The trend to glorify the edited texts and ‘edited’ bodies of Reality TV necessitates a consideration of how the Reality TV genre is defining a very particular version of American subjecthood. Reality TV opens up new possibilities as well as new limitations for representational politics. Unfortunately, the representational politics of makeover shows offer far more limitations, especially in relation to the representation of race, class, gender, sexuality, and (dis)ability.
Reality TV profoundly impacts what counts as a ‘normal body’, as a ‘beautiful body’, and shapes new realms of social power in which certain types of bodies are deemed more ‘real,’ or inhabitable, than others. Of course, Reality TV effects far more than beauty/appearance standards. It also enforces ideas, stereotypes, and normalizing criteria in relation to race, class, age, abitlity, sexuality, etc. According to most Reality TV, the world is like the cast of Friends— white, hetero, middle class, attractive by conventional standards, etc. But, unlike sitcoms and other fictional TV, the reality genre functions according to a ‘reality paradigm’ — a set up that claims to show the ‘truth’ about people and thier lives. This representational stance is far different as it conveys expectations and norms of normal subjecthood. In effect, it has made celebrity culture, or the obsessive watching/judging of others, something that is now done to everyone, not just to celebrities. By promoting new and increased surveillance of the ‘real individual,’ reality TV has made the judicious watching and ‘sizing up’ of others – and ourselves – a natural (and even expected) component of everyday life.
While many people featured on reality tv are characterized by extreme personalities and behaviors (for supposedly added extra entertainment value), this is where the extremity ends. Those featured may be bizarre personality/action-wise, but, for the most part, are ‘normal’ according to other criteria, such as body size, ability, appearance, age, class standing, etc. The message here seems it’s ok to be a bitch as long as you are ‘hot,’ it’s ok to be a pathological liar if you have a nice six pack, it’s entertaining to be a racist, especially if you can look cute while doing it.
Worryingly, Reality TV summons us to survey others with a judgmental, all-pervading gaze in everday life. It directs us to critique private actions, beliefs, and conversations, to put others under a punitive surveillance. At the same time, it also promotes a degree of self-surveillance, a tendency to judge oneself via the standards of particular reality shows. In relation to The Swan, for example, viewers were prompted to judge their own appearance against those of the surgically altered ‘Swans.’ In relation to the many hetero-romance scripts (The Bachelorette et al) viewers are encouraged to judge their own and others relationships by fairy tale standards.
This panoptical impulse that Reality TV fosters is particularly evident when one examines audience reception and fan readings of reality shows. As various web sites devoted to Reality TV evince, many people are avid viewers, watching shows with the minutest attention to detail and then reporting back with episode recaps, blogs, queries, comments and/or chat.
Further, fans seem to very closely identify with certain show participants or certain situations. For instance, fans of The Swan discussed their favorite contestants, forecasted who would win the pageant, criticized those whose makeovers they saw as less than perfect, commented on appearance ‘defects’ they felt they shared with certain contestants, and continually discussed their desires to be on the show. In so doing, these viewers created a public dialogue that began to redefine standards of beauty, acceptable appearance, and desired behavior. In effect, their identifications reinforced the shows message that appearance is all and, by colluding and promoting this message on the internet (and presumably in their private lives as well), such fans worked to further inscribe and uphold the beauty imperative so rampant in contemporary USA.
One of the most common viewer responses seemed to be uncritical adoration of the show accompanied by a marked desire to become a ‘swan.’ Moreover, as post after Internet post revealed, viewer responses were marked by a particularly brutal surveillance of appearance. Offering scathing critiques of contestants’, such commentary seemed to have a sadistic impulse colored by envy, competition, and scorn. Worryingly, this scrutiny of the body was often then turned inwards, with posters reflecting on their own ‘ugliness,’ their own need for surgical intervention.
But, what is we refused to take part in this controlling, negative gazing? What if we decided to move outside of the prison house of the panapticon wherein we are directed to discipline ourselves and others? Well, it would mean a lot more self esteem would be flowing. And, a lot less money for the corporate machines that profit off self/body hatred. Sounds like a good option all around to me.
***FYI, If you are not familiar with the concept of the panoptican, read Foucault (especially Discipline and Punish). Even if you are, read Foucault! His work is fabulous.There are also many good feminist theorists who respond to/further his work such as Judith Butler, Sandra Bartky, Susan Bordo…