Reality TV: Making Western Civilization Smarter and Better?

I hate reality TV. Yes, there may be some “reality” shows with redeeming values, but on the whole, I find it represents a nadir of entertainment. It encourages and celebrates narcissistic, sociopathic, and unconscionable behavior in its subjects, and through shrewd manipulation (i.e., editing), makes it easy for viewers to develop a sense of smug self-righteousness as we watch the drama unfold before us.

But not everyone agrees with me. For example, anthropologist Grant McCracken believes that reality TV can actually make us smarter. He agrees that there are reality TV programs that are “irredeemably bad” (e.g., Here Comes Honey Boo Boo). However, reality TV offers two distinct advantages over “normal” television. First, it is unpredictable and spontaneous, unlike more genre-driven television:

…what we wanted was the uncontrolled, spontaneous, accident-prone, and most of all, the unpredictable. Because, by this time, it took a matter of seconds to divine what was going on and get there first. We needed to know that not even the producer knew where this baby was headed.

Reality TV is not straight out of genre. Even when manipulated by producers, no one quite knows where things will end up. And this makes it interesting and sometimes even, as James Poniewozik has pointed out, uncomfortable. And that keeps us watching. Reality TV is where TV has always been evolving. It just took us a century or so to get there.

His second, and more important, point is that reality TV “makes anthropologists of us all,” and allows us to better divine the truths of our culture. He writes:

A key feature of anthropology is the long, observational, “ethnographic” interview. Anthropologists believe one of the advantages of this method is that no one can manage appearances, let alone lie, successfully for a long period of time.

So while the Kardashian sisters may wish to create an impression – and the producers edit to reinforce that impression – over many episodes and seasons, the truth will out. Whether they like it or not, eventually we will see into Kardashian souls. That these souls are never as beautiful as the sisters themselves is, well, one of the truths that reality TV makes available to us, and here it performs one of the functions normally dispatched by religious or moral leaders.

Admittedly, I find this latter argument compelling. I can see how reality TV is capable of unmasking individuals and revealing their true selves for all to see. And this can serve a valuable social function. Interestingly, McCracken draws a religious parallel at this point. Yes, religions often claim to get at the truth in the hearts of men, to help us recognize and reveal our flaws and foibles — our sins, if you will. But, as McCracken also notes, that’s just one of the functions of religion.

Christianity certainly forces us to recognize the truth that we are flawed and sinful, and encourages us to look behind the masks that we like to put on so others will think better of us. As Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” But it doesn’t stop there. Christianity also reminds us that grace and redemption are possible, that even once we’ve removed the masks and exposed our flaws, we are still loved, forgiven, and accepted. It “functions” to remind us that our sins need not define us, but that because of God’s grace, we can be so much more.

Reality TV may be quite good at dismantling carefully manicured existences and exposing selfish and destructive behavior. Which makes it very easy for us to mock and deride Honey Boo Boo and her family, the Kardashian sisters, and a host of other reality show participants. But can it help us want to understand and sympathize with them? Or, to put it another way, can it offer them redemption in the eyes of the viewing public? Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m skeptical. As a culture, we enjoy the spectacle, the derision, and the self-righteousness too much, and right now, reality TV finds it too profitable to do anything but feed that.

However, were reality TV to, on the whole, break away from that and forge a different path that promotes a less cynical and more gracious approach to its subjects, then it might truly make ours a better civilization.

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  • Some years back it occurred to me that the best selling video game for some time had been Grand Theft Auto. And I quite literally did not know a single person who would allow their kids to play it. I only knew a couple who would even be willing to play it themselves. And looking at the sales numbers for the game, it started to dawn on me just how unrepresentative of American life my little world was. What I thought of as normal was in fact, quite unusual.

    I think that most of us who talk and seek information and have opinions about American life and culture are in a similar situation. It’s like they say about Episcopalians: they make up 1% of the population and think everyone is Episcopalian. The reality is that most people use the internet to watch porn and keep up with celebrity gossip. It is for this reason that reality shows are interesting to me. Even when they don’t represent the bulk of Americans (the Kardashians), they represent what the bulk of Americans are interested in. And frankly, I’ve come to think that a lot of what we’re seeing in our modern, tell-all world is a reality that many of us “chattering class” types have been in denial about. (And really, if you write and read on a regular basis, you’re a chattering class type.)

    I have sometimes thought that we are in the time Jesus spoke of when every hidden thing will be made known. It’s a good thing, really, for us to be grappling with the reality of who we are human being are. So although I don’t watch them much myself, I have to agree with Mr. McKracken. I think that in net, they are probably going to do more good than harm.