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.

“THE HILLS, JERSEY SHORE, and the Aesthetics of Class”

Over the last two years I have found myself writing a lot about MTV reality shows, including The City, Teen Mom, Jersey Shore, and The Real World. And a solid chunk of the text in this blog is devoted to The Hills. What the hell is wrong with me?

Rather than trying to end my MTV addiction, I’ve decided instead to try to pinpoint what is so fascinating to me about these programs. And I think what interests me the most is how popular, MTV-produced reality shows address their target teenage audiences. I’m interested in how these programs and their paratexts—including companion websites, message boards, tabloid news stories, and the various pet projects of its celebrity cast members—shape and encourage not only consumer choices, but lifestyle choices as well.

JERSEY SHORE tells us that even Ron Ron has to vomit now and then

If MTV describes itself as “the world’s premier youth entertainment brand” and “the cultural home of the millennial generation,” then I’m interested in how programs like The Hills, Teen Mom, Jersey Shore, and The Real World work to educate and instruct this Millennial generation about appropriate sex, gender, race, class, and consumer roles. I’d also like to start looking at versions of these programs on other channels, like BET (Baldwin Hills, Harlem Heights) and the UK’s ITV2 (The Only Way Is Essex).

I also want to write about how the aesthetics of these reality programs serves to frame the viewing experience. To that end, I’ve published a piece over at FLOW that examines the visual style of The Hills and Jersey Shore. If you’d like to read it, click here. Otherwise, you should click here.

The End of THE HILLS

Why isn't Stacie the Bartender in this photo? I demand justice!

If you read this blog, then you know that I am a little obsessed with The Hills. In particular I’ve always been fascinated with show’s peculiar brand of unreality. But when the sixth and final season of The Hills premiered on April 27, the show’s mode of address appeared to shift. While earlier seasons of the series existed at one move away from reality, with cast members clearly performing their roles and hitting their assigned marks, the season six premiere actually felt real.

For five seasons Adam DiVello  successfully kept the world outside of The Hills separate from the world inside The Hills: Lauren Conrad never mentioned her clothing line while she cried over lattes with Lo at some trendy L.A. eatery and Heidi Montag, God love her, never mentioned her singing “career” on camera. But when Heidi’s massive breasts and chiseled jawbone appeared onscreen in the season six premiere, it must have been clear to DiVello that the bizarre, paparazzi-filled, fame-mongering lifestyles of his cast members could no longer be distinguished from their seemingly isolated,”normal,” onscreen personas. Heidi Montag and her grotesque plastic surgery broke down the wall between diegetic and extradiegetic and the result was some pretty fantastic television. At last The Hills was addressing its impact on its own cast. It was as if a reality show was not just admitting that the reality it captured was not real — it was admitting that the reality it captured was profoundly warped by the very fact that it was being captured.

Don't look at me, I'm hideous! Rawr!

I was awfully pleased with my conclusions about season six. I even wrote a piece about it for another media studies site:

“In its final season The Hills has morphed into a treatise on the “reality” of reality TV “stardom,” a reality crafted by the rewards and labors of a life of constant surveillance and confession. I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that this season can also serve as an allegory of the current cultural moment—in which we are starting to take stock of the high costs of self-exposure.”

I thought that was a fairly tidy conclusion. But the problem was that I came to this conclusion after only two episodes of the new season had aired. Soon after that, Spencer and Heidi disappeared from the show. The moment these two cast members exited the show, the diegetic once again split from the extradiegetic.  My thesis — that The Hills was becoming self-referential and even critical of the reality TV machine — was effectively disproven. Ooops, my bad.

Why was Speidi’s exit so momentous and so disappointing for a fan like me? Why did it destroy my thesis? Avid readers of tabloids knew that Spencer Pratt was kicked off the show for threatening one of the show’s producers and for his anger problems in general. Since Heidi’s biological functions are controlled by a small, external remote that Spencer carries at all times, she naturally had to leave the show as well.

My craziness is signified by my early 1990s fashion choices.

It would have been fascinating if the real reason behind Spencer’s exit had been addressed within the show — that he was simply too dangerous to keep on the set. But DiVello was clearly not ready to relinquish that kind of control. He was forced to acknowledge his young casts’ extradiegetic lives but he was not going to acknowledge that The Hills was a show. Instead, the episode, “This is Goodbye,” featured lots of  scenes in which people who have no interest in Spencer and Heidi, like Lo and Kristin, sat gravely with people who do have a lot invested in the couple, like Holly Montag and Stephanie Pratt. While Lo feigned interest and compassion (something Lo does exceptionally well), Holly and Stephanie cried rivers of black mascara over the televisual death of their siblings. Their conclusion? No more contact with Spencer and Heidi until they stop being crazy (good luck with that, ladies).

The ladies in happier times.

After this episode, Speidi disappeared from the world The Hills, effectively cleaving it back into two parts: the constructed world before the cameras and the real world outside of the cameras. Naturally,  the cast members resumed their emotional detachment: Kristin pretended to pine after Brody Jenner (really? Brody Jenner?) and bland Audrina pursued and then ended a bland relationship with bland Ashlee Simpson Show alum, Ryan Cabrera (yes, the show always referred to him as “Ryan Cabrera.”)  With the exit of Speidi — that Tasmanian devil of emotional instability — The Hills once again became boring and emotionally detached.

Simpson with old nose, Cabrera with old hair.

The emotional complexity first witnessed in the season premiere did not return until the penultimate episode, “Loves Me Not,” when Heidi’s mother, Darlene, flies to L.A. for a visit with her daughter, Holly. Darlene is anxious to see Heidi and Holly frets over her inability to locate her sister. It is clear that Holly not only misses her sister, but is also distraught over her mother’s pain and her own powerlessness in the situation. Over lunch Darlene admits that she hasn’t slept in months and has been force to take prescription sleeping pills because she is so distraught over her daughter’s absence. “I’ve been mourning the loss of a child,” she tells Holly. Both women cry. And yes, so did I. Because the whole Heidi story is truly sad. The pursuit of the spotlight has resulted in the loss of her fledging career, her good looks, and most tragically, her family.

It is difficult not to compare Darlene’s and Holly’s weeping in this scene with Kristin’s own “breakdown” at the end of the same episode, when Brody Jenner tells her that does not in fact love her. Maybe it’s because Kristin is not skilled at emoting (she’s no Lauren Conrad) or maybe it’s because I have the extradiegetic knowledge that she’s dating one of the show’s cameramen, but I could not buy into the “emotion” of this scene. I do not believe that Kristin “loves” Brody. Notice how I have to put quotation marks around everything?

But, but, I thought you loved Brody!

Thus, despite the hyperreality of Speidi’s image, they were, nevertheless, the only element capable of bringing reality into The Hills. This became painfully clear during the series finale “All Good Things…” when The Hills girls (minus Heidi) sit down to assess their lives and their futures and let the platitudes fly. “I feel like I need to be alone for once,” Audrina sighs. “Yeah!” the girls reply. “I want little babies,” Lo squeals. “Awwww!!!” the girls cry on cue. The girls are striving for some kind of connection here, but nothing resonates. In fact, I could sum up the The Hills finale like this:

Kristin: Blah blah blah.

Lo: Totally! Blah blah blah.

Audrina: Like, for real. Blah blah blah.

Stephanie: I know, right? Blah blah blah.

Brody: Bro! Blah blah blah.

And then, there’s that final scene. As Kristin drives away from Brody and Brody stands there pretending to look forlorn (or constipated?), the camera cranes backwards and the sunny California backdrop turns out to be an actual backdrop that lifts up to reveal … wait for it, wait for it … CAMERAS! Do you mean to tell me that these people have been followed by cameras this ENTIRE time? That the The Hills is a TV SHOW?!? I thought Kristin, Lo, and Audrina were just really tiny people who crawled into the box in my livingroom every week!

Bro. Bro? Brooooooooo.

This “shocking” ending was Adam DiVello’s attempt at self-referentiality, the self-referentiality this show has so desperately needed since about Season 3.  But  for me it’s a case of too little, too late. DiVello pulled back the curtain, but behind it was simply another curtain. A truly shocking ending would have been a roundtable featuring Speidi, Adam DiVello, and the rest of The Hills cast hashing out their conflicts. Man, that would have been great. But hey, it’s not too late, Adam DiVello. Why not give Speidi a call? Something tells me their schedules are open

THE HILLS are Alive…with the Sound of Boob Jobs

Sort of like the opening credits to The Brady Bunch, only with assholes.

As I sat down to watch the premiere of the sixth and final season of  The Hills, MTV’s faux reality battle-ax, I was mentally preparing my snarky blog post.  The Hills has always existed at one move away from reality, becoming more and more detached with each season. As I argued in my recap of the season 5 finale, at this point only Audrina still thinks the show is “real.” But about 5 minutes into the season 6 premiere I realized that my snark meter–which usually provides a continuous stream of snarky comments as I watch programs like The Hills and The City–was totally silent. I found that I was watching The Hills, really watching it, and that I was completely engaged by the narrative and the characters.

But why? Why has a show that has always been the simulacrum of reality suddenly become real again (notice that I didn’t put the word real in quotation marks)? Who do we have to thank? Two words, my friends: Heidi’s boobs.

The episode opens with Lo and Stephanie, fresh out of her second (yes second!) stint in rehab, meeting at one of those outdoor lunch spots that seem to have been built solely for the purposes of these staged conversations. But this conversation (dare I say it?), feels…almost…real. Stephanie tells Lo that she has just finished up an AA meeting and then sighs, “I can’t believe I’m doing this all over again.” She looks genuinely frustrated with herself.  “I’m only 23 and I’ve been to jail twice? I mean, that’s not normal.”  This exchange marks one of the first moments when the world outside The Hills–the world of the paparazzi and Lauren’s clothing line and Heidi’s musical career, the world that the show’s cameras like to pretend does not exist–is entering back into The Hills narrative.

Stephanie's mug shot.

After Lo invites Stephanie to Miami with the rest of the Scooby gang to watch the Super Bowl (a great vacation idea for a recovering alcoholic, no?), Stephanie mentions that she hasn’t seen Spencer or Heidi in months. Lo then tells Stephanie “There’s been some…talk about Heidi. And…a new face.” Lo then lists all of Heidi’s surgeries (which have been exhaustively detailed in the tabs as well as the mainstream press these last few months), ending on “butt job.” “Butt job?” Stephanie asks, clearly puzzled, “Like liposuction?” “No,” replies Lo, making squeezing gestures with her hands “Like a bigger…like a bigger butt. Like a little junk in the trunk.” Stephanie still looks baffled: “But how do you, how do you add?” “I don’t know,” Lo responds, shaking her hand. And then we cut to credits.

I can’t describe how this cold open made me feel–not only was the show directly acknowledging the media spectacle that it truly is, but the show’s cast actually seemed to be having fun with it. This does not happen in the world of The Hills. I waited for the TV screen to collapse into itself. But it didn’t.

This makes me weep.

But this scene was nothing compared to the scenes featuring Heidi. When we first see Heidi, she is being filmed from behind, as she packs her suitcase to prepare for a trip home to see her family in Colorado. Spencer is talking to her from the livingroom, begging her not to go in her fragile post-surgery condition. What is great about this scene–even clever–is how the camera will not give us a view of Heidi’s much-discussed Frankenstein face or even her comically large breasts. We only see her wrists and legs. It is a tantalizing omission.

When Heidi arrives at her home in Crested Butte, CO, the camera continues to play coy. However, we are offered a series of close ups of framed family photos from around her mother’s house: Heidi as a young girl, Heidi with her siblings, etc. Looking at these photographs we are reminded of the Heidi from earlier seasons–a beautiful, fresh-faced girl. Seeing these photos now provokes…I can’t even believe I’m about to write this…nostalgia.

The Heidi of yesteryear

Then Heidi sits down on the couch with her mother, Darlene, and we get our first look at Heidi’s face–tight, swollen and chiseled all at the same time. The best term I can use to describe it is “uncanny”–something which is simultaneously familiar and foreign. A not-Heidi. Her mother nails it on head when she tells her daughter, moments before she breaks down in tears, “It’s very weird, it’s very awkward, I’m sorry…” Darlene recovers a bit and asks Heidi what exactly she had done. Heidi describes her browlift and Darlene asks “Is that permanent? They’re not going to come down a little bit?’ Darlene looks dejected when Heidi informs her that the look is permanent.

Darlene then switches her tone, becoming indignant, even angry, with her daughter: “I just feel like when you left home [for L.A.] you had more confidence and more self-esteem than anyone person I’d ever met.” Heidi begins to talk about how she always felt self-conscious about her chest size but Darlene isn’t buying it:

Darlene “It sounds to me like you want to look like Barbie”

Heidi: [brightening]: “I do wanna look like Barbie.”

Darlene: “Why would you want to look like Barbie? To everybody else that saw you, you were Heidi. No one in the world could have looked like Heidi Montag.”

Heidi “Are you telling me I don’t look good?”

Heidi then breaks down and begins crying real tears (at least she can still do that).

My snark meter was tempted to make some joke–like “Right, no HUMAN could have looked like Heidi Montag”–but I quickly told that snark meter to shut up because I got what Darlene was saying.Her mother’s words–that no one could have looked like Heidi, the Heidi we were just looking at in those family photos–are heart breaking. Heidi sacrificed her individuality–her Heidiness–for some twisted ideal of beauty that only plastic surgery addicts seem to understand.

She looks great–who’s her surgeon?

Later in the episode Heidi goes out to dinner with her family. Her sister, Holly, asks “Don’t you think it’s so weird though? That you were always so outgoing and confident? I was envious of the confidence you had. I don’t know what happened.” When Heidi explains that she started to feel insecure, the following conversation takes place:

Darlene: “I would like to see the choice made to deal with the insecurity on a psychological level.”

Heidi: “And that’s great for you. And you live in the mountains–you don’t live where I live.”

Darlene: “Does that make a difference?”

Heidi: “Of course it does.”

Darlene: “So should you not live in that area?”

Heidi: “I don’t want to get into this.”

This may be the most compelling, the most real conversation I’ve heard yet on The Hills. This young girl, once beautiful and confident, learned to hate herself and her body, after only a few years of living in Los Angeles. Heidi, as she exists now, is almost monstrous. She has become a Heidi-monster. But it’s too late to go back. Heidi begins to weep at the table as she attempts to chew her dinner with a swollen jaw. Her family watches the Heidi-monster in amazement.

This is amazing melodrama, people. Amazing.

Further adding to the emotional complexity of the scene is the fact that the family ia surrounded by The Hills cameras–the very cameras that have followed Heidi around for the last 4 years, scrutinizing her face and body, pointing out her (non-existent) flaws. These cameras are responsible for the Heidi-monster that weeps on the couch and at the dinner table and now they continue to watch her, passively recording the spectacle of her demise. They created her and now they mock her. It’s all so cruel. If I were Darlene I would stand up, grab a wine glass from the dinner table, and smash the camera lens. After all, these cameras stole her daughter. She should be livid.

Little girl lost

I have never before been moved by The Hills. I’ve always viewed it as a piece of pop culture fluff, as a way to discuss how reality television has ceased to record reality. But this particular episode, with its pathos and its melodrama, reminded me about what good reality TV–and good melodrama–can do. Dare I say it, friends? The Hills, at least for one episode, is real.

Window Dressing: Spectacular Costuming in MTV’s THE CITY

I was just getting back into the blogging habit after my end of the semester/holiday sabbatical when, wouldn’t you know it, I gave birth. Right now my days are consumed with feedings, diaper changes, multiple loads of laundry and assuring the 3-year-old that despite all evidence to the contrary, she is still the center of the universe. Blogging is currently not a possibility.

The new pet human

However, I did finish up an article in early January which has just been published at Flow TV , the online journal of television and media studies. So this makes me feel like I’m still blogging even though all I’m doing is wiping poop off of my pet human’s rear end, which is more delightful than it sounds, I assure you. So until I am able to resume a more regular blogging schedule (i.e., when the pet human agrees to sleep for than 1 to 2 hours at a stretch), all I have to offer you is this article on MTV’s The City, “Window Dressing: Spectacular Costuming in MTV’s The City. Please feel free to leave a comment in the comment section and get some dialogue going. Also, big shout out to Devan Goldstein, who came up with the title for this piece. Thanks Devan!

I should add that the current issue of FlowTV is filled with lots of interesting articles — while you’re there, check ‘em out!

Notes on THE HILLS Finale

 

Yet another season of The Hills has drawn to a close and yet the earth still rotates on its axis and the sun still hangs in the sky. Like every Hills episode, the finale was jam-packed with shocking revelations, reversals of fortune and edge of your seat drama. 

I’m just kidding ya’ll! Nothing happened! But I’ve written a recap anyway. Please to enjoy: 

Brody and Jayde: 

Over the course of this season Brody and his on-again/ off-again paramour, Jayde, have endured a series of meaningless fights. I say meaningless because their conflicts are wholly manufactured for the cameras. This is nothing new for The Hills –Spencer and Heidi have turned the fake fight into an art form. The difference with this fake couple, however, is that these fake fights generate palpable discord between Brody and Jayde. Brody, whose emotional range resembles that of a Ken doll, nonetheless appears genuinely annoyed with Jayde whenever he is around her. He seems to loathe her (I too find her asymmetrical eyes vaguely disquieting). So I was not surprised when he decided to end their relationship for good during the finale. 

 

But what surprised me — and it takes a lot for The Hills to surprise me — is that Brody provided the voice of reason in this episode. Witness this conversation between Brody and Jayde at a friend’s engagement party: 

Jayde: It’s weird how they’ve been together for like 2 months and they’re engaged and we’ve been together for a year and a half and we’re not even living together. 

Brody: Yeah well we’re…smart. 

Zing! Now back to the stripper pole for you, dear Jayde. 

I contracted a VD just by downloading this photo.

Lo is an Accessory 

I’m not sure why Lo is still on The Hills. Lo is Lauren Conrad’s friend, her sidekick, her accessory. Seeing her in these episodes is equivalent to having one of Lauren’s handbags enjoying a latte with Audrina. It’s unnatural. And really unfair to the handbag, who is probably very bored hanging out with Audrina. 

Lo, the ballast.

And am I supposed to believe that Lo and Audrina are now BFFs? These two women hated each other last season. And yet here they are in the finale, shopping together at Catherine Malandrino. But Lo is a “monologue catcher” par excellence and the show needs her to balance the lunacy of the other characters. For example, during their shopping trip  Audrina tells Lo about her ludicrous plan to meet with Justin “one last time.” Lo is skeptical — because we’ve already seen this episode, right? — and asks, “But what if you get into the same situation, where he’s in control of the situation?” Great question Lo! Why does Audrina keep returning to Justin for further ego bruising? But Audrina won’t listen and Lo sighs and looks in the mirror — she really would look cute in that mini dress. Time for lattes! 

Audrina Still Thinks The Hills is Real 

Audrina is the one person in America who still believes that the events transpiring in the world of The Hills are real. This did not become fully clear until this season when her earnest reactions to the “drama” unfolding around her stood in stark contrast to the detached, almost robotic actions of her jaded castmates. Audrina is a real life example of The Truman Show. Even Enzo knows The Hills isn’t real and he’s only 6. 

Enzo has to dumb down the conversation so Heidi can understand him.

When Audrina headed to the pier (so dramatic!) to talk to Justin “one last time,” she was genuinely hurt by his nonchalance. He tells her “Maybe you just weren’t the one” but what he should have said was “Audrina, our relationship was last season’s storyline. This season I’m supposed to date Kristin. Didn’t you read the script?” 

No, Justin, Audrina did not read the script. As her big brown eyes fill with tears it is painfully clear that Audrina believes the world she is living in is real. Poor doe-eyed Audrina. 

The couple in happier times...

Speidi is Not Procreating 

Spencer and Heidi function on a different plane from their Hills cast mates. They are the undisputed king and queen of faux reality and they rule their domain with an iron fist. I love, for example, how Heidi runs errands in outfits and make up suitable only for a rock video or walking the corner (a high-class corner). It’s just the grocery store, Heidi, chill out. Take off the stilettos. 

One of ,y favorite staged Speidi photos.

During the finale it is revealed that (BIG SPOILER HERE) Heidi is not pregnant. Of course, as with all Speidi-generated plotlines, the interest lies not in the “what” but the “how.” And this ridiculous plotline yielded some great lines from Spencer: 

On Heidi’s attempts to get pregnant behind his back: “I feel like it’s a sperm kidnapping — straight hijacking sperm.” 

Explaining to the urologist why he wants a vasectomy: “I heard it’s kind of like a faucet where I can turn it off and then turn it back on again if I ever need to. So I’m coming here to turn it off.” 

As the urologist shows him pictures of how a vasectomy is performed: “Oh so you do go punch into the nuts?” 

Brilliant. 

 I Still Miss Lauren 

 Hills finales usually end by providing the viewer with some modicum of “closure” for each of the main cast members’ story arcs and the final scene must always, always go to the heroine. So this season’s finale ends with Kristin deciding that yes, she will date Justin Bobby, despite the fact that he has trouble stringing more than two words together. As the camera tracks backwards from Kristin’s picturesque beach house balcony we see Justin drape his (ugh, dirty!) motorcycle jacket over Kristin’s dainty shoulders. 

That's Audrina's helmet, you bitch!

This image should have filled me with joie de vivre but  all I could think was: where’s Lauren? How does her story arc end? Then I remembered that Lauren was gone. She’s been gone all season. And I began to weep. I feel like the protagonist of Memento who keeps forgetting that his wife is dead and then has to relive the pain of her death over and over. Okay, that may be a bit dramatic but you get the picture. 

 

I miss you Lauren Conrad. And I shall avenge you.

BET’s BALDWIN HILLS: Injecting Race and Class into the Projective Drama

For those of you who are regular readers of this blog (hi Mom!), you may have noticed that my posting has dropped somewhat over the last few weeks. This is due to the mid-semester crunch as well as some other writing deadlines I had to meet.

Picture 1

One of these deadlines was for the wonderful site Flow TV, “a critical forum on television and media culture published by the Department of Radio, Television, and Film at the University of Texas at Austin. Flow’s mission is to provide a space where the public can discuss the changing landscape of contemporary media.”

bh

If you’d like to read my article on BET’s reality show, Baldwin Hills, it went live today and can be accessed through the link below:

BET’s Baldwin Hills: Injecting Race and Class into the Projective Drama