Even in the cheesiest reality shows, there is an aspirational quality, a democratic quality, a quality that’s – yeah, I’ll say it -American. “American” in the sense that what is true of countries is true of TV genres: their worst traits are inseparable from their best ones.
James Poniewozik, TIME, Vol. 175, Issue 7
In the same A Current Affair report on Sylvania Waters mentioned in my post Man I Shouldn’t Have Done That, Noeline’s granddaughter, now 26, mentions the difference is that ‘now they’re all acting, back then we weren’t acting’. Fitting then, that in his article for TIME magazine James Poniewozik points out that ‘it’s commonsense branding’ that an ‘unknown 23-year-old from Long Island would come equipped with a tabloid-ready exclamatory nickname, like J. Lo or P. Diddy’ (Poniewozik, 2010).
He’s talking here about Jwoww, The Situation and Snooki, some of the drastically tanned and lowly educated guidos and guidettes of Jersey Shore. Poniewozik goes on to suggest ‘if you might be on a reality show, you may as well have a name that pops and precedes you like a well-positioned set of silicone implants’ (Poniewozik, 2010), not bad advice considering the aesthetic lack of anything natural existing on the bodies of these young specimens.
Which brings into question the change that has taken place since those unassuming days of Sylvania Waters. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, back then they thought they weren’t acting. They thought reality TV was just that, a look at reality. But how can we possibly look at the ‘camera-readiness’ (Poniewozik, 2010) of these Jersey-ites and not consider it a highly contrived performance?
Or if this is indeed how they live their lives, should we be questioning the intention of the producers in exploiting these clearly deranged subjects, just as Noeline suggests they did to her and her family back in the 90’s?
This question of Character influence vs. Content/Producers influence is also covered in my post on The Voice, in this case Poniewozik places importance on the former, but not without noting the latter as key in creating and conditioning these people. Whereby ‘the Jersey Shore-ites have never known a world in which hooking up drunk in a house paid for by a Viacom network was not an option’ (Poniewozik, 2010) so with a camera stuffed in their face and inhibitions firmly stuffed in their back pockets the show is set to roll.
It’s obvious this mindset is innately problematic. Not only does it highlight the drastic effect TV can have culturally, albeit to minorities, it positions the audience as a passive sponge that can’t help but be affected by the content getting pumped into their homes.
To quote Poniewozik once more, ‘In 1992, reality TV was a novelty. In 2000, it was a fad. In 2010, it’s a way of life.’ (Poniewozik, 2010)
A way of life. A contrived, fake, performative way of life.
If you trace the switch from sitcoms based on families to that of the friendship group brought about by Friends (see ), it’s not surprising reality TV took a similar turn.
Far from suggesting this representation of friends as family should be solely considered as informing real life families and their interaction with TV, it is clear that this popular shift needs to be considered and further explored if we are to truly understand the changes that have occurred in content, expectations and audience desires over the 20 years since Sylvania Waters.
Just as the public responded negatively upon the release of Sylvania Height’s, it is clear that when society sees something that is supposed to be a representation of themselves that they don’t like, they respond, and they respond quite verbally. It’s as if society knows the affect TV is having on them, the cultural influence it possesses, but most of the time chooses to let it do its work until shows such as Jersey Shore or Sylvania Waters insult their sensitivity. Are we really not passive, sponge viewers with a direct link from the TV to our brain? Do we simply buy into the fantasy of it all because it appeases our sense of entertainment, but as soon as it oversteps the line we denounce it as if we never liked it in the first place?
I’d like to end this post on another quote from Poniewozik as food for thought.
How, exactly, can reality TV mock its participants and celebrate them at the same time? In fact, the audience’s relation to reality shows is more complicated. People don’t watch Jersey Shore because they consider The Situation a role model. It’s entertaining because the show is basically satire, a pumped-up spoof of bigger-is-better American culture… But there are other American ideas that reality TV taps into: That everybody should have a shot. That sometimes being real is better than being polite. That no matter where you started out, you can hit it big, get lucky and reinvent yourself. In her own way, Jwoww is as American a character as the nobody Jay Gatsby heading east and changing his name.
Poniewozik, J 2010, ‘What’s Right With Reality TV’, Time, 175, 7, pp. 92-97, Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 17 April 2013.