The Real World
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.
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.
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.
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 Italian, whatever, national, whatever their organization is, they don’t understand that ‘guidos’ and ‘guidettes’ are good-looking people that, you know, like to make a scene and be center of attention and just take care of themselves. They are old-fashioned.
They don’t know that; they think it’s offensive, because maybe in their time it was offensive, but now it’s kind of a compliment. So they don’t understand that and that is what we are trying to say. They are way overreacting to the show. We’re 22 to 29 just having fun at the shore. They are just taking it way out of proportion.”
-“Snooki” on The Wendy Williams Show
Back in November I watching an episode of The City when MTV aired an ad for its latest “reality” series, Jersey Shore. The trailer promised to show me the “hottest, tannest, craziest guidos!” As if to make good on that promise, a young man with gelled hair (DJ Pauly D) confesses to the camera “I takes me about 25 minutes to do my hair” while another (Mike, aka, “The Situation”) explains, quite objectively, that he is “ripped up like Rambo.” But when another gentleman (Vinny) appears on-screen, amid a montage of fist pumping ecstasies, it was then that I paused what I watching, went to the DVR recording menu, and selected a season pass for Jersey Shore.
Despite its early low numbers (the premiere averaged just 1.375 million viewers), Jersey Shore‘s ratings have risen steadily since its December 3rd premiere. Bloggers and entertainment reporters speculate that this ratings increase has to do with the various controversies surrounding the program, including 1) the outrage and even violent threats against MTV coming from some Italian American groups over what they say is a stereotypical and offensive portrayal of their community (some companies have already pulled their ads from the program) and 2) the airing (and later the omission) of a scene in which one of the female cast members, Nicole, aka “Snooki,” is sucker punched by a male stranger. While both complaints are worth getting riled up over (i.e., it’s wrong to stereotype people and it’s wrong to exploit violence against women), neither actually applies to Jersey Shore. Here’s why:
1. The Stereotypes
The biggest controversy surrounding Jersey Shore is over its allegedly stereotypical portrayal of Italian American youth. I use the word “allegedly” here because I’m not convinced that the show’s “guidos” are stereotypical Italian Americans. There are currently 16 million Italian Americans living in this country. When I think “Italian American” I do not automatically think of “The Situation.”
Yes, I have met Italian Americans with gelled hair, waxed chests and glossed lips (particularly during my short-lived clubbing days). And yes, these people are frequently given the label “guido.” And yes, in my experience with the term, guido is used in a pejorative manner. People designated as guidos are associated not simply with tanning and muscles (two ostensibly positive traits, depending on your preferences) but also with bad taste, few inhibitions, and low intelligence. Jersey Shore‘s editors seem to support these negative stereotypes by including the following line from 22-year-old Staten Island native, Angelina, who complained about having to work in a T-shirt shop on the boardwalk “I feel like this is beneath me. I’m a bartender. I do great things.” And in the premiere episode Vinny pointed out that “Most people might consider being a guido like you’re stupid but I went to school, graduated college…”
Despite Vinny’s admission that guidos are believed to be stupid, everyone in the house embraces the term, referring to themselves as guidos and guidettes, and expressing a clear preference for dating guidos/guidettes. As Sammi “Sweetheart” explains, “If you’re not a guido then you can get the fuck out of my face!” Lines like these do complicate the idea that these individuals are being portrayed in a negative light. After all, no one is forcing DJ Pauly D into the tanning booth or demanding that Jenni “J-WOWW” wear studded hot pants and fishnet stockings out to the club. These kids are making these choices. And loving every minute of it.
Now I can hear your objections already: “MTV is responsible for this portrayal of Italian Americans because they selected only those cast members who fit the guido stereotypes.” This is true. Except that people like The Situation, J-WOWW and Angelina are less indicative of the guido stereotypes than they are of youth stereotypes in general. Indeed, as Huffington Post columnist Simon Maxwell Apter wrote in a recent piece, “Their persistent claims of ethnic pride notwithstanding, the only ‘ethnic group’ that the Jersey Shore septet really represents is Jersey Shore cast members. Though the cast clearly relishes their shared ethnic background, they use their Italian heritage not as an identity, but instead as a license to develop an orangeish skin tone, use a lot of hair gel, and spend hours lifting weights.”
I agree. In fact, if the cast members of Jersey Shore didn’t have thick Long Island, Staten Island and New Jersey accents, MTV could have easily named the show The Real World: New Jersey. If you have watched any season of MTV’s The Real World since at least 2002 (the year of the infamous Las Vegas season), then you know that MTV generally populates its casts with individuals who:
are incredibly narcissistic
have an inflated sense of self-worth
are not particularly bright or well-informed about current events
prefer to spend every night drinking to excess
enjoy wearing tight, revealing clothing (both sexes)
are extremely horny
abuse self tanners
work out obsessively
get into fist fights whenever possible
Need I go on? What we are seeing on Jersey Shore are not MTV’s exploitation of so-called guidos, but rather, MTV’s exploitation of American youth, something MTV has been doing for years. So if there is going to be outrage over this program, it should be coming from twentysomethings across the county, not just UNICO, the national Italian-American service organization, or the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau.
2. The Punch
Early teasers for Jersey Shore contained footage of Snooki, the diminutive but loud-mouthed house mate, being punched in the face by a large, male stranger at a bar. Teasers are used to lure viewers into watching a program by featuring the season’s most sensational imagery, so it makes sense that MTV would include this footage. However, when the episode, “Fade to Black,” finally aired on December 18th, MTV decided to pull the footage of the punch, replacing it instead with a black screen. MTV issued a statement about this decision:
“What happened to Snooki was a crime and obviously extremely disturbing. After hearing from our viewers, further consulting with experts on the issue of violence, and seeing how the video footage has been taken out of context not to show the severity of this act or resulting consequences, MTV has decided not to air Snooki being physically punched in the face.”
Given that MTV had aired the 5 second clip multiple times in the weeks leading up to the episode, this decision seems strange. Or rather, it makes perfect sense. Realizing that the key to Jersey Shore‘s ratings is controversy, MTV cleverly channeled the outrage over the “punch heard round the shore” into even more free publicity for the program.
Like the exploiteers of old (Kroger Babb, David Friedman, etc.) MTV understands how to work its target audience. Sensationalizing and then censoring the punch footage is a rhetorical strategy rooted in classical ballyhoo. Eric Schaefer defines ballyhoo as “that noisy, vulgar spiel that drew audiences to circuses and sideshows …a hyperbolic excess of words and images that sparked the imagination” (103). Ballyhoo promises its audiences something — an image, an experience, or reaction (“This movie will nauseate you!”) — that it does not necessarily fulfill. Similarly, MTV promised us a punch, but did not deliver. Therefore, they pulled in viewers and still got to look like the good guy. Sort of.
Keep in mind that MTV has aired many sucker punches in the past. In particular, I’m thinking about a sucker punch that took place during a season of The Real World: Austin. In the premiere episode the Austin cast mates go out to a bar and Danny Jamieson is punched in the face. The sucker punch crushed Danny’s eye socket, resulting in blurred vision and requiring surgery. Despite Danny’s rather serious injuries, MTV had no qualms about airing this footage repeatedly — in ads promoting the series and then in recaps throughout the course of the season.
It seems a bit sexist to me that there was outrage over MTV’s (almost) airing of Snooki’s punch but not over Danny’s punch. Now, I understand that Snooki is a small woman and Danny is a strapping young man. But both were sucker punched, meaning both were completely defenseless when they were hit. And Danny sustained far more serious injuries — those who watched the Austin season may recall that Danny’s face was disfigured throughout the duration of the season. If there is any outrage here, it should be over MTV’s exploitation of violence. It is wrong to sucker punch anyone, whether they are male or female, big or small. Furthermore, Snooki and Danny were assaulted precisely because they were on MTV reality programs (for some reason the presence of the MTV camera crew throws bar patrons into an uncontrollable rage) and MTV then reaped the rewards of that unmotivated violence by exploiting it in ads. This is the true outrage of this situation.
Just in case my comments might be misread, let me make this clear: domestic violence against women is a serious issue. But Snooki’s punch is not an example of domestic violence nor is it an issue of violence against women. Snooki’s punch, like Danny’s, boils down, not to gender, but to the exploitative, circus-like climate created and nurtured by MTV and its film crews. By omitting the footage of Snooki’s punch MTV wants to look like the hero, but they are a primary culprit (along with the two douchebags who did the punching, of course. Big, big douchebags).
Therefore my friends, if you are watching and enjoying Jersey Shore, don’t feel like you are implicitly supporting ethnic stereotyping or violence against women. Instead you are supporting the stereotyping of youth culture and the violence that results when these youth are given too much alcohol, self tanner, body glitter and a barrage of cameras. Oh wait. That’s not good either, is it?
A few months ago I was having a conversation with my brother and made a reference to Survivor, one of the first television programs to merge the conventions of reality television with those of the games how. “You’re STILL watching Survivor?” he asked, clearly incredulous. Though most of my other reality TV affairs have come and gone (America’s Next Top Model, Hell’s Kitchen, The Bachelor), I still find myself tuning into Survivor each season.
The success of so many reality shows today are fueled by our enjoyment of the schadenfreude that comes from knowing that we would most certainly never defecate on the floor in front of a group of people while wearing a formal gown (no matter how badly we had to go) or puke into our hands at the dinner table, the way contestants on the dating shows Flavor of Love and Rock of Love , respectively, have done. That’s because in these and in other shows (Nanny 911, The Real World, Bad Girls Club, to name just a few) the viewer is positioned above the cast member. Producers are banking on our elitism and disdain.
Likewise, shows such as So You Think You Can Dance , Project Runway and Top Chef, position the viewers below the cast members. With these shows we lift our eyes to marvel and envy the innate and cultivated talents of the contestants, knowing that we could never achieve that same level of skill. As one Top Chef contestant, Dale, put it a few seasons ago, “You sit on the couch watching the show and be like [sic] ‘Oh I could do that shit.’ Um, well you know what? Most of you? You can’t. ‘Cause it’s really fucking hard.” Dale may not win a spot on the newest season of America’s Next Top Grammarian but he does make a good point. The average viewer cannot whip up an artful amuse bouche in 5 minutes using only items pillaged from a convenience store. But the great thing about Survivor is that it showcases ordinary people — people just like you and me — pushing themselves to do extraordinary things.
Here are a few other reasons why I tune in season after season:
1. The Man
Jeff Probst is, in my opinion, the best game show host of all time. His detailed play by play commentaries during reward and immunity challenges are always informative and often funny. And during tribal council he has the uncanny ability to ask exactly the questions we were hoping he’d ask. He can put contestants on the spot — by challenging their circuitous logic or by bringing up an issue he knows they do not want to address — and somehow not come off as exploitative or mean-spirited. Probst IS Survivor.
2. The Premise
After 19 seasons, Survivor is still great because it is built on a brilliant premise: take a group of average Americans (with the occasional super-athlete or former member of the military occasionally tossed in) and put them on a desert island for 39 days. Require these people, many of whom have never even been camping, to build their own shelter and forage for their own food (sometimes the show’s producers give them rice and beans to start the game and sometimes they don’t even give them flint to make fire). When the contestants weak from hunger, thirst and lack of sleep, force them to compete in grueling physical challenges. And the amazing thing? Even with all of this to worry about, when their legs are covered in rashes and spider bites and their clothes are brown and brittle, these people still find ways to strategize, strategize, strategize.
3. The Hunger
Watching a video of a malnourished family compete for their dinner would be horrifying and even sickening. But watching people who have chosen to place themselves in extreme living conditions compete for their dinner is completely engrossing. I love watching a prim Southern belle eat grubs from under a rock for “protein” or a large, muscled man make do with a few bites of rice. Nothing will match the joy I felt back in season two when Elisabeth Hasselbeck (then known as Elizabeth Filarski) pulled out a clump of her own hair, a side effect of malnutrition. “She really is starving!” I said to myself with glee. This is sick, I know.
4. The Challenges
The reward and immunity challenges alternate between physical and mental competitions, but they are always difficult and intricate. Contestants have to dig holes and shimmy through them, dive under water to unlock treasure chests, assemble puzzle pieces to build ladders. Even the simplest challenges — such as having contestants perch on top of a tiny ledge to see who can stay there the longest — are endlessly fascinating.
True there have been some weak seasons (Survivor: Palau) and weak premises (breaking down the tribes by race?) but on the whole Survivor remains a consistently satisfying reality TV powerhouse. So while the premiere of Survivor: Samoa was down 22% from last year, I for one will continue to watch.