On June 29th, 2012, the film Magic Mike, directed by Steven Soderbergh, released to a warm reception from critics, trending a 72 out of 100 on the aggregate review site Metacritic.[i] However, Peter Travis of Rolling Stone was somewhat critical of the film, awarding it a two out of a possible five stars. In the last sentence of his review, Travis wrote “I didn’t see this coming from a sharp observer like Soderbergh.”[ii] Yet, while Travis’ review of the film may have had some valid points, this notion of director as prime observer came across as out of date and irrelevant, especially given the growth of reality television over the past two decades.
Friedrich Nietzsche, in his work Human, All Too Human states that “A good writer possesses not only his own spirit but also the spirit of his friends.[iii] And for eons, this was the widely accepted mentality: that the power of observance lay with artists, writers, and philosophers. However, reality television and other innovations have rendered this cultural phenomena mute and ushered in a new era where the power of observation has been wrestled from the hands of the few and given to the many. Now everyone is a journalist, a filmmaker, a star, and the advent of constant surveillance has given individuals a near infinite audience of their peers. The use of the word surveillance carries a negative connotation, but the proliferation of voyeurism could have proved to be positive development—a development that could have allowed individuals a window into other cultures, ideas, and beliefs. In A Heartbreaking Work of Stagger Genius by Dave Eggers, a young, anxious Dave auditions for a role on The Real World: San Francisco. His interview with one of the producers proves disastrous, but near the end he is asked, “Why do you want to be on The Real World?” and he responded with “Because I want everyone to witness my youth.”[iv] The use of surveillance technology, and specifically reality television, could have been used to build a more tolerant world, one where difficult and honest interactions are broadcast on national television. Instead, the medium of reality television turned its back on providing a new forum for expression and open dialogue and as an alternative delivered content that perpetuated and reinforced certain cultural norms and practices in regard to issues of family, sex, and economics.
As reported by the New York Times, the premiere episode of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” on TLC drew more viewers than the Republican National Convention. Not to be proven as an isolated incident, the show returned a week later to have around the same amount of viewers as the Democratic National Convention.[v] On first glance, this statistic may come across as sad and depressing, implying that Americans care more about Alana Thompson (Honey Boo Boo’s actual name) than their next president. Yet, these three programs, the national conventions and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”, are really about the same thing: trying to get you to like a semi-fictional character. Honey Boo Boo serves as an ambassador for redneck culture, similarly to how Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, during the 2012 election, campaigned and advocated for their respective party’s platforms. Week after week, throughout the fall, Honey Boo Boo appeared on national television, all too excited to promote “Go-Go Juice” and the “Red Neck Games,” along with other aspects of the culture that she and her family hold so dear. In all aspects but responsibility and power, the roles of presidential candidate and reality show star were similar in the fall of 2012, and this was no accident on the part of TLC.
Annette Hill, in her book Reality TV: Factual Entertainment and Television Audiences states, “Factual entertainment is a category commonly used within the television industry for popular factual television, and the category indicates the marriage of factual programming, such as news or documentary, with fictional programming, such as game shows or soap opera.[vi] Throughout the production and marketing of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”, TLC embraced the concept of factual entertainment. On a typical episode, the Thompson family engages in some kind of activity that plays to the strengths of their humor, be it attending the “Rock Star Divas Pageant” or engaging in a summer weight loss challenges. Yet TLC, in a stroke of either genius or fiendishness, extends the characters of the Thompson family beyond the television show and into reality. On October 15th, 2012, Alana and her mother, June, appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Early on in the interview, Alana kept her person intact, as the first words out of her mouth were “This is Mama and I’m Honey Boo Boo!”[vii] June also answered Jimmy’s questions with the same gusto and unabashed manner that she carries on the show. Yet, when asked about the family’s future plans, June slid the character away for a moment and adopted a milder accent. She stated, “It’s all about my kids. That’s why I chose to put money in the trust fund.”[viii] Yet, the moment passes away and Alana and her mother move onto the topic of family nicknames, bewildered when Kimmel doesn’t believe that Alana’s sister, Jessica, likes the nickname “Chubs.”
This shock, and the resulting moment of silence between mother and daughter, demonstrates the sales aspect of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” Education, nutrition, and the general reality of the Thompson family’s socio-economic status are never really addressed on the show. Instead, the audience watches activities that range from shopping for dresses to a half-hearted weight loss program that ends in the entire family eating cheese puffs. In this light, the moral of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” comes across as anti-education and anti-upward mobility and perpetuates a belief that as long as you have family and simple pleasures, all will be fine. As illustrated through the Kimmel interview, June seems to understand what is at play and has a plan for the day the cameras stop rolling. She has even gone as far as to never mention on that show that each of the Thompson children has a different father, preserving the illusion of a happy and unbroken family.[ix] However Alana, when asked by Kimmel if she prefers her birth name or Honey Boo Boo, hesitated, later stating that she doesn’t know. A little girl caught between a character and a life.
“The Bachelor”, ABC’s long running dating show, is about to enter its seventeenth season, clearly a cause of celebration among ABC executives, for most television shows fail to make it past their first season.[x] For those unfamiliar with the premise of “The Bachelor”, the show revolves one man, usually in his mid to late 20s who is already wealthy or is poised to inherit an ungodly amount of money. For the duration of the show, this bachelor lives in a house with twenty-five other woman and at the end of each episode must give roses to the women he wants to stay. The rejects, the ones who fail to receive a rose, are all seemingly contractually obligated to cry on camera as they pack their suitcases. The show does its hardest to convince us that this is a difficult, tremulous decision for the bachelor, as everyone on the show is supposedly “looking for love”[xi] and a potential soul mate. Yet, despite this claim of love, none of the final couples featured in the previous sixteen seasons of The Bachelor have stayed together.[xii] In this light, “The Bachelor” is not a show about love, but a show about spectacle. The show asks its audience to tune in on the promise of witnessing the birth of true love. Yet, with it’s industry-standard six-week shooting schedule, “The Bachelor” values flash, sex, and fleeting stardom over the development of a legitimate relationship.[xiii]
In 2001, Steven Reiss, a professor at Ohio State University (OSU) conducted a study in collaboration with James Witlz, at the time a Ph.D candidate at OSU. The two men found that one of the main factors that separated a casual viewer of reality television from a regular viewer was the idea of status, identifying with phrases such as “Prestige is important to me.”[xiv] And this prestige conveys itself under the belief that when you watch “The Batchelor,” you watch someone similar to yourself rise to fame and potentially fortune. This is evident during the opening episode of Season 16 of “The Bachelor”, especially when new bachelor Ben Flajnik, gets to meet his women. One of the women, Lindzi Cox, rode in on a horse and pronounced that she was here “to find love.”[xv] While Courtney Robertson, another contestant on the show, stated in her introduction video “I think wedding rings look pretty amazing on me” and “I know what I want. I think two carets is, you know, I deserve it.”[xvi] All of the contestants on “The Bachelor” are clearly familiar with the show. Therefore, it is absurd to believe that Courtney and Lindzi’s actions were fueled by anything but a desire for fame and wealth, an urge that was only encouraged by being, at one point or another, viewers. Even Ben Flajnik, the bachelor himself, may be conflicted in his motivations. The start of episode frames him as a wounded soul, one who was wronged by his time on “The Bachelorette”, a spinoff show whose premise is identical with the exception that the ratios are flipped, twenty-five men to a single woman. Before the episode cuts to the bachelor house, Flajnik engages in a montage of presumably attractive activities such as kayaking and playing “This Year’s Love” by David Gray on the piano (lowered head and all), all the while his voice narrates the performance, “One would like to hope that you can find the love of your life at any point in time, and if I could find it while being the bachelor, I’m all for it.”[xvii] Yet, Flajnik undercuts this manufactured sympathy when he finishes the monologue with, “I’ve never juggled twenty-five woman.”[xviii]
Reiss writes, “Reality TV allows Americans to fantasize about gaining status through automatic fame. Ordinary people can watch the shows, see people like themselves and imagine that they too could become celebrities by being on television.”[xix] And this is exactly what “The Bachelor” does; it attracts people who want to be celebrities, want to be on television and uses them to proliferate a distorted form of love, one which cares more about spectacle and material possession than portraying an honest relationship. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare wrote, “The course of true love never did run smooth,” conveying that love is at times painful.[xx] “The Bachelor” serves as the antithesis to this ideal, having what will soon be seventeen seasons to promote excess and fame over commitment and companionship, a love of spectacle over love of person.
On May 8th, 2012, my roommate and I munched on cheese puffs while we watched the season finale of “The Voice”, NBC’s self-described “interactive singing competition.”[xxi] We had both watched this season from its inception and labeled Jermaine Paul, an R&B/soul singer who has a voice that could convince any racist grandma to let him into her house, as our personal favorite. We sat through two hours of forced monologues, half-hearted compliments, and seemingly profound life lessons that could somehow be boiled down into thirty seconds and a plug for Starbucks Coffee. We waited for the moment that we, and presumably the rest of the country, knew was imminent. And around eleven that night our patience was rewarded, Jermaine was crowned the winner, cheese puffs flew through the air, and for a moment, as steamers and balloons rained down from the ceiling of a studio somewhere east of the 405, I felt that the world was okay, that I was apart of something bigger than myself and that through hard work and dedication, both Jermaine and I had succeeded in our shared cause.
Yet this optimism, this moment of faith renewed, was undercut the moment I opened my laptop and realized that I owned all of Jermaine’s songs. For how “The Voice” works is that week in and week out audience members vote to see who stays on the show. However, as opposed to “American Idol” or “Dancing With The Stars” where the voting is conducted over the phone, on “The Voice” you cast a vote for a contestant by purchasing their song on iTunes. Yet, despite my minuscule financial investment in Jermaine’s future, I know almost nothing about the man. For everything I have learned about Jermaine has been spoon-fed to me, carefully cut and scored in order for me to observe exactly what had been intended. I know that Jermaine is the son of a preacher, one of ten children and spent some time signed to Shaquille O’Neal’s Twism Records, and with this sliver of information I should feel no empathy for him, for I am not relating to a person, but a character. A character who’s history had been presented to me in the form of carefully constructed thirty-second video clips.
“We can only murder strangers if we cannot imagine what it is like to be them,”[xxii] contemporary philosopher Richard Kearney argues. Yet, if this is the case, then I shouldn’t be throwing cheese balls into the air upon Jermaine’s victory, I should feel ambivalent toward his cause; for my only real interaction with him is that he sings to me for about two minutes each week. But I don’t feel this way; I cheer for him, I buy his songs on iTunes, I tune in every week just to know I supported him and his dream. But, I’m not supporting him; I’m supporting the version of him that has been sold to me, the version that some producers have crafted in order to get me to buy more 99¢ songs. And I can acknowledge this, or at least I have the power to acknowledge this, but am seemingly reluctant too.
Nietzsche believed that the weak person clung to God, even in the presence of overwhelming evidence that he doesn’t exist. And in a sense, this is how I feel about Jermaine. I want to imagine him as this perfect soul singer whose career I can directly support. This vision is appealing, inviting, but at the end of the day, my capability for imagination is not being used to get me to love, but to purchase. In a piece for the New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh by way of Jennifer L. Ponzer writes, “that reality shows have a tendency to blur together into a single orgy of joy and disappointment and recrimination.” And it is this disappointment, this moment of dissatisfaction that corrals us into opening our wallets. The role of observer is transformed into an economic exchange, one where currency is exchanged for a potentially good feeling. In this sense, the economics of “The Voice” more closely resemble the illicit drug market than the music industry. We are taught that yes, one needs hard work and have a bit of talent to achieve their dreams and all the positive feelings that come along with that, but if you want a little bump, a little more of a guarantee, some consumption is involved.
Alan Ginsberg opened his infamous poem “Howl” with the phrase “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”[xxiii] And earlier this year, ex-Facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher offered a humorous update with “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people clicks ads.”[xxiv] However, as illustrated by the growth of reality television, it is not just online advertisements that try to distract us, manipulate us, and alter our views towards things such as family and love. Yet, to some extent we tolerate this control; we, for the most part, don’t move out to the desert, drop our cell phones into toilets, and usually prefer to spend our off hours watching Netflix as opposed to rioting in the streets. Now, I don’t advocate on behalf of anarchy or nihilism, but instead I have a hope. A hope that with a greater cultural emphasize on thoughtful action, we can tiptoe towards a future where we are aware and honest about our impulses, desires, and behaviors.
[i] "Magic Mike." Metacritic n.pag. Metacritic, CBS Interactive. Web. 5 Dec 2012.
[ii] Travers, Peter. "Magic Mike." Rolling Stone. Wenner Media, 28 2012. Web. 5 Dec 2012.
[iii] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human. Cambridge University Press, 92. Print.
[iv] Eggers, Dave. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Vintage, 2000. Print.
[v] Kepler, Adam. "‘Honey Boo Boo’ Has the Ratings, if Not the Critics." New York Times. 28 2012: n. page. Print.
[vi] Hill, Annette. Reality TV: Factual Entertainment and Television Audiences. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004. Print.
[vii] Honey Boo Boo and Mama on Jimmy Kimmel Live PART 1. 2012. Web. 7 Dec 2012
[viii] Honey Boo Boo and Mama on Jimmy Kimmel Live PART 2. 2012. Web. 7 Dec 2012.
[ix] Hickman, Matt. "Honey Boo Boo's guide to thrifty living."Mother Nature Network. 27 2012: n. page. Web. 7 Dec. 2012.
[x] "About the Show." The Bachelor. ABC. Web. 8 Dec 2012.
[xi] "About the Show." The Bachelor. ABC. Web. 8 Dec 2012.
[xii] "The Bachelor." Wikipedia. Wikipedia. Web. 8 Dec 2012.
[xiii] Burnett, Daynah. "Are the Bachelor Roses Real? 5 Weird Fan Questions Answered." Wet Paint. 27 2012: n. page. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.
[xiv] Reiss, Steven, and James Wiltz. "Why America Loves Reality Television." Psychology Today. (2001): n. page. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.
[xv] "1601." The Bachelor. ABC: 02 2012. Television.
[xvi] "1601." The Bachelor. ABC: 02 2012. Television.
[xvii] "1601." The Bachelor. ABC: 02 2012. Television
[xviii] "1601." The Bachelor. ABC: 02 2012. Television
[xix] Reiss, Steven, and James Wiltz. "Why America Loves Reality Television." Psychology Today. (2001): n. page. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.
[xx] Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Washington Sqaure Press, 1993. Print.
[xxi]"The Voice." The Voice. NBC. Web. 20 Nov 2012.
[xxii] Kearney, Richard. Anatheism: Returning To God After God. New York Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 2010. 42. Print.
[xxiii] Ginsberg, Allen. "Howl." Poets.org. N.p.. Web. 8 Dec 2012.
[xxiv] Vance, Ashlee. "This Tech Bubble Is Different."Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine. Bloomberg, 14 2011. Web. 8 Dec 2012.