In the summer of 2010, when reality programming was still an incipient subgenre of television, regularly mocked as fatuous and crude, MTV aired the series finale of The Hills. Plagued throughout its run by accusations of artifice, The Hills, along with The Real World, The Simple Life, and The Osbournes, was nevertheless a chief architect of the genre’s popularity, the forerunner of a particular sort of aspirational programming in which attractive young adults jettisoned their cushy roots (in this case, Laguna Beach, Calif.,) to pursue dream careers in fashion, or something like it, in a big city (in this case, Los Angeles). After a four-year run, the series ended with what then qualified as a provocation. Decamping to Europe from her native California in search of a “new beginning,” Kristin Cavallari bids adieu to her on-again, off-again boyfriend Brody Jenner as she packs her luggage into a car headed for LAX. “I hope you find what you’re looking for,” he tells her. An acoustic version of Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” swells in the background, and Brody looks on wistfully as the car takes off, the Hollywood sign looming large behind his signature black trucker hat. Then the camera pans back, the sign starts to move, the car turns around. And as Kristin gets back out, hugging Brody as one would a scene partner, it’s revealed that the whole thing was shot on a soundstage.
Even if many had suspected the show’s dramatic dalliances and disloyalties were contrived for television, this final scene still qualified as a breach of the reality-TV contract, setting in motion the erosion of the very pretenses that attracted viewers to the genre in the first place, namely the advertisement of raw verisimilitude. Consumers of reality television, now, are hip to its machinations, at least in part because it helped nurture the fiction of Donald Trump as a capable, no-nonsense leader. In the last decade, as we’ve more or less dispensed with the prickly matter of these shows’ fidelity to truth, unscripted programming has become not only a subject of academic interest but a subject engaged academically, one whose fans are as fluent in the details of Jen Shah’s allegedly fraudulent telemarketing scheme as they are the precise circumstances of her season-long row with Meredith Marks, her costar on The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.
Danielle Lindemann, a sociology professor at Lehigh University and the author of a spirited new book about the topic, True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us, counts herself among those scholar-fans. She is, she admits, “someone who wakes up in the middle of the night idly wondering whether Pam and Judd from The Real World: San Francisco are still together.” Her book, however, takes on a more investigative register. Each chapter is assigned a sociological designation—“the self,” “couples,” “families,” “class,” “race,” “sexuality,” and so on—through which we are meant to better understand the ways reality television reflects and then sensationalizes our society’s own archconservative ethic. This proves an accommodating framework for Lindemann’s argument in favor of the hidden substance of reality TV, allowing her to mine the genre for morsels of insight in rebuke of its grumpy critics. But the approach can be overdetermined in its rigor, leaving the reader with little impression of the pleasures and personalities that populate reality television beyond their unlikely presence as subjects of scholarship.
Early in the book, invoking the German social theorist Georg Simmel, Lindemann offers up something of a disclaimer for her project, noting that the sociologist’s job is “not to complain or condone but only to understand.” Complaining and condoning, of course, provide much of the material from which reality television manufactures its product, so this clinical appraisal of the genre sometimes plods, like an acoustic cover of a pop song. But in her quest for understanding, substantiated by numerous references to a suite of formidable academics and intellectuals, Lindemann makes a compelling case for the seriousness of reality television, which she considers “a fun house mirror of our dominant, heteronormative culture” and also the site of that culture’s potential subversion. She skirts the played-out question of how real these shows actually are, positing instead that their realness resides in the heightened reproduction of long-standing archetypes and social conventions.
In CBS’s Undercover Boss, for example, which follows anonymous white-collar executives who slum it with low-level workers before revealing their true identity and vowing to rectify certain corporate inequities, Lindemann identifies a rosier version of what Karl Marx called commodity fetishism. By exposing our alienation from the means of production, Lindemann contends, Undercover Boss demonstrates “hierarchies of labor and the power relations enmeshed within them.” This brings us to the Kardashians, who appear earlier and more usefully in Lindemann’s chapter on families as units of both economic and emotional support. Less persuasive, however, is the idea that Keeping Up With the Kardashians illustrates Marx’s distinction between “use value” and “exchange value,” since the sources of the family’s riches—paid sponsorships, buying and selling companies, and, of course, being on television—are today considered legitimate if not particularly virtuous forms of work. Sure, the Kardashians, to some imaginary viewer, may expose the misalignment of work and compensation, but the family’s impact is felt most strongly in how they’ve altered our ideas of what constitutes “work” altogether.
Lindemann’s penchant for extrapolation yields more interesting insights on the subject of competition shows, where participants are “taffy-pulled into entertaining caricatures,” and in the process become vectors for a number of malignant tropes. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, a project proudly unprogressive in its simulations of romance, is a bit of a sitting duck; it has spawned dozens of copycat shows that are cautiously more imaginative in matters of sex and courtship. But Lindemann devotes a worthy amount of time to the genre’s flagship franchise, drawing connections between the show’s notions of sexual economy and our own, or its scarcity of non-white contestants and Americans’ generally unaccepting attitudes toward interracial relationships. Though Lindemann’s politics are clear, she steadfastly avoids prescriptive fixes to these problems. “This is not an argument about what the show should be doing,” she writes, in keeping with the conventions of sociology. “Rather, it’s evidence that the Bachelor world bears the imprint of our own.” So too, she adds, does American Idol, Hell’s Kitchen, and Project Runway, whose ruthless white male judges—Simon Cowell, Gordon Ramsey, and Michael Kors—mirror “our tolerance for meanness and aggression in real life.” At this point, you might come away convinced there’s something real about reality television after all.
Never more so than in the genre’s typecasting of Black subjects, a routine that was expertly satirized on 30 Rock, when Angie, having parlayed her TV-star husband Tracy’s success into a reality show of her own, yanks out a clump of Liz Lemon’s hair because she’s “contractually obligated to pull out some bitch’s weave.” Reality TV shows, Lindemann observes, draw their limited sense of Black expression from the minstrel shows of the 19th century. Though Luann de Lesseps, in an attempt to dress up as Diana Ross, did appear to darken her face for Dorinda’s Halloween party on The Real Housewives of New York City, the influence of minstrelsy on these programs materializes most often in their reliance on cartoonish stereotypes as engines of drama and disharmony. Lindemann adds that “the reality genre gets particular traction out of taking putatively elegant black ladies and cutting them down to size,” recalling the misadventures of Tiffany Richardson, whose elimination from America’s Next Top Model inspired the now-iconic meme of Tyra Banks yelling, “We were all rooting for you!”
In Lindemann’s view, many of these shows traffic in “conservatism repackaged as outlandishness,” while others still show the triumph of a more liberal and disruptive value system. She recalls the openly gay and HIV-positive Pedro Zamora, of the The Real World: San Francisco, whose “commitment ceremony” with his partner was unprecedented when it aired on MTV in 1994, the year AIDs became the leading killer of Americans aged 25–44. And Judith Butler (whose nemesis, Camille Paglia, praises Lindemann’s work on the book’s dust jacket), features in a section about how RuPaul’s Drag Race both “exposes gender as something that is socially constructed” and, because the queens “take all sorts of measures to approximate female-sexed bodies,” wrongly equates gender with biology.
Over nearly 300 pages, Lindemann marshals a great deal of evidence that to treat these shows as mere guilty pleasures is to understate their utility as agents of harmful or, alternatively, progressive ideas. It is a notion I think most would endorse, having seen Donald Trump exploit the dramatic and aesthetic conventions of reality television in pursuit of power and then apply them as an actual mode of governance. “The Trump presidency seized upon our wariness about what’s really real—a wariness that is common to our consumption of both politics and unscripted programming,” writes Lindemann in the book’s conclusion, where she addresses the elephant in the room most conducive to its thesis.
Whether or not the seeds of this wariness were fertilized by reality shows, and/or by a disillusioned public, and/or by this country’s legacy of political deceit and corruption, is mostly unknowable. But Lindemann is right to note that the terms by which many in his audience engaged Trump—taking his promises seriously, but not literally—mirror those by which we watch reality television, in knowing but happy deference to its devices. The genre “works at the level of feeling rather than cognitive content,” she adds, citing the media scholar Misha Kavka.
In the too-infrequent moments where the book opts for feeling over forensics, I was relieved to find Lindemann indulging her affection for reality television less defensively, to see the various quirks and intimacies that can accumulate over years of serialized, semi-candid exposure to the same outsize personalities (I, for one, am liable to cry “You beast!” in fits of road rage, as Kim Richards did to Eileen Davidson at the famous Amsterdam dinner on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills).
“I learned the best way to crack an egg from Snooki & JWoww,” she writes, “and it’s because of Vicki from The Real Housewives of Orange County that I roll my clothes when packing for trips.” Such accounts more effectively capture our peculiar relationship to reality television as a site of emotional investment, one where conflicting feelings—of closeness or scorn, fealty, or suspense—engender their own kind of truth, independent of and often notwithstanding our recognition of their savvy fabrication. Indeed, as Lindemann reasons, these shows have much to tell us about ourselves as a collective. But it is the private reconciliation between program and viewer, the wink and the nod of the genre, that most powerfully reveals our individual capacity to indulge these pretensions in pursuit of closeness and amusement.
It’s no surprise, of course, that this attention to pleasure over politics would become our dominant mode of congress, a momentary stay against guilt and consumption and, to some extent, thought itself. This is why, if you go to YouTube and watch the last five minutes of The Hills, you too might get the chills watching Kristin say goodbye to Brody, a sensation both of greater force and greater consequence than the hollow satisfaction you feel, moments later, that you knew it was all a fake.