MTV Reality Programming & the Labor of Identity Construction


Note to the reader: Below is a work in progress. I am sharing it here in the hopes of generating discussion and recommendations for further reading and research. 

American children born after 1980 are the largest, most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history. They have seen an African American be reelected as the President of the United States of America. Many high schools now have Gay-Straight Alliance clubs (even as the bullying of gay students continues). Thus, Millennials are often labeled as “post racial,” “post gender,” or “pomosexual,” as if they have solved the eternal problem of human difference that none of us, stretching back for centuries, have been able to solve. However, according to studies conducted by the Applied Research Center, today’s youth still see race (and identity in general):

“The majority of people in our focus groups continue to see racism at work in multiple areas of American life, particularly in criminal justice and employment. When asked in the abstract if race is still a significant factor, a minority of our focus group participants initially said that they don’t believe it is—and some young people clearly believe that class matters more. But when asked to discuss the impact, or lack thereof, that race and racism have within specific systems and institutions, a large majority asserted that race continues to matter deeply.”

Indeed, in my experiences working with Millennials in the classroom, I have found that they are quite eager to self identify by race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and sexuality. In fact, the more invisible the identity, the more eager they are to make it visible. There seems to be a heightened interest in identity, defining its parameters and its meanings. Here I am defining “identity” in very simple terms:  it is a vision of yourself that is based on actual traits (your race, gender, sexual preference, nationality, etc.) but which you might also inflate or redefine to suit your vision of yourself (or how you hope to envision yourself). It is rooted in the material conditions of lived experience and also highly constructed. It is thrust upon the individual but also, quite often, carefully selected by the individual.

As someone who studies media images for a living, I see similar evidence of the Millennial struggle with identity happening in a very specific location: MTV reality programming. MTV describes itself as “the world’s premier youth entertainment brand” and “the cultural home of the millennial generation, music fans and artists, and a pioneer in creating innovative programming for young people.” When it first premiered in 1981 it was a 24 hour music video jukebox (and my favorite thing ever). MTV began producing original non-music programming as early as 1987 with its TV-centered game show Remote Control. Other programming, including Singled Out, Just Say Julie, and The State followed, thus aligning MTV’s content with something other than music. The success of the reality television series, The Real World, in 1991 cemented MTV’s move towards non-music based programming. Between 1995 and 2000, the number of music videos aired on the channel dropped by 36% (Hay). Now MTV is primarily known for creating original, non-musical content. Specifically, MTV likes to produces reality shows about segments of the contemporary youth demographic–the very demographic that is watching MTV.

And what I have learned from watching a lot of MTV’s reality programming is that the youth featured on these shows continue to grapple with racial /gender/sexual/class difference. Cast members on MTV’s most highly rated reality shows (Jersey Shore, Teen Mom, The Hills, The Real World, and now Buckwild) willingly serve as synecdoches for their ethnic group, their subculture, their class, their gender, their sexuality, their religion, or their region of the U.S. I agree with Michael Hirschcorn, who offers a lengthy defense of reality programming in The Atlantic:

“Reality shows steal the story structure and pacing of scripted television, but leave behind the canned plots and characters. They have the visceral impact of documentary reportage without the self-importance and general lugubriousness. Where documentaries must construct their narratives from found matter, reality TV can place real people in artificial surroundings designed for maximum emotional impact.”

When, for example, a cast member on The Real World defends a racist/sexist/homophobic comment in an “on the fly” (OTF) interview with the standard “Hey I’m just being real!” excuse, he is, in fact, being real. In other words, he is performing the identity he was cast to perform and which, he feels, he has the duty to perform since he was in fact cast on the show to perform that very identity.

Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino is perhaps the best example of MTV’s labor of identity construction (a runner up would be the Shannon family from Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, certainly an integral part of the poetics of TLC). Mike understands that he needs a single identity—that of the guido—in order to thrive on the series. Mike is defined by his abdominal muscles or rather Mike’s abdominal muscles tell us what kind of man he is—a man who is capable of performing the obsessive compulsive grooming ritual known as “Gym. Tan. Laundry” (aka, “GTL”):

I doubt that Mike GTLs as much as he claims to. But it only matters that he claims to GTL. In Jersey Shore and other MTV reality shows, the subject is in charge of defining himself before the camera. Mike tells us that GTLing makes him a guido and so the ritual becomes a clear marker of his identity. As a white American of European ancestry, Mike has the ability to choose his ethnic identity. He can take up a “symbolic ethnicity,” which Herbert Gans defines as “a nostalgic allegiance to the culture of the immigrant generation, or that of the old country; a love for and a pride in a tradition that can be felt without having to be incorporated in everyday behavior” (9). Mike’s identity functions as an “ethnic pull” rather than as a “racial push.” He chooses to be a guido and constructs the parameters of this identity. Nancy Franklin explains the necessity of the utterance in the creation of the reality TV persona “Like all reality-show participants, Pauly D, The Situation, and the others speak in categorical certainties. They know things for sure, then those things blow up in their faces, then they hate those things and take about three seconds to find new things to believe in.” And Mike believes in GTL. Without it, he is unemployed. That’s because clear identity construction is central to the appeal of MTV’s current programming.

Imagine the following scene: a group of roommates have just come home from a night of drinking. An argument soon erupts between two of the female roommates over who gets to have guests in the house; there is only room for seven guests and the house is at capacity. When an urban, African American character named Brianna becomes irate that her friends cannot come inside, her white, Christian, Southern roommate, Kim, replies, “Let’s not get ghetto. Be…normal.” The women then exchange expletives and threaten each other with physical harm. In the next scene, Kim explains the fight to her roommate, Sarah, who is also white: “I don’t care where you’re from, if you’re from the most inner city…” and here she pauses to grimace, “blackville. You don’t act like that.” Sarah, who has, thus far, been a sympathetic listener, giggles nervously and advises, “Maybe you should watch what you say…just a little?”

Had this scene been in a film or a scripted television show about a group of strangers who move in together, we would likely find these conversations unbelievable. We would roll our eyes at Kim’s over-the-top, racially-inflected villainy and cry foul: “Come on, who would say that? A real person wouldn’t say that!” But when we hear Kim say this exact line to Brianna (in an episode of The Real World XX: Hollywood), we know it is real (or realish) and therefore we must engage with this very real racism:

[You can watch the entire scene here: http://www.mtv.com/videos/misc/225650/lets-not-get-ghetto.jhtml]

Kim’s statements implicitly align Brianna’s behavior in this situation—her anger, her willingness to swear and make physical threats—as rooted in her class and her race (i.e., she acts this way because she comes from “the ghetto”) rather than the more plausible explanation: that Brianna is simply a hothead (like so many other young people who have been cast in the series. In fact, being a hothead is one of the primary criteria for snagging a spot in the show’s cast). Kim makes the racial and class bias of her comments explicit when she labels the nation’s “inner cities,” a location where people apparently behave in the most distasteful of fashions, “Blackville.”  Yes, Blackville. LaToya Peterson over at Racialicous calls this scene (and others like it) “hit and run racial commentary” because it dredges up problematic racial prejudices without truly engaging with them. She is nostalgic for earlier incarnations of The Real World and Road Rules (ah Road Rules!) when characters who got into heated arguments would have “an actual conversation where they were both screaming and both making very good points, and both walking away determined to do their own thing. Growth. Development. An actual exchange of ideas.”

Though Peterson sees such scenes as indicative of a new kind of reality programming on MTV, where cast members (who were cast precisely so that they would say something like this) make a racist statement and then are chastised and asked to repent (rather than engaging in a productive dialogue about how and why they came to acquire such a racist/sexist/homophobic vision of the world), this kind of dialogue has been MTV’s bread and butter since it first started airing The Real World over 20 years ago. As Jon Kraszewski argues, “The Real World does not simply locate the reality of a racist statement and neutrally deliver it to an audience. Although not scripted, the show actively constructs what reality and racism are for its audience through a variety of production practices” (179). In The Real World (and other MTV programs), intolerance stems from identity. One is racist because one is from the South. One is sexist because one is a male jock. And over the course of a show these individuals are informed that their identities have led them astray–that they are in fact racist or sexist–but now they will know better! Yes, as outrageous as Kim’s comments are, they are nothing new for The Real World.

Currently, I am embarking on a new research project that seeks to understand the contours of MTV’s new cultural terrain, the images it creates for youth audiences, and the way Millennials consume and interact with its programming. Though I have written quite a lot about MTV programs like The Hills, Teen Mom, and Jersey Shore over the last few years, I am only now starting to think about these programs in relation to each other and how MTV understands youth selfhood.  I imagine (I hope!) that this project will grow richer and more complicated as I move through it, but for now I’d like to outline how MTV has fostered what I see as a new poetics of being-in-the-world. While MTV initially catered to Generation X, a generation of passive spectators, Millennials are a generation of active spectators. For them, MTV is an “identity workbook”: cast members speak their differences openly, try on different identities, and pick fights in order to see how these identities play out and to what effect. The Jersey Shore cast members actively and self-consciously constructs “guido” identities for themselves while those on Buckwild tell MTV’s cameras what it means to be “country.” Thus, the difference between the MTV of 1981 and the MTV of today is not simply the difference between music videos and reality TV—the difference is in the way MTV conceives of youth selfhood. Instead of watching and observing, MTV’s contemporary youth audience is generating the identities they consume on screen, and marking out what they believe it means to be an African American, a Southerner, a Christian, a homosexual, or a transgender youth in America today.

This is not to say that Generation X (and I am speaking here not of actual people, but the image of this generation that exists in popular culture) was not also interested in identity, but we rarely took an active role in its construction. Exhausted or embarrassed by our parent’s endless spouts of energy and their marches for equality, we preferred (prefer) to toss our hands in the air and declare things to be “racist” or “sexist,” complain about it, maybe even blog about it (ahem!), but ultimately we don’t do anything. The image of this generation appearing in popular culture is one of apathy and spectatorship. As Jonathan I. Oake writes “Thus, the deviance of Xer subcultural subjectivity lies in its perverse privileging of ‘watching’ over ‘doing.’ While baby boomers are mythologized as those who made history, Xer identity is presided over by the trope of the ‘slacker’: the indolent, apathetic, couch-dwelling TV addict” (86-87).

But Millennials, like the Baby Boomers, are a generation of doers. Or rather, they “do” by “being.” They project themselves into the world—through social media, blogs and yes, through reality television. For this reason, Adam Wilson calls them the “Laptop Generation”: “If the 1980s was the Me generation — marked by consumerism and an obsession with personal needs (Give me hair gel! Give me cocaine!) — then we are living in the iGeneration, in which the self is projected back toward the world via social media.” This generation wrangles with our divisions, even if they lack the language and the critical distance to do so in a way that pleases us.

Take for example, Buckwild, MTV’s new series about West Virginia youth that premiered this week to respectable ratings. MTV is turning its cameras to this region of the country to capitalize, no doubt, on the recent cycle of hillbilly-sploitation (Hillbilly Handfishing, Swamp People, Bayou Billionaires, Rocket City Rednecks, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, etc). The difference, of course, is that MTV presents this subculture from the point of view of Millennials. And, as in all of MTV’s recent reality shows, it centers on a clear definition of identity. To see what I mean, let’s pause and take a look at the trailer for MTV’s new identity series, Buckwild:

It is fitting that the Buckwild trailer opens with a sign that reads “Welcome to West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful” since for so many of MTV’s programs (Laguna Beach, The Hills, The City, Jersey Shore) location breeds identity. It is also crucial that the trailer is narrated by one of the show’s cast members since all of these programs are about self-construction. As we hear the narration, “West Virginia is a place founded on freedom. For me and my friends, that means the freedom to do whatever the fuck we want!”  we see a montage of youthful hi-jinx: bridge diving, tubing, “mudding,” drinking and shooting firearms. In some ways these activities are region-specific—driving off-road vehicles through the mud and skinny-dipping in the local swimming hole are not activities in which Lauren Conrad (The Hills) or Snooki (Jersey Shore) are likely to participate. And yet, for all its specificity, this Buckwild trailer is also highly generic: we have a group of unemployed or underemployed young people in their late teens and early twenties drinking, having sex, and passing the time, believing that their way of life, their identities, are unique enough to warrant the presence of constant camera surveillance. “We’re young, free and Buckwild,” our narrator concludes. But she could have just as easily said “We’re young, free and Jersey Shore!” or “We’re young, free and living in The Hills!” In this way, MTV’s identity project works to both highlight and eradicate differences in contemporary youth cultures.

MTV is not shy about its identity project. Every series has a distinctive look marked by its cinematography, editing, lighting, and/or soundtrack choices. For example, as I have argued elsewhere, The Hills, Laguna Beach, and The City employ a seamless cinematic style—including the use of widescreen, shot/reverse shot sequences, high key lighting, and telephoto lenses—mirrors its cast members’ positions as wealthy white consumers living in a fantasy world. By contrast, Jersey Shore, with its out-of-focus shots, visible leaders, and 70s brothel-chic house, all give the impression that the text (and the people contained within that text) are sleaze. Programs like Making the Band employ “bling” style editing, a surface layer of glitz that mimics the ambitions of the gamedoc’s participants. And Buckwild aims for a naturalist aesthetic, with cast members filmed primarily against the backdrop of leafless trees, mud holes or open green spaces. Buckwild defines West Virginians as naturalists: individuals with little money who must rely on nature for their amusements.

Even MTV programs like The Real World, which maintain the aesthetics we typically associate with documentary realism (long takes, mobile framing, imperfect sound and lighting quality), cast members speak their difference openly so that by the end of each new season premiere most of the cast has aligned themselves with a particular identity: the homosexual, the homophobe, the African American, the racist, the Christian, the foreigner, the Midwestern one, the city child, the girl with a history of abuse, the boy who is borderline abusive, etc. These cast members are not simply participants in a reality show—they are also its progeny. MTV cast members were suckled at the teats of reality television and they understand how identity works within its confines. Identity must be visible if it is to mean anything. And so Jersey Shore’s The Situation must “GTL” in order to be a guido (and to keep his job performing guido-ness) and Buckwild’s Shaine tells what it means to live in the “holler” and go “muddin” (in order to keep his job performing West Virginia-ness). Identity is lucrative today.

So a poetics of MTV is, simply, an engagement with American identities as they constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed. We film ourselves, we watch ourselves, we hate ourselves, we write about ourselves, and then we film ourselves again. It is our challenge to watch these programs and parse through the identity politics they present. I am not trying to argue that MTV is taking premeditated strides towards mending our broken social bonds. Rather, MTV is doing what it has always done—it is filling a gap, in this case, our desire to figure out what identity means in a society that really wants to believe it is post-identity.

Works Cited

Gans, Herbert. “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 2:1 (1979): 1-20.

Hay, Carla. “Proper Role of Music TV Debated in U.S.” Billboard. 17 Feb 2o01. Web. 10 Jan 2013.

Kraszewski, Jon. “Country Hicks and Urban Cliques: Mediating Race, Reality, and Liberalism on MTV’s The Real World.” Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. Eds. Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette. New York: NYU Press, 2004. 179-196.

Oake, Jonathan I. “Reality Bites and Generation X as Spectator.” The Velvet Light Trap 53 (2004): 83-97.

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12 thoughts on “MTV Reality Programming & the Labor of Identity Construction

  1. Thanks for this provocative preview of the larger project. I really like the way you’re connecting identity, style, and network through the idea of poetics. This is exceptionally valuable right now in demonstrating the significance of MTV and its programming, as it has changed over the past three decades. I feel like I should also note how helpful I found your 2012 SCMS presentation in encapsulating some of these ideas in relation to JERSEY SHORE.

    In terms of further thoughts, I have two items: one about branding and identity, the other about Generation X. In terms of branding and identity, I’m thinking of comparisons between JERSEY SHORE and THE HILLS. They seem to handle these two interconnected areas in different ways, and I’d be curious what you think about that. For example, THE HILLS seems to make identity invisible but branding visible through the intern work, while JERSEY SHORE makes identity very visible but branding less. I have a sense that this relates to the way that THE HILLS is more aspirational and deals more with hegemonic whiteness, while JERSEY SHORE seems more essentialist in dealing with ethnic whiteness, but again, I’d be curious as to your thoughts.

    Secondly, in terms of Generation X, there certainly were slacker elements being taken up, but I also feel like that slackerdom often functioned as a form of resistance to appropriation and commercialization (remember OK Soda? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OK_Soda). I also think it’s important to note the very activist elements present then, from riot grrrl to queer groups to MTV’s own safe sex and Rock the Vote campaigns. And relatedly, it seems like the perception of the relationship between MTV’s target audience and MTV executives has changed over this time too. Are the MTV execs now functioning more like the helicopter parents it features on PARENTAL CONTROL in contrast to the VJ compatriot of the past?

    I’m sure that’s plenty, but thanks again for the overview. Looking forward to seeing more!

  2. Hi Jennifer
    Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment. This is exactly what I was hoping to do with this piece. Get some notes and reading recommendations for further work. I’d like this post to serve as an open archive of sorts.

    If by “branding” you mean the constant references to Teen Vogue and Bolthouse Inc., then yes, I agree that there is very little of that in JERSEY SHORE as compared with THE HILLS. I imagine that that is partially due to the reluctance of some brands to associate themselves with JS. A few years ago Abercrombie & Fitch publicly denounced Mike for wearing their clothes! But I also think it has do with whiteness and ethnicity. THE HILLS is aspirational.

    Re: your comments on Gen X, I am not denying that Gen X was/is political. We were/are. But in terms of the mediated image of Gen X, it is often one of apathy (SLACKER, SINGLES, REALITY BITES) and of course, passive media consumption. But I do love your idea of MTV as helicopter parents! I haven’t looked into this too much, but it does seem as if MTV is far more concerned with “caring for” its audience than it was in 1981. This is definitely a line of inquiry worth pursuing–thank you!

  3. So excited about this project, Amanda, and so grateful that you’ve allowed us a peek at it — this is the sort of proto-scholarship that really invigorates me, and I hope receiving feedback will invigorate you as well.

    Someone on Twitter commented the other day about the way that reality television has cornered the market on celebrity, in part because what they’re selling isn’t just an image, but a lifestyle. The Kardashians are perhaps the best contemporary example, but I’d argue, following Alice Leppert and Julie Wilson’s excellent piece from a few years back on Lauren Conrad and “the Hills life,” that Conrad et. al. really coalesced, if not started, that trend. By following these womens’ lives, you’re not just admiring a way of looking, but a way of being…something you definitely gesture to above in your consideration of all of the MTV shows.

    If I’m reading you correctly, you’re suggesting that these other MTV shows offer more than just the “aspirational” (read: white, upper-class) way of being in the world — they offer lifestyle models (in the form of reality celebrities) that appeal to viewers of all sorts of socio-economic backgrounds. When I was in high school in a small, rural, Northern Idaho town, I watched The Real World and identified with one character (Jon, the country kid! OH THE GOOD OLD DAYS) but now, I’m betting that I’d identify, if not actually aspire, to the performativity of BUCKWILD. I’m guessing that it’s part of the appeal of a show like Teen Mom, as well — if you’re a 16-year-old working class kid, you don’t see yourself on mainstream television, save on reality programming, and these MTV shows provide points of entrance, and “successful” lifestyle models, for a large swath of America. During the network era, you just had to rely on the aspirational model: people will always watch middle-class white people being normal and bantering around. In the fragmented post-network era, a teen can expect see his/her lifestyle onscreen.

    So are you going to be looking at what/how/where teens actually respond to these depictions? Examining the feedback loop you describe in your final paragraph?

    Such a great, thought-projecting piece….can’t wait to hear more!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful replies, Annie. Yes, I am hoping this motivates me as well. I feel like I’ve been stalled out on this project for the last 2 years, writing lots of short pieces but nothing that linked everything up. I was hopeful that forcing myself to put it all into a blogpost might help me move forward. And of course, this is a great way to get feedback, along the lines of what you and Jennifer have provided above.

      As I move forward with this project, one thing I’d like to incorporate, as you suggest, is the changes in how audiences are now imagined–fragmented rather than homogenous. And while on the one hand MTV is giving its youth audience a multitude of possible models, I am also interested in how MTV allows for this identity construction by its various reality TV casts. For this reason I am very excited to see WASHINGTON HEIGHTS (missed the premeire) and how that will define NYC and it seems, Latino youth. But I’ll admit I am still not sure where I am going with this. It is, as you say, proto-scholarship, but yes, I am interested in how this “feedback loop” is functioning and at some point I’d like to look at how audiences respond to these different identities (though the methods I would use for such a study are not yet clear to me).

  4. Thought-provoking stuff, Amanda. Your discussion of Buckwild immediately made me think of Salwa, who upon her first appearance on the show immediately identifies her self as Bengali, but only to downplay it with assurances that she is “just as country” as the other (white) West Virginians. Difference eradicated, indeed.

    • Yes, I thought the same thing! She highlights her ethnicity, which is visible, then makes sure to highlight her “country-ness,” which is invisible. I am betting that Salwa could just as easily star in an MTV reality show about being Indian in America. It’s all about code switching.

  5. Reblogged this on The Narcissistic Anthropologist and commented:
    Since I am on a “Millennial” kick lately, I thought I would share this really insightful and rigorous blog about Gen Y and Identity construction, and how MTV Reality TV Program in particular actually shows that, even though we talk about how diversity is a part of this generation’s expected social reality, that finding your identity niche amongst all of that diversity is actually of critical importance. Youth identify by their subculture tribes in many cases and if Sociology’s Labeling theory holds true, also tend to live up to the stereotypes of that subculture identity. I love the examples from Jersey Shore, Buckwild, etc….a good debate starter at minimum and a really astute piece from The Judgemental Observer….

  6. Welcome to MTV Geek’s weekly roundup of the best fanart we’ve spotted! Seen a great geek artwork? Share it with us on Twitter at twitter.com/mtvgeek !

  7. Pingback: (Aca) Blogs are Like Assholes… | judgmental observer

  8. Pingback: No End in Sight: Academic Research and “Time Off” | judgmental observer

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