Thursday, October 13, 2005

Is "Reality TV" Valuable to Historians?

I got sucked up into the original Survivor lo' those many years ago. I was fascinated by the dynamic interplay of individuals as they tryed to "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast" in a Lord of the Flies-like setting and applauded when "the Snake" (and my home state of Rhode Island's own), Richard Hatch--the original Reality TV Machiavelli--took home the big prize.

At roughly the same time as that first exposure to Reality TV, I had again begun "serious" study by going back to school to pursue an MA in History. As I look back, I wonder why two such seemingly-opposite intellectual endeavors--higher education and watching reality tv--could have both appealed to me at the same time. My first thought is that I had turned to the light fare of Reality TV because it allowed my brain some down time from all of the heavy reading and thinking I was doing at school (on top of that done at work). Now I'm not so sure. Can it be that there is some historical value, or at least some value that historians can take, from watching these shows? Can Flavor Flav teach historians a thing or two?

First, it must be recognized that most (if not all) of the situations engineered into reality TV shows are innately fictitious and don't necessarily accurately reflect "real life." Some colleges and universities have gone so far as to offer collegiate courses centered around analyzing and studying reality television. However, others believe that such "reality" is no such thing. In commenting on The Osbournes, Rick Pieto and Kelly Otter observed:
As a popular term, reality TV denotes a variety of shows from Cops to Survivor, from the The Bachelor to The Osbournes. The term reality TV implies the documentation of the "reality" of an event or "referent" that somehow, in some way, exists independently of the recording machines that capture the event. Not only does MTV bend the conventions of the fictional genre with its ironic use of opening credits, but it also bends the codes, conventions, and ethics of documentary filmmaking so as to capture a segment of the youth market. This practice efficiently produces an ironic brand of media for a presumed media-savvy, (read: young) audience. The footage of police pullovers that are recorded by dashboard-mounted cameras for the reality show Cops, however problematic, more accurately fit the description of reality TV. Programs such as Survivor, The Bachelor, The Real World, and even The Osbournes do not document or observe an independent reality through a camera, as documentary films purport to do; they record the behaviors and activities appropriate to self-consciously constructed situations. As Erica Goode stated in a New York Times article, shows like Survivor, Big Brother, and The Bachelor are direct descendants of the social psychology experiments of the sixties and seventies. The film version of Stanley Milgram's infamous study Obedience to Authority and Philip Zimbardo's 1971 Stanford study provide the generic roots of reality TV. What these texts have in common, from Milgram's study to Big Brother, is the construction of an all-encompassing social situation with compelling rules and rigidly defined roles that influence, in often highly predictable ways, the social actions of the people who are in the situations. What reality TV presents is not the unobtrusive observations of an event that would have existed independently of the camera, but a highly controlled situation that produces a social drama constructed specifically for the camera (or experimenter).
The camera changes how people act. I think most people, at least subconsciously, realize this. However, even with this acknowledged, people are still people, and still can act in unpredictable ways. Elspeth Probyn's perspective very much mirrors my own.
Those who are not fans of the genre often wonder why people watch talkshows or reality TV. My educated guess is that it is something about the staging of real emotion. In the new generation of reality TV there’s also the crude but compelling mixture of team spirit versus rugged individualism. Shows like Survivor give us a vision of human sociality stripped naked. The big draw seems to be that we can watch real, if not very likeable, people do unreal things in order to win. And we get to squeal in outrage about the fact we’re watching it.
That, to me, is the key. Reality TV offers a chance to watch people compete and gives us better understanding, if often an editorially manipulated one, of how far some people will go to "win." Can any general conclusions about humanity be drawn from such constructed situations? What, if anything, can historians learn about contigency or "free will" by watching these shows? Does it even matter because such knowledge is only applicable to these specific arenas and couldn't be applied to our analysis of the past?

There have been some reality shows that have attempted to put people in genuine historical situations. In particular, I recall watching the PBS show Colonial House with both great interest and frustration. The problems with such an endeavor were best summed up by Dennis Cass in his review of the show for Slate.
Colonial House is proof that you can take the man out of the 21st century but you can't take the 21 st century out of the man. During Tuesday's episode, for example, cast member Jonathon Allen, a 24-year-old graduate student, tells the colony he is gay. It's an awkward, uncomfortable moment, but not in the way you might think. The weirdness doesn't come from the fact that Allen comes out on television—MTV's The Real World did away with that social taboo ages ago—but from his breaking the rules of Colonial House. "In 1628 I wouldn't even be having this conversation," says Allen, "because the governor would probably put a stop to it and take me out there and kill me." Allen says that he can no longer not be himself—a strange sentiment coming from a man who decided to spend his summer pretending to be a 17th-century indentured servant.

And then there's Gov. Jeff. I never thought I'd be in sympathy with a conservative Baptist minister from Waco, Texas, but Jeff Wyers, playing the colony's governor, seems to be the only person who wants the show to be what it was intended to be. Last night, he attempted to model the colony on the Puritan ideal of a utopian "City on a Hill." But when Gov. Jeff lays down the law—no profanity, women must cover their hair, mandatory church attendance on the Sabbath—almost everyone, in his or her own way, rebels. Saucy indentured servant Paul Hunt keeps swearing up a storm; Mr. and Mrs. Voorhees ditch church to go skinny dipping (!); while freeman Dominic Muir sneaks off to town for a beer and a plate of fries. Implementing historically accurate enforcement measures—wearing scarlet letters, being tied to a wooden stake—proves to be a modern pain in the ass, and work is brought to a near halt. Because the colony is expected to be financially viable (project rules dictate that the cast pay off imaginary "investors"), Gov. Jeff capitulates, proving that at least he's well-versed in that most modern of religions—expediency.

Colonial House is by no means a bad show. On the contrary: It's painstakingly researched, beautifully photographed, and it effectively debunks myths about the colonists as a bunch of dour, buckle-shoed squares. The viewer comes away with a good sense of how arduous life was for early settlers, and somewhere in there is buried a message about the challenges of balancing individual freedom with the individual's responsibility to his or her community. But whether Colonial House provides a true flavor of life in early America, I can't be sure. The next time someone hopes to capture how it truly felt to live in 1628, I hope they hire actors.
In the end, there was some real historical knowledge to be gained by watching Colonial House, but that value was derived more from the production values and accuracy of detail and not from observing the way that the participants acted in a colonial setting. Perhaps the next such endeavor while strive for stricter controls, even if they won't be using actors.

In the end, I see some potential value in a more strictly controlled scenario similar to that of Colonial House. I also think there is some limited value in watching more contemporary shows to study how different people act in pressure situations when their own self-interest is endangered. Perhaps, just like with sports, competition in the "reality" genre can tell us something about being human. As such, I think one lesson learned is that most people will do anything to win in those controlled and manipulated settings of Reality TV. Whether such a lesson can help historians in their study of the past, minus the cameras, seems doubtful.

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