Last week we drew your attention to the challenge of neighborliness in a polarized age by pointing to an account of Nancy Rosenblum’s recent work, Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America. In addition to arguing that decency is the cardinal virtue of neighborliness, Rosenblum defines neighbors as “people we encounter regularly, even if the only acknowledgment is a nod or its opposite—a regular, rude display of disregard.”
This week we bring you two remarkable essays on reality television. While this may seem like a diversion, it is not. In the first place, we have a standing interest in the ways neighborly relationships are mediated technologically—and over the last decade and a half, reality TV has been a major way that we become aware of our neighbors. And secondly, though pundits have paid scant attention to this fact, the American president-elect spent a great deal of the last decade as a reality TV star, portraying himself to millions of Americans as savvy, decisive, knowledgeable, and perhaps most importantly, authoritative. If Salena Zito was right to quip that America is divided between those who took Trump “literally, but not seriously” and those who took him “seriously, but not literally,” Trump’s career in reality TV is partly responsible for that divide.
Our first piece makes the case that reality TV has a politics of its own. In an essay called “The Reality of Reality Television,” Mark Greif casts the emergence of the genre as a form of democratic self-expression, a popular movement intended to capture and convey the substance of everyday life. On this reading, America’s democratic instincts help make sense of its addiction to reality TV. Ours is a society that honors what Greif calls the “special celebration of ordinary living itself”—and for this reason, it makes sense that one of our most prized forms of entertainment is, essentially, watching our peers do things we can do ourselves.
Think for a moment about the difference between the reality show and the TV drama. As an heir and complement to the theater, TV dramas (which are, to be sure, currently in a golden age) consider the plight, virtue, and quality of characters whose lives differ from ours in important ways. The moral power of drama, in other words, is partially due to its unreality, its distance from our everyday lives. Reality shows, on the other hand, attempt to display American lives as they truly are—or, as is more often the case, as we imagine them to be.
While dramas hold up characters as exemplars or cautionary tales that show us how our lives could or should be, reality TV claims only to show life as it is—in all its glory, confusion, and sometimes, ugliness. Were it a drama, ABC’s The Bachelor would be a cautionary tale. As a reality show, the fact that the “characters” are merely people for whom the cameras never turn off licenses our endless fascination, criticism, and scorn. In this way, reality TV changes people on both sides of the camera. As Greif puts it, “The reality of reality television is that it is the one place that, first, shows our fellow citizens to us and, then, shows that they have been changed by television.”
In an essay published for Aeon titled “The Pleasure of their Pain,” Batya Ungar-Sargon confesses her love of reality TV while also admitting that, “Over and over, I find myself asking, in the manner of an 18th-century professor of rhetoric and Belles Lettres, how could the suffering of others bring me so much joy?” In answering this question, Ungar-Sargon makes an obvious but often overlooked point: if we were to come across an actual neighbor in many of the situations depicted on reality TV, we would take no delight in that person’s exposure, pain, and humiliation. Suppose, for example, we suddenly came across a group of 25 attractive women pining for the affections of a milquetoast “bachelor” spouting platitudes and handing out roses. What would we do? Avert our eyes in horror? Squirm with embarrassment? Talk them into changing their lives? Pity them and come to their aid? Not so when this same dynamic is packaged for TV. As Ungar-Sargon writes:
The wheels of the show are greased with the public humiliation of beautiful women, and though I abhor watching people humiliated in real life, somehow, reality TV is not real enough to activate that abhorrence.
Why do we do this? In Ungar-Sagon’s view, what drives the proliferation of reality TV, and the absurd lengths producers will traverse in search of a niche hit, is our need for catharsis—a kind of ritual purification that costs us little but benefits us a great deal. “We watch with horror as our onstage avatar gives form to our own most shameful wishes,” she says. And precisely when that avatar meets his or her punishment, “the fear we feel of suffering a similar fate expunges—purges—those shameful desires, leaving us with the pleasurable sensation of being conflict-free.” In this way, catharsis is collective self-soothing, a shared sense that the humiliation we delight in on screen will somehow shield us from our own.
But this is a fool’s errand. And while a comprehensive psychological assessment of America in the Age of Trump is neither possible nor wise, the process of “normalizing” Trump did not begin when voters were exposed to candid, cruel, and egregious remarks on the campaign trail. It did not begin during the campaign at all. It began when editors at New York tabloids, creators of magazines like Spy, and the producers of The Apprentice came to the same conclusion as today’s news media executives: this man may not make us better, but he sure makes us money. We are, it seems, a society that has lost its way: somewhere, in attempting to affirm patterns of everyday life, we have become hell-bent on discovering, elevating, revering, and humiliating fellow citizens and calling it fun.