America’s Love Affair: What Reality TV Has Taught Us About Our Country

In an attempt to clear up the clutter that is causing my computer to take thirty minutes to perform even the simplest of tasks, I have begun deleting massive amounts of my documents.  While I may severely regret this decision sometime in the near future, cleaning house has led me to dig up some writing from years past that seemed appropriate to share now that I have created my own little place to do so.  First up?  A little diddy about reality TV (this is a personal obsession that I am not even remotely ashamed to admit that I have)… 

America is having a love affair with reality TV.  While some may have thought that it was merely a summer fling or a passing obsession, ten years later it still is in our beds, on our DVR’s, and the topic of discussion amongst our most trusted group of friends.  Suddenly we would far rather watch Daisy the hot mess on Rock of Love then classy and loveable Rachel from Friends.  Being the appearance crazed society that we are, however, many of us won’t admit to this shameful obsession.  We will substitute The Bachelor for Law and Order if anyone inquires about our favorite TV show, and shame on the person that actually admits to watching I Love New York.  But despite the faux pas that reality TV has created, it has certainly taught us a thing or two about American society.

 First Lesson:  We have an unnatural obsession with large (preferably mammoth sized) families.

The craze may have started with Jon and Kate and their brood of eight, but they have since lost their monopoly on having the largest family to the Duggar’s- a family that surpassed them by twelve (yes twelve) children.  They have been challenged by a few other massive clans on TLC specials, but these two families reign supreme when it comes to fulfilling America’s obsession with unnaturally (or perhaps far too naturally) large families.  Why, you may ask, do we care about them so damn much?  Well, I would say that it comes down to logistics.

For one, we want to know how it’s possible for these generally petite women to pop out 10, 15, or 20, kids and not be weighed down by sagging skin (or other extremities).  When Kate showed American audiences what her stomach looked like after giving birth to her eight children (“Like the jowls of a dog,” she said), the vast majority didn’t look away in horror, but stared at the massive wrinkles in a kind of morbid curiosity.  We are, after all, still impressed (or a bit disgusted) by what the human body is capable of.

For two, we want to know exactly what goes in to caring for such an insanely large family.  We are fascinated by what a trip to the grocery store costs, or how many diapers can be used up in one single day, or even how one woman can breast feed for twenty+ years and still have anything left over.  For those of us that already have a family and find ourselves complaining about the cost of school supplies or how draining bed time can be, we need only watch a thirty minute episode of these shows to realize how amazingly easy our lives are.  Yes, sometimes we watch them just to laugh at their own misfortune (even if they don’t see it as such).

Whatever the reason may be, the addition of two new enormously large families to televisions reality line up (one for WE and another for TLC) shows that America’s obsession is still in full throttle- and may require some more families out there to keep on producin’.

Second Lesson:  We are in love with finding love.

While this concept may have been mocked early on with dating shows like Blind Date or Singled Out, I’m sure television executives would agree that the love phenomenon is certainly nothing to scoff at.  Besides the obvious fact that love is a universal concept that everyone, at one time or another, has experienced or hoped to experience, we want to watch people in romantic situations for two reasons: 1) we truly want others to find love and it warms our hearts to be witness to it or 2) we want to see other people get their hearts broken (even crying has some entertainment value). 

For shows like The Bachelor where we are suppose to take the concept of finding “the one” a bit more seriously, we actually find ourselves becoming extremely invested in the future of a couple whose entire relationship is built on horrendously expensive group dates and catty competition.  Even though we know this from the get go, we still swoon when the perfectly styled groom gets down on one knee to purpose to a girl with a ring that costs the same amount as a year’s worth of his normal salary.  It is after all a fairy tale.  And when we see the massive headlines a mere two weeks later about their bitter breakup we sigh and shake our heads as if they just shattered our own dreams of marital bliss.

Yet, not all of us believe in the soft side of love- but no worries, there is something for everyone in the world of reality dating.  Of course with shows that start with 25 girls and one guy, someone is bound to get their heart, or their ego stomped on- and many will not hesitate to laugh at their misfortune.  Perhaps it is just a twisted way of healing our own past heartbreaks and humiliations, but whatever the reason many, find it extremely satisfying to scoff at someone stupid enough to apply to a reality tv show in the hopes of finding a husband or wife.

Is reality television a viable way to find love?  Statistics would say no, but that certainly doesn’t stop us from tuning in every week.

Third Lesson: Any type of drama involving other people is horribly entertaining.

Now this little lesson encompasses a reality show for every personality type.  If you like to watch scantily clad girls go head to head then The Bad Girls Club is just the show for you.  If you want to thank your lucky stars that a drug addiction isn’t on your plate of problems then perhaps Intervention would help you be a bit more grateful.  If you would like to watch a god fearin’ biker couple track down criminals with mace (not sure why you would but I digress…), then Dog the Bounty Hunter should be at the top of your list.  For those of us that have rather “normal” lives that don’t involve criminal activity or the like, reality TV is an easy way to get our drama fill without doing jail time.  I would say America stays glued to these types of shows for a few notable reasons.

First, we want to see how the other half live.  Some of us have convinced ourselves that the mere mention of the word “real” in the term reality TV is an indication that we are actually watching true life as it unfolds, which in turn would mean that some people do actually have lives far more fabulously interesting then our own.  We watch families like the Kardashians who seem so wonderfully tight-knit with all their “K” names, and wonder where we can sign up for a family like that.  Some of us wouldn’t even mind the cat fights if we could call their swanky Calabasas pad home.  MTV capitalized on this idea with the addition of their super superficial show Cribs. Yes, even you can take a tour of Mariah Carey’s Hello Kitty decked apartment as long as you have your very own television set (cursing your own bank account comes along with this territory).  Let’s be honest here though, you don’t have to have a paycheck with seven digits to capture the attention of television audiences.  Even when Intervention shows us how cracked out prostitutes live we can’t take our eyes off the screen.  Once again it goes back to logistics- where do they pee??  What do they use for a pillow??  Bottom line: we are fascinated by the human experience of other humans.

Second, adrenaline is a natural high.  When Chef Ramsey is shouting a long list of obscene cuss words at one of his talentless protégés or when Dog the Bounty Hunter is outside the run down shack of one of his bond jumpers we don’t even have to be directly involved to relish in the tension that these situations create.  For those of us who do little more than participate in the drudgery of a daily routine, taking part in a high-speed chase on Cops may very well be the highlight of our day- or week for that matter.  And of course, as the violence hungry society that we are, we simply love a good fight every once and a while.  It can be a solid fight with real punches and black eyes or it can be the wig pulling and bitch slapping that Real Housewives capitalized on- it doesn’t matter, either way it’s disturbingly hysterical.  Perhaps for all us passive folks that simply grit our teeth throughout the day, it’s our way of watching someone take out our aggression for us.  But no psychological jargon here- it’s just plain entertaining. 

 This may be the one category that shows how little progress we have made as a country- but my oh my is it fun to watch other people’s drama unfold.

Fourth Lesson:  We are always interested in the underdog.

Now I was going to say that we always want to root for the underdog but let’s be honest here- that just isn’t the case.  Yes, we have fallen in love with the idea that someone can come from a life of squalor and heartache and find themselves on stage with a pocketful of cash.  We have created shows around this very idea- American Idol, America’s Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance, the list goes on and on and on and on.  But these shows will also tell you that sometimes we just like to see the underdog fall on their face.  Hard. 

After all, with all of the stars that American Idol has pushed out into the world, watching the show would make it seem as if America had more delusional crack pots who can not even attempt to croak a tune than actual bona-fide talent.  Because for every amazing audition they show there are ten horribly horrific people who follow.  And even though it may be terribly sad when Simon’s comments bring hopeful contestants to tears, we can’t help but smirk at their stupidity in thinking that they actually had talent- and yes, we were laughing the whole time anyways. 

But again, I must pay homage to the fact that we do love a good sob story and a contestant that we can really root for.  In some ways it turns into this idea of “us against them (them being those that are amazingly successful, I suppose)” so every time a nobody finds fame through some amazing God-given talent, we cheer as if we just received the prize.  It makes us speak in clichés- “dreams really do come true,” or “all you have to do is believe,” and actually believe them.  After all, we love any story that renews our hope for our own lives- even if that hope is manufactured and packaged by the money-making reality TV giants.

 Fifth Lesson: We can turn anything (and I mean ANYTHING) into a TV show.

When television consisted of nothing more than a few news casts, some long running soap operas, a couple of dramas, and maybe a comedy or two it seemed as if there was a definite formula for a shows success.  When reality TV slipped on the scene like an obscene mistress it suddenly became obvious that Americans- well, we just aren’t that deep.  We don’t always need a crime drama with an elaborate plot or a highly inventive comedy that makes us think and laugh at the same time, no, we can be entertained by things that we might be able to witness in our own neighborhoods if we were to get off the couch.  A&E found this to be true when they came up with their list of sleeper shows like Parking Wars.  Yes, they actually made a show about people getting a parking ticket and fighting that said ticket at the tow lot.  Or of course the show simply titled Airline that shows all of the issues that could possible arise at various airports.  Somehow situations that we would give up our first-born in order to avoid become extremely entertaining when we are watching other people go through them from the comfort of our own couch. 

 Why, you may ask, is a country full of brilliant minds so easily distracted by, well, trash?  I think there is just one simple answer: sometimes checking out for a few hours with some senseless entertainment is far more appealing than anything that needs attention in our own lives.  And of course, as experienced as we all are at being humans, we are still fascinated by each other and how we interact- even if it is just a spat over a parking boot.  Again, we just aren’t that deep.

So when will this mistress stop leaving her lipstick marks on our remotes?  Water cooler conversations would tell us that she’s here to stay.  Can we complain though?  At least she’s doing her part to keep us desensitized and distant from the real world.  Here’s to you reality TV!

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2 responses

  1. So profound.

    Loved this post. It is quite sad but true, after all the reality tv shows centered around finding true love I think we are more apt to believe that love is going to be this wonderful fairy tale. We will meet someone in a unique way, we will never fight, they will be gorgeous and kind and the complete and total package. It is just a shame when we start to disregard people or happenings for this “reality” of how love falling in love should be.

    Best,

    Hannah Katy

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