Academic Writing

Friday, April 15, 2011

Today's Reality

Snooki and Pseudo-Events

When reality programming started it was heralded as a cheap alternative to scripted television that would save the networks from costly and diva-esque actors.  In the past decade since the dawning of the Golden Age of Reality TV has been upon us, audiences have seen what seems like unending iterations of the genre.  Between the competitions (The Bachelor, Survivor), Hidden Camera (Undercover Boss), Self-Help (The Biggest Loser, Millionaire Matchmaker), “cinema verite” (The Real Housewives, Jersey Shore, Teen Mom), and Family Drama (Wife-Swap), Surgical (The Swan, Dr. 90210), and Do-Gooder (Extreme Home Makeover), there seems to be something to fulfill any type of voyeuristic need that a viewer might have.  But to what cultural expense?

In 1961 Daniel Boorstin published his book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America in which he outlines how America was living in the “Age of Contrivance.”  As explained by Transparency.com, “He claimed that America was living in an "age of contrivance," in which illusions and fabrications had become a dominant force in society. Public life, he said, was filled with "pseudo-events" -- staged and scripted events that were a kind of counterfeit version of actual happenings. Just as there were now counterfeit events, so, he said, there were also counterfeit people - celebrities - whose identities were being staged and scripted, to create illusions that often had no relationship to any underlying reality.”  Boorstin’s claim came right as television was gaining popularity and importance in American society and as America was beginning to replace images of actual importance with these so-called contrived pseudo-events.  For instance, Nixon had just lost the debate against JFK on television primarily due to his televisual presence.  Those who had heard the debate on the radio thought that Kennedy had lost because they weren’t swayed by visual images influencing their opinions. 

In our era of so much of the television landscape being dominated by reality TV, Boorstin’s words never rang truer.  The so-called reality stars are constantly trying to one up each other and themselves be it in inciting conflict or general grotesque behavior to get attention.  The media doesn’t make it any better by bringing their indiscretions to light either on the covers of their magazines or through their lip flap on their own television programs.  Most recently, Rutgers University took it to the next level when they decided chose to pay Snooki, a low class drunken party girl, $32,000 to hold two question and answer sessions while they are paying Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison $30,000 to give their Commencement Address.  What a statement Rutgers is making:  Snooki is famous as a walking pseudo-event and while yes, she has technically authored a book of her own, really has not contributed anything positive to our society. 

On Anderson Cooper 360, Cooper offers his take on the situation (no pun intended…)

I’m personally in complete agreement with Cooper.  He tells it like it is and points out the utter ridiculousness that is the state of reality TV.  He starts his argument by mentioning Snooki’s newly upped salary.  She will now be making $100,000 per episode to behave badly.  Charlie Sheen was recently fired in part for similar behavior on his scripted show, but now we’re saying it’s lauded when a reality star does it?  What does that say about our priorities?  Further, reality was initially meant to be a cheap alternative to scripted, this seems to be almost encouraging the next generation to take Snooki’s behavior to the next level and if they offer it up for a cheaper rate they’d be happy to take her spot in the limelight.  How can we be honoring this behavior?  It makes me cringe to think she, and others similar to her, are being celebrated for this behavior.  Calling it reality (when in fact it’s often largely scripted and produced) encourages others to behave similarly, offering the message that the more you fall down drunk and act like a moron and as long as you’re willing to do it in public, it could earn you a big paycheck.   

It’s time for us as a society to take a closer look into how we choose to show ourselves to the world.  In an era where we are competing with other world powers to produce the smartest minds, do we really want our biggest export to be someone who’s most famous acts are passing out drunk on the beach?  Boorstin predicted it 50 years ago.  At this rate, I’m not sure I’m looking forward to it’s evolution in another 50 years.

1 comment:

Dan said...

While I agree with you and with Cooper on this, I think that there's something admirable about Snooki. I see her in the same vein as Seacrest and Zuckerberg who similarly took a small chance and turned it into an empire. They've conquered markets we didn't know existed. And that's why she's valued so highly - you won't ever see another Snooki. Which, by all means, is a good thing.