Sunday, November 29, 2009

Voyeurism, Violence, and Virtual Reality, or: Is Reality TV Our Gladiator Games?

This week I came across an excellent article over at Slate about Bill Hayes, the producer behind Jon and Kate Plus Eight and other reality TV shows about big families on TLC. It reminded me that about six months ago I wrote up an extensive post about the ethics of reality television and submitted it, without success, for publication on an entertainment blog. I forgot about it all this time, but in the midst of the ongoing extraordinary popularity of reality shows, I thought I might go ahead and post it now in this venue. There are clear resonances with my piece (written just two months later) on film and the ethics of cinematic violence, so I thought it might be of interest in light of that conversation. I've left the text below mostly unedited, so forgive the now-outdated references to what was happening at the moment.

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Reality television has never appealed to me. In the pre-fad days when it merely consisted of MTV's Road Rules or The Real World -- when I would have been the target audience! -- I couldn't have cared less, and the onset of Survivor and the now-decade long ensuing stream of imitations and incarnations of every imaginable sort of "reality TV" did nothing to change my interest.

But reality TV is more popular than ever. One of the hallmark lessons of the actors strike last year was that the networks could keep making money off of their continually (and sometimes most) profitable shows -- which, of course, were unscripted. Not much of a leverage tool for actors when you realize you're not really all that necessary for profit.

And so the 2000s have been the Decade of Reality. Survivor, Big Brother, The Amazing Race, The Real World, The Osbournes, The Anna Nicole Show, The Simple Life, Miami Ink, The Girls Next Door, Little People Big World, Jon and Kate Plus Eight, America's Next Top Model, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Then of course you have the biggest gun of all, American Idol, which is a beast unto itself.

I only have experience with one reality show: Jon and Kate Plus Eight. Last summer, after moving to Atlanta, in the midst of finding a church home and searching for jobs, my wife and I watched a lot of television: we finished The Wire, went through all six seasons of The Sopranos, and watched the first season of Mad Men. Lots of time, lots of TV. And Katelin ended up discovering Jon and Kate, and fell in love. I resisted for a while but finally gave in to watching it when she had it on. The kids were cute, it was fascinating to see them grow as a family, and it was nuts to imagine having eight children under 3 years old before turning 30. A great concept.

We would get into discussions here and there about the way Jon and Kate treated each other, or especially (for me) about the ethics of having cameras in your house in the centrally formative years of your children, but for the most part, it became a bit of a weekly staple in the East home. And so much for the better.

Fast forward to the last couple months, where Jon and Kate Gosselin -- mostly frumpy, normal people who happened to have twins then sextuplets, living somewhere in New England -- adorn the covers of every single gossip rag and tabloid in publication. They are the center of a firestorm of accusations about infidelity, poor parenting, flaking out, etc. They've become "controversial," "hot topic," "celebrities." Us Weekly is analyzing Kate's awkward haircut, for God's sake.

Somehow, a popular TV show that wasn't in existence two years ago has so transformed the lives of an ordinary married couple -- who, by the way, have traveled around the country and spoken to churches about God's presence and blessing in the midst of their impossibly stressful situation -- that anything is in play in the next six months. They might divorce, they might move out of their new million-dollar home, they might have open affairs with significant others.

But one thing they won't do: Cancel the show.


Bill Simmons, ESPN Page 2's Sports Guy, loves reality TV. One of his all-time favorites is MTV's The Real World, and any iteration or offshoot like Real World-Road Rules Challenge or The Duel. He refers to them constantly in his columns and regularly discusses them in his podcasts with friends like JackO and Dave Jacoby.

What Simmons is famous for is finding and reveling in the unintentional comedy of idiots and blowhards who make a fool of themselves or who are so ridiculous, absurd, or over-the-top in their insanity or wrongness of what they do or say that it is hilarious to viewers. The best example is probably that of Corey Feldman singing on Valentine's Day, apparently in utter seriousness and for all the world to see, to his wife on the VH1 show The Two Coreys. The man is truly making a fool out of himself, but damn if it isn't drop-dead funny for us to watch.

The only real possibility for something that is profoundly uncomfortable, devastatingly sad, or even wrong to step over the line from "able to be enjoyed by viewers whatever is said or done" to "probably shouldn't be laughed at or enjoyed" is, as far as I can tell, serious physical injury (putting someone in a hospital, losing an essential limb, rape) or death. Anything and everything before and up to that point is fair game, not only because it wouldn't transgress the serious-physical-detriment boundary, but precisely because these people choose to be on these shows. They know the stakes, they know the rules, they know the game. Usually they are well paid. In a sense -- more than that, in reality -- they are a kind of performer, choosing to be broadcast before the world, snafus and peccadilloes and all, as and for nothing more or less than our entertainment.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who watch reality TV.


I have no interest in lecturing, belittling, or moralizing Bill Simmons. He is not the issue. He does, however, represent well the broad swath of reality TV viewership across America. To that extent, I want briefly to take a look at the combination of the picture I have painted of the situation combined with the type of viewer Simmons represents, and then to wonder what the witness of the church might be in response.

Essentially, reality TV is about voyeurism. To some extent, all forms of storytelling, fictional or otherwise, are or have the potential to be voyeuristic, in the sense that we get a thrill from stepping into someone else's shoes and, through their noteworthy experiences (remember, we don't read people who are inactive: their lives are full of salacious and gripping action ours rarely see), experiencing for ourselves things we almost certainly would not ask or expect otherwise but are, without a doubt, exceptional and exciting. But storytelling needn't inevitably be voyeuristic; we may, through a book, poem, movie, or song, imaginatively see an exotic place, or hunt a criminal, or feel the guilt of a thief, without doing it for the sake of "being" someone else, much less looking down on other forms of life.

The point, regardless, is that art is a healthy cultural way of exploring life through others' eyes. Similarly, nonfiction art -- whether portrait, history, poetry, biography, or documentary -- does the same, and through the power of imagination, but by a different route: the historically concrete lives of real human beings. (Not uncreated; only not humanly created.)

Where, in this vista of human artistic expression, exquisitely viable and always praiseworthy when in done in humane and truthful ways, does the modern show called "reality TV" properly fit?

That, to me, ought to be the central, grounding, pressing question for all who care about American culture, healthy television, and especially the Christian witness vis-a-vis both.


If it has become part and parcel of the practice of watching reality TV, that serious damage may be inflicted by or upon participants, and/or that participants will be laughed at or cheered on in acts that in any other situation viewers would neither join nor applaud, then the medium itself has signaled the end of any legitimate ethical justification for conscientious viewership. There is more to human life than the financial profit of participants or producers; than the supposedly free choice of persons captured by cameras for others' enjoyment; than the mere physical survival of people profoundly and lastingly damaged in ways not limited to the emotional, relational, and spiritual. There is nothing legitimate about sitting in the comfort of an air-conditioned home and watching, by virtue of a screen which projects moving images, human beings say and do things that are stupid, nonsensical, hurtful, painful, wrong, insulting, or controversial.


This is a practice that destroys the lives of those in front of the cameras and profits those behind them. It is a practice that, perhaps in a less obvious but certainly no less serious way, destroys the lives of those sitting on the other end of these moving images and laughing at them or discussing them the next day at work, because it both leads us to think of the screen-images as something other than human beings and draws us into a way of thinking where what we would never do or teach or approve of others doing becomes the appropriate object of our laughter and entertainment. We are happy to discuss these people's lives and choices as if they would not in any other case make us not only feel pity but worry about the tragic consequences (not least suicide). Perhaps we berate the stupidity or immorality of their decisions ... but we're still watching.

In this sort of watching, we are transformed from human beings created for relationship, for welcoming community, into subhuman automatons laugh-tracking at the pratfalls of those whom we have lost the ability to see as fundamentally the same as ourselves -- that is, we have forgotten that these people are our neighbors.

As should be clear by now, I believe this arrangement is wrong, and therefore that it ought to stop. If not from the television side (they've got all that money to make and all those people to exploit), then from the viewer side -- particularly on the part of Christians.

But we have our blinders on. We remember the Romans' lustily cheering on the leonine dismemberment of slaves or the brutal, bloody battling of the warriors to the death, and we scoff at their barbarism. But reality TV is our gladiator games, each living room our family-made coliseum. We cheer and applaud as young, immature, ignorant, and foolish people self-destruct until they hit bottom, lash out against the cruelty of the world, participate in the same self-serving demise that is our own -- and we don't have a second thought. It's all in good fun. They're getting paid. Everyone has a choice. It's funny. Don't take things so seriously.

And one more college co-ed gets fed to the lions.

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