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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Since the earliest days of moving pictures the cinema screen has functioned, whether intentionally or not, as a department store window. In his essay “Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window,” Charles Eckert writes:
The short dramas and comedies of the first decade of this century, especially those that pictured the contemporary lifestyles of the middle and upper classes, presented innumerable opportunities for product and brand name tie-ins. But more than this, they functioned as living display windows for all that they contained; windows that were occupied by marvelous mannequins and swathed in a fetish-inducing ambiance of music and emotion. (103)
This tradition continues on with television. Hordes of young women (this author included) got the “Rachel” haircut in the mid-1990s in order to emulate the famous tresses of Jennifer Aniston’s character on Friends. And, as Elizabeth Affuso has discussed, MTV programs like The Hills offer a “comprehensive lifestyle brand for viewers.” However, viewers need not speculate about where the girls are buying their clothes or enjoying their cocktails. Affuso explains that “the show enables participation by labeling all of its locations onscreen, so viewers can easily tell where the women are eating, shopping, or partying, providing all the information necessary to replicate this experience if desired.” MTV has a vested interest in identifying these spaces of consumption since it has corporate partnerships with entities like Teen Vogue, Bolthouse Productions, and Epic Records, all of which are featured on the show in some form. Clever indeed.
The City partakes in this tradition, though I would argue that the show functions less as a commercial for specific clothing items, musical groups and eateries than it does as a “look book” of contemporary fashions, as a style to model. As many have noted, Whitney Port, the “star” of The City is a dull heroine (this is not a criticism, by the way — in the world of reality TV the “boring” characters are usually the most normal, mentally-stable characters). As a result, the plotlines on the show are fairly dull as well. I never felt invested in Whitney’s romantic entanglements — they feel even more forced than those on The Hills (which is really saying something). For example, in the premiere episode of Season 2, Roxy Olin, a new addition to the cast who really really wants us to think of her as “the bitch” asks to crash at Whitney’s apartment until she gets her bearings in NYC. See, Roxy doesn’t know anyone in the city. Yet, miraculously, Roxy is able to throw a massive party in Whitney’s apartment a few days later. Huh? And when Whitney returns home to see the mass of revelers in her apartment she can barely suppress her smirk as she “reprimands” Roxy. Didn’t Roxy remember that Whitney was recently issued a citation for having her music up too loud? That she capped the guest list at 10 people? Oh, Roxy remembered all right — so did the show’s writers. It’s like they’re not even trying anymore.
That’s why the real allure of The City is its aesthetics. It is fashion pornography. Scenes in The City frequently open with establishing shots of decadent decors and expensive consumer items, generating desire on the part of the viewer. The difference, however, between The Hills and The City, is that the latter blatantly fetishizes fashion as opposed to commodities in general. Fashion calls attention to itself — when Whitney and Olivia are choosing the right “look” for Jessica Alba’s Elle cover shoot or when one character calls attention to another’s fashion choices. In this week’s episode Kelly Cutrone points out that Whitney looks great in her outfit (and she does).
One of my favorite fashion fetish moments came in the last shot of the Season 1 finale, dramatically titled “I Lost Myself in Us,” just after Whitney decides to end her fake relationship with her fake boyfriend Jay Lyon. As she enters the doors of Diane von Fürstenberg’s store, a visual rendering of her decision to choose a career over love, we are given a close up of her purple, high heeled booties. It is significant that we do not see Whitney’s face here — what is most important are these shoes, rather than Whitney’s emotional state. This moment seems to be saying, who needs a man when you can wear these fabulous purple booties? Hell, I might leave my husband for those booties…
Of course, there is some fashion on the show that confuses me. First, there’s Kelly Cutrone, founder of People’s Revolution, which is not an actual revolution of the people, but a PR firm. Because a lot of Kelly’s job entails producing fashion shows and fashion shoots one can assume that she spends her days surrounded by beautiful pieces of couture, stylish models, and some of the most talented hair and make up people in New York. And yet, Kelly looks like shit. Come on, people, you know it’s true. I get that Kelly must wear black every day to match her coal black heart, but must she wear shapeless black crew neck shirts? And would it kill her to brush her hair? Or put on some blush? To go out into the sunlight? Has anyone told Kelly that she’s on TV? A lot?
And then there’s Olivia Palermo, “noted socialite” and daughter of real estate developer Douglas Palermo. Olivia is filthy rich and unsuprisingly, a horrible bitch. And according to her wikipedia entry, Olivia is “noted for her sense of style.” Wha??? Methinks Ms. Palermo is penning her own wikipedia entries.
I can almost forgive Kelly for looking like shit because clearly, Kelly doesn’t give a damn. But Olivia? Olivia cares very deeply about her appearance. This is evident in her 10 plus layers of make up and her carefully curled hair. That is exactly how I would do my hair and make up … when I was 13.
And then there’s her clothes. I have seen photos of Olivia online in which she actually dresses like a stylish woman in her early 20s. But on The City Olivia dresses like one of those “real housewives” from Bravo. Blazers, costume jewelry and SO MUCH BLUSH. Blech. Don’t get me wrong, Olivia would look stunning in a paper sack — she is a beautiful young girl. But I am mystified by the fact that she works in the world of cutting edge fashion but dresses like the old yentas at the country club. Someone get this woman her gimlet!
So, what do you think? Is Olivia’s “sense of style” just way too hip for provincial old me? Will she and Roxy end up mud wrestling in the season finale? Is Kelly Cutrone actually a vampire (the non-sparkling kind)? Discuss…
Affuso, Elizabeth. “ ‘Don’t just watch it, live it’ — technology, corporate partnerships and The Hills.” Jump Cut 51. http://www.ejumpcut.org.
Eckert, Charles. “Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window.” Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. Eds. Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog. New York: Routledge, 1990. 100-121.