By John Dicker
People: Adventures in Reality TV
Sam Brenton and Reuben Cohen, Verso, 160 pages, $21
My best friend David is convinced his reality TV show is only
five years from mainstream palatability. It’s called Up
the Butt and—bear with me on this—it posits the following
question to desperately insolvent Americans: How much cash
will it take for you to insert various household items up
your . . . well, you get the idea.
Sam Brenton’s and Reuben Cohen’s joint venture Shooting
People explores the origins of how we ended up in an global
entertainment culture where Up the Butt seems less
like fatuous nonsense than a potential cash cow. Their short
book is written in a quasi-academic style, which is a shame,
as it waters down some otherwise interesting ideas. The authors
have a tendency to quote several theorists before delving
into their own analysis, and to deploy dissertation-style
sentences like: “In the following chapter, we will argue that
. . .” As though the suspense of turning their pages was just
too much for anyone to bear.
Brenton and Cohen also squander too much time showing how
the social idealism of early documentarians like British pioneer
John Grierson has descended into reality TV’s carnival of
narcissism and humiliation. Lefty intellectuals love this
gig: Expose the political roots of a cultural phenomenon—jazz
music comes to mind—and then kick and scream about how its
original social and political intent has been obliterated
by the demands of the marketplace. It’s not the historical
nature of the exposition that’s so objectionable, but rather
the assumption that anyone might confuse the two.
All nitpicking aside, Brenton and Cohen do have a few useful
ideas. Chief among them is their argument that the progenitor
of reality TV was the abandonment of ideology on the left
that took place after the fall of Marxism. The personal politics
of ’70s-era feminism and the “personal liberation” of the
self-help industry, they contend, carved a space for the ascendancy
of the confessional narrative. As they write:
The first person thus raised to the status of sole truth,
sole value, and sole source of narrative makes few allusions
to things beyond its boundaries. . . . This dandruff of selfhood,
elevated to the status of a worthy subject, rushes in to fill
the space vacated by overarching narratives that once extended
the range of their followers’ vision. . . . There is no aspect
of personal experiences too small to fix a camera on—trivia,
indeed, is the new rock ’n’ roll.
The thrust behind the new rock & roll is the controlling
power of contrived “situationist” environments. The authors
draw a direct parallel between reality TV and social-psychologist
Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 experiment in which he placed 24 college
graduates in a California prison for two weeks. Though fully
aware of the experiment and free to leave at any time, the
subjects so thoroughly assumed their roles as prisoners and
guards that several “prisoners” had complete psychological
meltdowns after the crushing of their revolt.
Brenton and Cohen contend that this same phenomenon is what
keeps participants of Survivor in line with the sadistic
and often dangerous rules mandated by their producers. Well,
that and the money. With the aid of psychologist consultants—whose
ethics, the authors suggest, are extremely compromised—the
shows receive the imprimatur of psychological legitimacy.
While Shooting People makes some interesting arguments,
it dodges what might possibly be the supreme question this
budding genre implicitly poses: Why do audiences (and not
just Americans) lap this stuff up? We know it’s a gimmick,
that its oleaginous participants’ desperation is for little
more than the public spotlight. Is it the car-wreck phenomenon,
that we can’t avert our eyes from a gruesome spectacle? Or
is it something more?
Shows that are less reality TV than game show—like Joe
Millionaire—are rooted in little more than the spectacle
of public debasement; in higher-art circles, witness the smorgasbords
of human cruelty from the likes of film directors Neil LaBute
and Todd Solondz.
What is it about the way we live now that gets so many of
us off on the suffering of others? It’s not as if our economy
and geopolitical conflagrations do not provide enough suffering.
Maybe it’s that the pain of non-Westerners is a tad too real.
It’s safe to dish our contempt for the vacuously arrogant
22-year-olds with the luscious midriffs because we know their
problems are mild, that they’re safe to laugh at.
Until that question gets sorted out, my friend David has another
show lined up after his opus grows stale. It’s called Celebrity
Up the Butt.