I love reality TV. There, I said it. I shamelessly love to keep up with Kardashians. I love TOWIE and Toddlers and Tiaras and Lizard Lick Towing.
I love that these programmes drop us into another reality – be it the reality of Made In Chelsea (an apparently self-contained universe drenched in the ‘Lark’ instagram filter, where beautiful people pass their time in beautiful places talking about other beautiful people), or the reality of Geordie Shore (similar to that of MIC, but here everyone is called Gaz or Baz, rather than Binky or Bunty, and gets drunk less politely). The point where these “realities” break from our own, or whether they are any sort of reality at all, is blurred. This is the trashy, addictive joy of reality TV.
However – this also creates a strangely unsettling side to reality TV.
Reality TV is at its most alarming when it jolts abruptly into the harsh real world. A disturbing example is TLC’s cancellation of The Honey Boo Boo Show. This followed the allegation that Mama June had moved in with her former partner, convicted of child sex offences. While disturbing in itself, the unpalatable nature of this is heightened by its disparity with the family’s TV persona: loving, fun, heart-warming. The audience knows that this is acted in front of the cameras, constructed by the editor’s cuts, but it shocks us that the lives of the people on the screen can deviate so sharply from the script.
Jean Baudrillard, postmodern sociologist and philosopher, would argue that the shock that comes from reality TV bursting into our world is due to “hyperreality”. This is the state where we can no longer tell the difference between the real and the fake. He argues the images on our TV screens are bear no resemblance to any kind of reality – they are a reflection of a reflection, completely unattached to the real – yet we take them to be as real as the sofa we are sitting on.
Baudrillard wrote in the ‘90s, before Big Brother and the later explosion of “constructed reality” shows – before we all began to heighten hyperreality by creating stylised online versions of ourselves through our tweets and reblogs. Before, therefore, the audience became ironically aware that the supposedly ‘real’ people we watch on screen are in fact self-conscious performances of themselves. According to him, “hyperreality” is a harmful state. For example, he argues that it prevents political action – after all, if we can’t tell what is real, how can we act to change it?
Yet reality TV is also alarming when it stops masquerading as an unreal “reality”, as Ana Bauer points out in her piece on The Bling Ring. Here, hyperreality bursts not into our world, but becomes truly fictional. When the characters and narratives are based on footage of real events manipulated by editors, the audience remains detached. We know we are watching a fairground mirror version of life. However, when they transform into characters in the traditional sense, the way the audience interacts with them becomes a grey area. We know they are born of their author’s imagination, but it is difficult to switch out of the disengaged mode of reality TV viewing, creating an uncomfortable no man’s land.
So, perhaps, reality TV is more than just candy-flossy trash for guilt-watching when hungover. Maybe by realising the fineness of the line it tightropes between reality and fantasy, we can see what really makes reality TV so interesting.
By Molly Kerkham
Molly, age 16 lives in Norwich. She’s currently studying for her a-levels so her hobbies include avoiding doing homework by spending too much time on tumblr and reading books, talking to cats and embarrassing herself. Her tumblr is yeahokaythenwhatever and she tweets @mollymarmite. Her top three films are Submarine, Edward Scissorhands and Persepolis.