The Real Worlds

7 June 2017

Reality television is supposed to be real. That’s the appeal, after all. Reality television involves real people in real situations with real voices making real confessionals to real cameras for real reasons. It’s a hyper-real environment, and yet.

There’s a lot of flak coming for reality television, and often. Because hyper-reality is sometimes interpreted as exactly the opposite of what it appears: it’s ‘contrived’ and ‘overblown’ and ‘staged’. Hyper-reality is almost unreal, and sometimes, that just means it’s fake.

But let’s backtrack.

There are things wrong with reality television; many deep and gruesome things. There is a culture of exploitation that too often reigns, especially as reality television approaches the slice of life quality of Real Housewives and Kitchen Nightmares. Too often, producers feel compelled to bring things down to their base level – explain everything, leave no room for subtlety and lean completely on archetypes. So, some are going to come for reality television. And that’s fine.

But reality television allows us to experience things that no other genre of television on the air can. No drama can provide the unscripted glance into how people actually work, and yet, reality television is there. No comedy can consciously capture the unconscious rhythms of life to perfection, and yet, reality television is there. The full potential for reality television to explore areas that are otherwise unreachable by scripted television is limitless and still untapped. Vapidity and hyperreality, coexisting, is how reality television works.

Real things do happen on reality television. You’ve got Ben, the winner of Big Brother Australia in 2012, proposing to his boyfriend immediately afterwards. Reality television often has a chain of events to follow, and that broke right out of the established ‘someone wins, then someone gets interviewed, then we cut to break’ pattern. And their marriage may not as yet be real, legislatively; but their love was and that moment was. Nobody told Ben to be gay, or to fall in love with his boyfriend or to feel compelled to symbolically unite as he did while overcome with Big Brother-winning-related emotion. He simply acted as he was.

There’s Survivor: South Pacific, an entire season of marooned-on-an-island based competition which sketched, in sometimes extreme detail, the effect that religion can have on groupthink and small societies. The ferocity in which Ben ‘Coach’ Wade, himself hyperreal, acting as the leader of ‘The Family’, used his faith to manipulate and control the other members of the alliance created deeply uncomfortable and polarising viewing, but it is a choice that he made. Nobody told Wade to be religious. Nobody told him to say that someone getting betrayed and voted out was “God’s will”. He simply acted as he was.

And this, of course, is juxtaposed with the mundanity and vapidity of reality television. As if real life were any different! One too many drinks on a Friday night, an entire day lounging around a house with no entertainment or distractions, deeply personal and uncomfortable moments – these things happen in life.

Reality television does edit around them, sometimes. Those producers, they frame things how they want things to be seen, according to the story they wish to tell. It isn’t reality, after all – it’s reality television. But this framing reflects real life. When a contestant was outed as trans on Survivor this year, the ‘edit’ was significantly changed from what we might have seen 10 years earlier. There was no extraordinary othering, no ‘unmissable special event’ – it happened, and then we promptly moved on. The show itself just showed peoples’ outrage that it could happen – that it did happen, and moved on: something unthinkable 10 years ago, when the advertising may well have been very different

Was it the right thing to do at all, to treat it as simply another ‘thing’, air it, and move on? Different people have different answers. But, for all its televisual influence, reality television still reflects reality, albeit in an edited way. It has to. Vapidity, meet hyperreality.

But, at the end of the day, it’s just a genre that focuses on people behaving badly, or doing dumb things for money, or making fools of themselves on national television. Right? In real life, people grow, and reality television doesn’t allow that to happen.

Some shows fit that, especially when their runs are short. But others allow their characters to flourish under the light of a years-long run. Cirie Fields, a four-time contestant on Survivor, began as ‘the woman who got up off her couch’. In her first air time, she was scared of leaves. On Survivor. And she’s widely considered one of the greatest Survivor players to never win, having come third and become the last member of the Jury twice.

How does a person contain those contradictory multitudes? Growth, simply.

Cirie, along with any other reality television character, or any other person, did not become a terrifying force overnight. One episode, it’s being scared of leaves. The next, it’s making fire. After that, three months down the track, the woman who almost got voted out first is busy playing all sides against each other whilst feeling at home on the beach, missing out purely because of a tie-breaking string that wouldn’t burn from the fire she lit.

And years later, when she would come back, she would no longer be scared. She would treat the island as if it were her home. As if she had grown.

And that happens over and over on reality television. Because, characters need to grow on television, but reality’s advantage is that these characters are real. No matter what the cameras show, what the producers leave in or throw out, every frame is a real moment. Every frame is a window into a unique experience that, for one person, will never be replicated and never be forgotten.

Reality television cops a lot of flak. But its singular ability to be what life is must be treasured. It’s vapidity meeting hyperreality. And life is vapid, but also real. And we’re constantly privileged to view reality as we do.

We lose nothing from appreciating reality television and what it stands for. Confining ourselves to just books would be a loss, all round. Reality television is supposed to be real – and for all of its vapidity, it succeeds in capturing something so very authentic about real people living real lives in a way that no other media format has managed.

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