I have an addiction to something that most of my friends consider filth and trash. In the last decade it’s become both ubiquitous and hotly disdained. It’s widely hailed as the epitome of everything that is wrong with contemporary life. And yet I cannot stop consuming it.
I have a reality TV addiction.
As a PhD whose work focuses on popular culture, I have spent a lot of time thinking about high and low culture, about how we become cultivated as informed citizens, and about the production of quality (which often means non-corporate-made) art, music, and literature. So, after establishing that American popular culture offers us a constellation of empty symbols that we readily buy into, effectively turning us into passive blobs of goop, I happily go home and turn my DVR to Botoxed women drunkenly yelling about in Beverly Hills.
It’s been one too many times now where a roommate has walked into the living room and I’ve had to change the channel out of fear for being respected less. But I have anxieties and guilt watching reality TV because I know that there are good reasons to dislike reality television, also referred to in the industry as “constructed reality” programs. For one thing, these shows are obviously not really ‘real’ but are only fictionalized and highly controlled representations of reality. There are writers who come up with plot lines and even scripts for these shows–and a major issue, by the way, is that they are not unionized or given credit for their work. To further diminish the likelihood of these shows representing ‘reality’ is the fact that producers and cameramen are always present during filming, inevitably altering the behavior of reality program participants.
Secondly, because reality programming is relatively cheap and easy to make, it’s been run rampant as a concept. Every channel now has an overwhelming amount of reality programs taking up airtime—from trade-in shows like Pawn Stars, to shows about quirky subcultures like Duck Dynasty, Jersey Shore, or MTV’s new Buckwild, to reality shows surrounding crafts like tattooing or motorcycle mechanics, to the entirely creepy shows involving the swapping of wives. Many would support the claim that reality television has inched out and made it difficult for more thoughtfully crafted shows to return to the air.
Another reason we like to bash reality shows is the content—mostly about wealthy, plastic-faced women who like to fight over seemingly trivial things, finding ways to occupy their painfully pampered existences. There really are quite a few shows that fit this category: the entire Real Housewives franchise, including Miami, Beverly Hills, Orange County, New York, and New Jersey; Basketball Wives NY and LA; Big Rich Texas; Keeping Up with the Kardashians; Shahs of Sunset; MTV’s My Sweet 16.
And yet despite all of these things I’m drawn to this particular genre. Not in the sense that I admire these characters necessarily. I’m interested in much of these things from a critical standpoint: the concern with improving one’s looks above any other sorts of ideas or accomplishments; the frivolous spending and one-upping. The plastic surgery and hyper consumption. The focus on fabricated dramas.
But because I have such a hard time explaining to peers what it is that draws me to these shows, I’m going to make it a regular cognitive exercise to offer synopses and critical insights about these shows. I don’t know what these insights actually are just yet, but we will see if I can actually make a case for my sick and twisted habit. If just one person tells me I’m on to something, then, damnit, I’ll take it.
Each week, I digest some of the ‘reality television’ that I’m told is rotting my brain as part of entirely selfish efforts to make myself feel better. Yaaaay! Okay, donkey booties, here we go.
REAL HOUSEWIVES OF ATLANTA
Clearly, the highlight of this season is newcomer Kenya–a gorgeous yet ferocious former Miss USA who unfortunately has been fed the stereotypes that fuel every female character ever played in a Judd Apatow production. You see, Kenya is clearly freaking out about getting older. Her biological clock is ticking, ticking, ticking… and this woman is damn nearing a massive explosion. Kenya is the 40-year-old single woman who is desperate to get married and have children, and does not seem to care who’s going to marry her as long as he will just do it. In the last few episodes we see her increasingly place pressure on her boyfriend Walter, leading him to draw further away and finally culminating in a breakup in the last episode. She’s also straight-up abrasive, and seems to be the instigator of nearly every argument this season.
But the absolute most beautiful gem this season are the last two episodes, which focus on a dispute between two of the ladies over the production of a workout video—a ‘donkey butt’ workout video. [The highest rated definition for ‘donkey butt’ in Urban Dictionary is “where a chicks ass wheighs more than her body” (sic).]
Phaedra and her husband Apollo (a fitness enthusiast who Kenya has been licking her lips over since she first saw him) planned to make the video and had some meetings with Kenya and her production company. When Kenya claimed that the video would cost an outrageous $100,000 to produce, the deal went sour. And in the last episode, we see that Kenya, in an obvious move of pure vengeance, is now starting her own “stallion booty” workout video.
The episodes are worth watching simply to observe these women engage in a litany of rumors, arguments, and venomous insults and claims about the shape and size of each others’ behinds (“her backside is lumpier than a batch of bad gravy”… “you could sit a dinner plate on it”… “things fall into weird places…”). Best are the semantic insights offered by all the other ladies over the word choices of “donkey” versus “stallion.”
REAL HOUSEWIVES OF BEVERLY HILLS
This season’s leading ladies: Lisa Vanderpump, Brandi Glanville, Yolanda Foster, Kyle Richards, Taylor Armstrong, and Adrienne Maloof
Taylor deals with the aftermath of her husband’s suicide, which happened shortly after last season aired, which left her with millions in debt and lawsuits to deal with. That tale in and of itself is a fascinating one, one that forces consideration of the overwhelming pressure placed on people in the public eye (KONY 2012 anyone?). And while many like to point out the contrition of reality programs, those series of events could not have been more real. The show cannot be blamed for causing his suicide, but the publicity of his apparently mounting financial problems and the public revelation of his evident physical abuse of Taylor undoubtedly worsened tensions that were already there.
But the centerpiece this season is the massive fallout that ensues over the past three episodes when Brandy reveals a secret of Adrienne’s that is so enormous that it sends everyone into a frenzy. The oddest thing is that Brandy’s claims are repeatedly censured, and for several episodes the viewer has no idea what all of this drama is about. (I thought this was reality TV goddamnit! Let’s see what’s really going on!). It turns out that Bravo could not air Brandy’s comments due to legal concerns and legal threats from the Maloof camp. But, in the last episode (and unless you did some online research beforehand, as some leaked the news), we find out that Brandy’s big claim is that Adrienne’s children were accomplished via a surrogate.
Before the last episode, I could not understand why news of a surrogate was so damaging to Adrienne. I thought, why not simply admit she’s having a surrogate? I wondered if she had tried to fool everyone, Beyoncé-style, by wearing a prosthetic pregnant belly. But we find out in the last episode that Adrienne wanted to delay explaining the truth to her twin boys until they were ten years old, at the request of their therapist, to avoid confusion and negative reactions. It’s great that Adrienne and Paul Maloof wanted to save their children from the embarrassment, shame, ridicule, confusion, and unnecessary publicity that comes with such a revelation. But then, if that’s the case, then why would they have agreed to be on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, where gossip, lies, and feuds are par for the course, and of which their children will be reminded of for the rest of their lives?
There is a new housewife on the show this season who is increasingly featured in recent episodes. Her name is Marissa and she’s an actress.
We finally meet her husband, an indie film producer (although she wants him to do ‘big studio pictures that will pay a lot of money’). There are several instances in the episode where this woman makes it clear that she is NOT into her husband whatsoever. At dinner with Brandy, right in front of his face, she say’s he’s not her type at all; later in the episode, she goes on to Taylor about how she married him too young and never got a chance to party. Poor, poor guy. This woman reminds me of last season’s failed experiment with Dana Wilkey, the woman who was so intent on displaying some appearance of wealth that she once repeatedly boasted about her $25,000 sunglasses. And to top herself, she later debuted an allegedly million-dollar diamond encrusted lollipop holder. Dana Wilkey was incredible… literally. It was just difficult to believe that any part of her wasn’t playing it up for the cameras. Think about it: she was so fake that she could not pass the muster to become a housewife. And though I don’t care to look up her name, this new tryout seems more honest—cruelly so, in fact. And she’s certainly crazy enough to be kept on for a few more episodes.
The episode is also worth watching for Paris Hilton’s cameo midway—oddly enough, on the show, Paris seems acutely aware of the cameras yet tries her hardest to not look at them. She is quite shy and coy, in fact.
But there are a couple of minutes where she tells her aunt, housewife Kyle Richards, about her “first concert.”
She is referring to her DJ debut at a festival in Sao Palo, Brazil (she explained to her aunt, “Yah.. there’s going to be like, 30,000 people there..”). The whole performance can be summed up really by this picture.
Who knew two people could be united in some cosmic way without either of their full knowledge?
This is Tyler.
In this episode, Tyler meets “Amanda Miller,” the cheerleader-like blonde girl he has allegedly been in love with and talking to every day for several months. But instead of the young bubbly girl that has occupied his thoughts all this time, Tyler finds himself standing in front of Aaron—an awkward, spectacled, black gay teenager.
During the confrontation (which, like most those in most of the Catfish episodes I’ve seen, are oddly non-confrontational), Aaron reveals that he spoke to probably over 100 men. While very little was said, it’s clear that Aaron was painfully nervous as his mouth continuously wrythed in odd circular shapes. Neve asks Aaron if he would rather be a straight girl than a gay man, and he says yes.
Tyler felt deceived. As he looked at Aaron, clearly upset though still collected, one can’t help but consider the fact that these two individuals are clearly from very different social worlds and would never have interacted with each other under any different circumstances. I could not help but look at these two and imagine Aaron typing to Tyler “I want your sexy abs,” while Tyler is on the other end imagining he’s talking to Amanda Miller, who does not actually exist.
Later, we learn that Aaron’s closest friends did not know about his fake profiles and compulsive lies. In fact, Aaron was expelled from school for posing as Amanda Miller to his RA before he had moved into the dorms. He could not offer any explanation for his compellation to engage in parasocial relationships pretending to be another person for seven years.
The episode concludes with Tyler telling Aaron to move beyond his comfort zone. Then, I kid you not, all of the sudden, everyone is sitting in the grass amidst sunshine, marveling at a turtle amidst uplifting music, as Aaron vows to start from a new point in his life, as the true honest version of himself. I will leave you with Aaron’s joyous epiphany: “For seven years I was two people. Today I became one.”
SHAHS OF SUNSET
I have to say, I love this show. It’s about an inexplicably wealthy but animated and often endearing group of young Persians living in Los Angeles who drink, fight, and constantly disappoint their parents with lifestyle decisions.
The highlight of the last episode is Asa, self-proclaimed “Persian Pop Princess”, who is starting a new business selling the best water ever made on the planet (can the best water be manufactured? I hope not). You see, Asa wants to create diamond-infused water, because she believes that their “vibrational energy is the original energy of the creation of the world.”
We then watch her walk through her new water plant with a $75,000 diamond she just purchased, where she performs some magical sorcerer gypsy love spells to bless the water and make it infused with happy thoughts.
One might watch her caressing and kissing a metal vat in a sterilized warehouse and wonder, is this an expression of genuine spiritualism or spirited delusion? I mean, really, diamonds? I’m not surprised that this gem is the one that supposedly harbors the energy of the universe, seeing as it’s the most expensive one out there. Diamonds are the epitome of our culture’s unnecessary emphasis on material items. Confining us to disturbingly narrow images of femininity and success, diamonds seem to offer the furthest things from spiritual fulfillment. It’s everywhere, really, but as we can see in this week’s Slate advice column, somehow it’s still a norm to believe the bigger the diamond, the better the fiancé. (And goodness knows if someone can even make an engagement ring without a diamond on it!) I also hope that the diamond, which Asa supposedly got a great deal on because the guy who sold it to her went to her high school, does not originate from a conflict-ridden territory. That wouldn’t be great energy for Asa’s water, now would it?
Asa also makes me wonder if there is an exoticized culture out there that she has not mined and caricatured into her wardrobe.
REALITY TV CRUISES are now officially a trend. There was a RuPaul’s Drag Race cruise and now there is a Top Chef cruise on Celebrity Cruise Lines. So does that mean that these are really lucrative? Do people really want to shell out over $1,000 just to be around semi-famous reality show contestants for a few days?