When Reality TV gets too real
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.