Academic Scholarship

Reality TV

Routledge, 2016

Photo Needed Jonathan B. Kraszewski, Ph.D.
Department of Communication and the Arts

The Routledge Television Guidebook on Reality TV will provide a history and overview of this television genre in America through the lens of cultural geography. As such, this guidebook will not only offer new ways to think about issues of identity, cultural meaning, and social power within reality television, but it will also serve as an accessible text that can walk students through a history of the genre. I was driven to propose this book because when I turn on reality television programs, I see a world where geographic locales matter. Programs such as MTV’s The Real World (e.g. The Real World, Boston; The Real World, San Diego, etc.), Bravo’s The Real Housewives (e.g., The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, etc.) and E!’s many series about the Kardashian’s (e.g., Khloe and Kourtney Take Miami, Kourtney and Kim Take New York, etc.) include the names of cities in their titles. Other reality television programs Laguna Beach, The Hills, Baldwin Hills, and Jersey Shore have titles based solely on the area where the show is filmed. Another group of programs such as Swamp People or Ice Road Truckers offer glimpses into the work and lifestyle of a specific region. Popular reality game shows such as Survivor and The Amazing Race have contestants travel to exotic locations around the globe in order to win money. And yet a quick look at scholarship on reality TV reveals that current theories are not equipped to mine the meanings of place in the genre. The major topics include: 1. neoliberalism (i.e., the way reality TV offers the tools for citizens to avert risks, to claim personal responsibility, and not to rely on the government for assistance); 2. advertisement (i.e., the way reality TV increasingly incorporates elements of public relations and advertisement); 3. interactivity (i.e., to what extent reality TV allows for audience participation more than other genres do and then to what extent that renders the genre democratic or corporately controlled); 4. realism (i.e., to what extent can the contrived situations in reality TV make it compatible with a realist aesthetic and to what extent the filming of ordinary people on reality TV is indebted to documentary traditions); 5. voyeurism (i.e., the way the aesthetics and technologies on the show position audience members as voyeurs); 6. ordinariness (i.e., the way ordinary people are featured and made into stars in the genre); and 7. various ways to theorize gender, race, and class. At the same time, the fields of television studies, media studies, and film studies are using elements of cultural geography to write histories of regions and cities as they appear in television and film. For example, media scholars are taking up cultural geographer Doreen Massey’s argument that regions or cities are imagined differently by different citizens. People and institutions engage in power struggles to define what a place is at a given historical moment. Geography is not a physical entity but a cultural construction. Victoria E. Johnson’s Heartland TV: Prime Time Television and the Struggle for U.S. Identity explores the history of broadcasting through the way America’s Midwest is imagined in broadcast policies and programs. Charlotte Brunsdon’s London in Cinema: The Cinematic City since 1945 explores the transformation of London from an imperial to a global city. In much the same way, American reality television is engaged in a project of imagining places. I want to use the Routeldge Television Guidebook on Reality TV as an opportunity to retell the history of the genre from an important perspective in media studies that has yet to shape the way we think about reality TV.

After a chapter that offers the cultural geography of reality TV from the dawn of television until the reality TV boom in the 1990s and the 2000s, my book will explore the way that reality television has come to offer a cultural geography of late capitalism to its viewers and contestants. Although such a claim might sound overly theoretical for undergraduate students, it is not. These concepts are not only accessible, but they are also important for the way students understand themselves in the contemporary labor market. In today’s era of capitalism, people are increasingly forced to move because their jobs require it, because their region no longer offers employment opportunities in their fields, or because gentrification has driven the cost of living up so much in an area that working- and middle-class populations can no longer afford to live there. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the United States, along with much of the Western hemisphere, underwent a profound economic change that influenced notions of place for much of its citizens. Steve Lash and John Urry attribute this to a decline in primary and secondary industries coupled with a growth in the service sector, which has led to a decrease in the working class population and an increase in white-collar jobs. This has eroded traditional forms of community, as the working class is forced to relocate to find work and the middle- and upper-classes travel to partake in global capitalism. Zygmunt Bauman argues that this is an era of liquid modernity where traditional and stable forms of community collapse and are replaced by temporary and fluid structures. As a result, people turn to ideas of community as a form of protection in an unstable world, although community is increasingly a paradise lost in the current state of capital. We live in a nation where staying in one place for your life is increasingly difficult, and yet we cling to ideas of community, even though we are increasingly no longer bound in one stable community for our lives.

One of the central features of reality TV is that it offers viewers and contestants a geographic imaginary through which they can map themselves into a late-capitalist system that prizes mobility and by which they can learn the negative consequences of holding on to seemingly dated lifestyles that ground people in one geographic community for their lives. Many of the programs imagine the benefits of people participating in a late capitalist system with fluid and temporary geographic communities made up of mobile workers. Survivor presents beautiful widescreen shots of exotic islands that awe viewers. Amidst this natural beauty, sixteen strangers come together for thirty nine days for a chance to win a million dollars. When the competition ends, the contestants leave and return home, knowing that their mobility and love of nature gave them a shot at riches. The Kardashian reality franchise on E! follows sisters Khloe, Kourtney, and Kim as they open up new stores or start new business adventures in different affluent cities throughout the country. House Hunters International often casts families with a parent in a white-collar job who is looking to relocate to a glamorous city in Asia, The Middle East, Europe, or Australia for even better employment opportunities. As a whole, this TV genre highlights how economic prosperity and personal happiness comes through geographic mobility, and the visual style of reality TV with long shots, helicopter shots, and montages beautifies urban spaces and exotic locales that promise wealth.

At the same time, other reality shows investigate lifestyles in regions marked as distinctly out-of-sync with late-capitalist logics. Swamp People airs on The History Channel and promises to investigate the historical roots of alligator hunters in the Louisiana Bayou while it follows contemporary hunters during the month-long alligator hunting season. The show switches back and forth from contemporary hunters to scenes with archival pictures about the history of the profession. For example, one episode follows three African Americans hunting alligators and includes lessons about the history of black alligator hunters. Although the show suggests it is a history lesson, it also fixates on the pre-modern lifestyles of the hunters. Episodes go out of their way to show hunters without front teeth and others who have been maimed while reeling in alligators. Episodes also feature hunters grabbing rattlesnakes with their bare hands and talking with grammatically incorrect English. The series usually cast people who are second, third, or fourth generation hunters and takes viewers inside their poor and rundown homes. In a similar vein, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo follows a poor Georgia family that became famous on the TLC program Toddlers and Tiaras, a show that in part mocks poor rural families for the large amounts of money they spent on their daughters in beauty pageants. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is a geographic tour of poverty, presenting us with mud sliding, water tubing in polluted rivers, train watching on the tracks that run through the family’s back yard, and grocery shopping for cheap, unhealthy foods. Shows about geographic immobility laugh at the lower class because they lack a diverse skill set that can lead to a lifestyle on the move.

But to say that reality television simply lauds the geographically mobile, white-collar workforce while it denigrates the immobile poor misses key nuances of class, taste, mobility, and identity in the genre. The commodification of lower- and working-class identities actually serves as a tool to enter a mobile workforce of late capitalism and to manage a successful career as a reality TV star. Take Rob Mariano, who became known as “Boston Rob” on Survivor because he talked with a working-class Bostonian accent and wore a Boston Red Sox hat on the show. Boston Rob’s first appearance on reality TV came in 2002 when he was on Survivor: Marquesas. On that season, Boston Rob talked about how he was a carpenter who came from a family in construction. Boston Rob’s working-class roots are hard to accept fully at face value. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from an elite private school, Boston University. While grants and loans make schools such as these available to the working class, they tend to enroll students from more affluent backgrounds. Nevertheless, Rob played up his working-class Italian American identity to become so memorable that he was cast on Survivor: All Stars in 2004. On that season, his shrewd moves in the game earned him the title of the “Robfather,” a play on the Italian American mafia term “the godfather.” He achieved more fame on that season through not only his smart play that landed him in the final two but also for his proposal to Amber Brkich , who was in the final two with him and who won because of Rob’s backstabbing ways. Rob continued to play up his working-class identity on various reality shows. He was cast on two more seasons of Survivor. He won Survivor: Redemption Island. He and Amber were also runners up on CBS’s The Amazing Race, where teams of two race around the world. Additionally, Rob and Amber starred in a primetime special Rob and Amber Getting Married about their wedding in Florida and their attempts to start a life on the gulf coast as well as a series that Rob produced about his efforts to become a professional poker player in Las Vegas, Rob and Amber: Against the Odds. Rob also makes frequent appearances on CBS’s The Morning Show and is now making a career out of hosting programs such as ABC’s The Split, UPN’s The Player, and The History Channel’s Around the World in 80 Days. Recently Rob flew to Los Angeles and appeared on the live reunion show for Survivor Caramoan: Fans vs. Favorites so that he could promote his new book, The Boston Rob Rule Book.

What’s fascinating about Rob Mariano is that he has commodified a working-class identity that has long, historical roots in Boston, and yet he has used it to participate in a late-capitalist economy where he is constantly moving from one geographic location to another to be a white-collar worker with a flexible skill set that ranges from show participant to poker player to television producer to television host to author. Boston Rob is a mobile worker with little ties to Boston at this point, and yet this working-class identity marks him as unique and worthy of hiring in top-paying jobs.

Thus, the geographic imaginary of reality TV is rife with contradictions. White-collar geographic mobility is prized. Blue-collar geographic immobility is heckled. And yet blue-collar/working-class identities can be commodified to participate in a mobile, late-capitalist work force.

The association of mobility, flexibility, and high-paying jobs was not always a part of reality television. A history of reality television forms, styles, and themes reveals how different the genre was during the post-World War II era when America still had a Fordist economy where people typically worked for one company, earned pensions, and stayed in one location for their careers. Allen Funt’s Candid Camera never followed workers as they charted careers. The program itself, which started airing in 1948, never required the people being filmed to move to a new location for a shot at economic rewards. Rather, Funt set up cameras in everyday locations and filmed people’s reactions to out-of-the-ordinary events. One skit has a man who is waiting to get his teeth cleaned meet the dental hygienist who then mentions it is her first day on the job. In fact, he is her first patient. She then proceeds to put shaving cream on his face and shave him with a razor. The man’s confused reaction is caught on tape. Likewise, while PBS’s landmark twelve-hour reality program An American Family, which aired in 1973, captivated viewers because mother Pat served her husband Bill with divorce papers on the show and their son Lance came out as gay on the show. The family was firmly rooted in Santa Barbara, California, where Bill owned his own business. The program took viewers inside the house of a “normal” American family to reveal the changing nature of postwar domesticity. Additionally, a slew of reality TV shows in the 1980s presented police officers patrolling crime-ridden cities. The police officers often grew up in these cities, and the programs presented a need to restore order to a bounded community. Finally, blooper reality programs in the 1980s like America’s Funniest Home Videos presented traditional images of the family at home where a freak incident played for laughs. Prior to the onset of a post-Fordist, late capitalist economy in the late 80s and early 90s, reality TV took viewers into spaces typically associated with sedentary communities and used various filming techniques to investigate the composition of these communities. This historical perspective will help readers of the Routledge Television Guidebook to Reality TV understand that the genre’s fixation on geographic mobility and a diverse and flexible labor pool is not natural or innate. It grew over time as the genre responded to a changing economy in America.

Throughout this book I will bring my own evaluation of the cultural geography of reality television; I believe we are losing out as a society through a culture of mobility, and citizens should find ways to protest these larger social, economic, and cultural shifts. Chapters will show that a mobile world as seen on reality television is ripping classed, racial, and ethnic identities away from their historical roots in geographic communities and participating in a larger cultural movement that stereotypes and simplifies these identities in gentrified spaces. At the same time, the temporary communities formed on reality shows—whether they are communities of competitors on Survivor or new apartments in new cities for families such as the Kardashians—promote sociopathic behavior as a foundation for late capitalist transactions. Rather than reward cutthroat individuals looking to harm people to win money, we would be better off promoting entertainment that showed worker solidarity and collective action.

 
 

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