June 1, 2009

What’s Really Real about Reality TV…and the Human Condition

Within the last couple of years I wrote a piece about what was wrong with Supernanny and Wife Swap reality shows. Jon & Kate Plus 8 and even Little People, Big World have the same problem—children on these programs have no choice but to participate and have to live with any of the negative consequences in the future. Age and maturity makes them incapable of freely making the decision whether or not to participate, and they become a meal-ticket to their family’s financial liquidity. We know this is true, because for most of these programs, no children = no show. But what is very apparent is that the parents and producers and advertisers and viewers are each involved in this exploitive culture that rejects the dignity of our most vulnerable people--our children.

What we have always known and failed to admit is that there is nothing real at all about reality television. Watch one episode of the Kardashian’s, you will understand what I mean. But because this is the case, we have also avoided taking the lives of the people involved very seriously at any level. Hence, the children suffer.

An end goal of reality programming is to put on display the only thing that can be called real—the sinful human condition—so that viewers can sit back and say “I’m not that bad” or “thank goodness my kids aren’t that screwed up” or “look at that moron, what an idiot.” To take it a step further, our own depravity causes us to not see ourselves but to find humor or disgust with the failures and weaknesses of others. Susan Boyle surprised us with her artistry because our superficial sense of beauty believes no high caliber of talent could come from someone that didn’t meet our cover-girl expectations of beauty. In some sense, Susan Boyle’s story says more about us than it does about her, I’m afraid. The Apprentice was another program where we saw the human condition portrayed as it manifests in the world of business. Whatever it took to get the job done and win the task--that was the goal. Deceit was often the ploy utilized to win, no matter the cost. American Idol--how often have you heard someone say, “I only watch the first few weeks of the show so I can see the goofballs they allow on camera to embarrass themselves.” It is not just children who are being exploited by these programs, and it isn’t just the producers who are doing the exploiting. I find it difficult to hold Jon and Kate entirely responsible when the directionality of culture has indicated that this sort of programming is not only acceptable, but voyeurism is as well.

One reality show that peaked my curiosity but failed, nevertheless, was True Beauty. As a show, it utilized some sort of aesthetic calculus to determine the outward beauty of the show’s contestants. But the show also recognized that there was a “true beauty” that had nothing to do with appearance. From my perspective, the show was an utter failure because even though it recognized there was something greater than outward appearances, it still elevated physical beauty over what is ultimately good, failing to appreciate the depravity of all humankind.

As I hear the cable news reporters debate the situation with Jon and Kate and question the role of child labor laws taking effect in their particular situation, I wish that they would identify the problem of reality television as a whole and see that Jon and Kate, to some extent, are victims of a culture that is energized by human sin and weakness. Whether we are watching Wipe Out and laughing ourselves off the couch when someone is punched in the face over the mud pit, watching American Idol and asking ourselves who told them they could sing, or watching SuperNanny and believing that we are obviously much better parents than those on the show, we need to see that the problem with reality television is probably mostly with those who are willing to watch. Shows like these are on the air because advertisers are convinced this is what we want to be--voyeurs. It is our deepest insecurities that make us need to watch these shows, because our culture also believes that a high level of self-esteem is a priority. We feel pretty good about ourselves as we watch the misery of celebrity and dysfunctional families. It is our human condition, the reality of sin, that causes us not only to produce these programs, but to be entertained by this condition at the very same time.

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