­ing for af­fir­ma­tion of our lives and our life­styles. But as I watch th­ese shows, I ask my­self what they say about a so­ci­ety in which peo­ple pre­fer to watch other peo­ple liv­ing their lives rather than get­ting on with liv­ing their own. I think the dan­ger in en­joy­ing th­ese shows too much is that we start to ‘live’ vi­car­i­ously through them, rather than mak­ing the most of our own ‘here and now’. In­stead of go­ing to par­ties or pic­nics, we stay rooted to our so­fas, watch­ing other peo­ple do th­ese things in­stead.

Rather than meet­ing new peo­ple or mak­ing new friends, we cre­ate re­la­tion­ships with the ‘char­ac­ters’ in th­ese shows: we feel we know and un­der­stand them. We tell our­selves that we can re­late to them. We pro­ject our­selves and the peo­ple we know onto the char­ac­ters on the screen – to the ex­tent that it al­most feels like we are liv­ing the same lives. Or else, we lose our­selves com­pletely in the shows be­cause we know we are so dif­fer­ent from the char­ac­ters pre­sented be­fore us: we en­joy see­ing life from a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive and we for­get what life looks like from our own point of view. An­other is­sue with th­ese pro­grammes is that there is the po­ten­tial to see our own lives as re­al­ity shows, rather than real life. There is a danger­ous blur­ring of the lines be­tween re­al­ity and fan­tasy, or even be­tween ac­tual re­al­ity

and ‘con­structed’ re­al­ity. Rather than liv­ing out an au­then­tic ver­sion of our own lives, we find our­selves script­ing con­ver­sa­tions or con­struct­ing sce­nar­ios in our minds be­fore they hap­pen. We stop liv­ing spon­ta­neous, gen­uine lives and be­come ‘char­ac­ters’ of our­selves. In essence, the ver­sion of ‘re­al­ity’ th­ese shows present risk us be­com­ing dis­tanced from our own re­al­ity. We lose the abil­ity to dis­tin­guish be­tween re­al­ity and un­re­al­ity and, more wor­ry­ingly, we risk los­ing our­selves.

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