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…Just another aesthetic form of fiction

June 1, 2010

(Author’s note: Thanks to Steven Soderbergh for an awesome explanation of reality TV shows, which I have ganked for this post title rather than trying to be witty and original on my own.)

I have a confession to make (and no, it’s not about where those bodies are. I’m never telling that. Never, I say!).

I am a reality show addict.

Well, not totally. I mean, I find most reality TV programming to be obnoxious. I don’t watch any of the talent-based competition shows (unless we’re counting “Top Chef” in that category, and I watch me the hell out of some “Top Chef.”), a fact that gets me into trouble frequently at work when my students/their parents ask me what I think of the latest batch of contestants. Fortunately, I can make things up on the fly fairly well. I don’t watch the shows that follow any sort of family, be they “little people” or a couple with 90bajillion kids or the latest, a family of sassy Black people (!).

I do, however, watch just about any show on VH1. *hangs head in shame*

Yep, I’ve watched almost every season of “Celebrity Fit Club,” most of the dating shows, and this season’s newest entries, “Basketball Wives” and “What Chili Wants.”

That said, my heart belongs to the three seasons of “Tough Love” and the latest incarnation, “Tough Love: Couples.” The show is hosted by Steve Ward, with input from his mother JoAnn, and they also run a matchmaking company together. He puts the couples through his “bootcamp,” having them ‘fess up to things they need to tell their partners, air their grievances, and learn what will make their partner, and thus their relationship, happier/better/more fulfilling. And along the way, Steve gets to call people out on their BS, usually with a roll of the eyes, a well-timed “pfft” and an exclamation that usually contains a naughty word. And I love every second of it, while simultaneously wanting to punch Steve Ward in his underbite (and I usually find myself wanting to punch the people on the show, too).

I don’t know why I love it so. Maybe part of it is my relief at seeing women and couples who I can deem as being “worse” than I am in some capacity, thus giving me a super-awesome sense of superiority. And I hate myself for being that judgmental. I do know that I sometimes see some of myself (and my relationship) in the people on the show, and I’ve learned to analyze myself a little bit better, so that’s good, right?

Anyway. I used to watch those shows solely for the “Oh thank God there’s someone more effed up than me!” factor. And somehow I felt a smug sense of superiority over those folks who religiously watch the “other” types of reality shows. But really, they are the same thing. It’s still putting people under a microscope, placing them in situations they wouldn’t normally be in, and pretending that they’re acting how they normally would act. The difference, I think, is that there’s no known monetary prize at the end. Of course, with this season (“Tough Love: Couples”), each of the couples got an engagement ring (some of them freakishly expensive—$12,000 for a ring? Seriously?), and some of them got their dream wedding—free of charge. And a free honeymoon. Also, after two of the couples elected to get married by Steve Ward (who is, of course, an ordained minister—possibly of the Church of Latter-Day Asshats), they received a surprise wedding gift from VH1–$10,000! That’s not the same as some shows (I’m looking at you, “Tool Academy”) who show people who change and just happen to win $10,000. Hell, I’d do a lot of changing for the chance to pay off a chunk of my student loans!

Do I believe that these couples got married because they love each other? More or less, yeah, I do. Maybe I’m a schmuck, or a hopeless romantic, but I do think that love was the motivating factor. The looks of disbelief and barely-controlled facepalming on the parts of the unmarried couples make me feel fairly certain that the money wasn’t known about before the marriage decisions were made. So maybe TL:C put a little bit of actual reality into reality shows, which is kind of novel.

Doesn’t mean I’m not ashamed of watching every episode, though.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2010 8:51 pm

    Well, not totally. I mean, I find most reality TV programming to be obnoxious. I don’t watch any of the talent-based competition shows (unless we’re counting “Top Chef” in that category, and I watch me the hell out of some “Top Chef.”), a fact that gets me into trouble frequently at work when my students/their parents ask me what I think of the latest batch of contestants. Fortunately, I can make things up on the fly fairly well. I don’t watch the shows that follow any sort of family, be they “little people” or a couple with 90bajillion kids or the latest, a family of sassy Black people (!).

    I loved what you wrote here. Most people who adore reality television have mixed reasons for their consumption, usually either seeking to downplay its problematic elements or fail to acknowledge at all. I can’t wait to see more analysis of reality TV consumption! Awesome post.

  2. raymondj permalink
    June 1, 2010 10:18 pm

    I’m so pleased and inspired by your coming out, perhaps I will start publicly analyzing The Bachelorette here!

  3. evmaroon permalink
    June 2, 2010 12:48 am

    I finished my reality TV cloud diagram a while ago, so darn it, I need to post it up here — because you hit the final nail in the coffin of it, if I may mix a couple metaphors. It really doesn’t matter what kind of reality show it is, they’re all forced and ideologically suspect. I’m looking at you, 20 and Counting!

  4. June 2, 2010 12:58 am

    Awesome post, indeed!

    Maybe we should take on the new season of Top Chef!

  5. June 2, 2010 7:54 am

    I’d looked down my nose at reality shows when they appeared on my radar (Cops? Please.) And then I got hooked on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” I admit I enjoyed the “tear you down to build you up” approach that made snarking on people OK as long as they ended up happier in the long run as much as the techniques and lingo I was learning (manscaping was a particular revelation). Learning at home, safe from the prime-time humiliation.

  6. June 2, 2010 9:32 am

    I find myself making sure to change the channel off of VH1 when I leave the house, just in case someone comes home before I make it back. The cries of “What is this crap? What are you doing to my animals?” get old after a while (yes, we leave the TV on so our dogs and cat don’t get lonely while we’re gone). That said, the folks who say that are fascinated by The Duggars and The Singing Bee (ohmygodstabmenow!).

    I got to thinking about this after the post about home improvement/design shows the other day, and how I watch them but loathe them. I also watch makeover shows, and generally like some of the advice, but don’t like a lot of the end results (seriously, Nick, can you do something that doesn’t involve completely changing the texture/color of someone’s hair?).

    Also, re: The Duggars–Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve known a lot of multiple-kid, homeschooled, religious families (I even teach one family vocal lessons…they’re like my own personal Von Trapps!), but I don’t find them all that TV worthy.

  7. irishup permalink
    June 2, 2010 10:15 am

    “Maybe part of it is my relief at seeing women and couples who I can deem as being “worse” than I am in some capacity…. ”

    Oh, lord yes, this was us when we JUST COULD NOT STOP WATCHING any variation of the “Super Nanny” shows. I mean, THANK GOD there were THOSE people who were so much WORSE at parenting than US! PHEEEEWWWWWW!!!!! And, like, I love to think of myself as someone who actively eschews deriving self-worth by comparison – I’m always telling the kids “it’s not about what anyone else do, it’s about what YOU do”. But, well, there it is: the dark underbelly.

    And yet, too, these made-for-TV realities mostly retain that made-for-TV happy ending. The participants are shown happier/better off than they were at the start. That *is* genuinely nice to see – it’s genuinely nice to have hope that the mess can be cleaned, order can be instilled, the problem can be solved. Whether this is in FACT true is of course, a wholenuther ball of wax.

    I think because of these things, I’ve changed how I think about the participants as well. I used to be very judgey about “the kind of person who goes on a Reality TV show”. It’s a real easy trap to fall in, and LOTS (most? all?) of the shows are framed to lead you right into that trap. Sure, people have all kinds of problematic reasons for it, but really, why should Reality TV be any different in this regard from reality? Shows with kids jam me up a little, because of the whole consent/assent problem with kids, but this is not a problem specific to RTV, either.

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