Reality television may be on the decline but the ramifications of its rise are lasting.
Reality shows and social media are voyeuristic in intent. We are curious about the lives of others. We treat reality shows and social media as a way to observe the lives of others. However, both reality television and social media offer a hyper-unreal version of what we observe. The image is alluring but synthetic.
While we enjoy the act of viewing, our interest can fatigue. In 2015, Vulture writer Josef Adalian wrote about the end of the reality boom. Adalian quoted a former network chief who migrated to the digital world. The unnamed network chief stated, “Reality seems tired.” There was a general belief that reality television was a short-term fix to a long-term content problem. Now that scripted shows are abundant, we have become preoccupied but have not stopped feeding that curious drive.
America’s national obsession with reality shows has reached its apex. Reality television will be center stage on January 20. America has elected a reality television star to the White House. Donald Trump, like the Real Housewives and the Kardashians, has crafted a narrative around money and ostentation. To dissect these narratives and their effect on our collective actions are the only viable methods to reign that image and person in. One cannot hold their leaders accountable if they do not understand the drives of those that placed them there. What makes the narrative of wealth and excess so alluring? A closer look at the Real Housewives and Keeping Up with the Kardashians can answer this question.
Bravo’s Real Housewives is a touchstone of reality television and a key example of opulence in reality television. Similar to soaps like Dallas and Dynasty, Real Housewives incarnations focus on the wealthy squabbling in their McMansions. It is a particular type of subtle, wealth-obsessed voyeurism. For example, the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills spends a lot of time luxuriating in the wealth of the cast. The camera focuses on exterior shots of large, picturesque mansions and views. Much discussion focuses on extravagant parties and vacations. One season, a substantial amount of time was spent discussing expensive sunglasses. The cast takes expensive exotic vacations. They also throw Downton Abbey-style dinner parties. Beverly Hills’ claim to fame is the star power that occupies it and the wealth that the area represents. Beverly Hills represents luxury and privilege so it makes sense that the show would place such emphasis on the property of its cast.
Like The Bachelor and Survivor, Real Housewives is interpersonal drama as a spectator sport. Fist fights, screaming matches, wild accusations, and salacious gossip combines to create a soap opera reality show. These disagreements are often about mean girl comments and miscommunications. If Seinfeld is a show about nothing, Real Housewives is a show about fighting over nothing. Fights over nothing is why the show endures. Viewers feel superior to the wealthy cast members through recognizing the asinine nature of the disagreements.
Whereas Real Housewives traffics in soap opera dramatics, Keeping Up with the Kardashians deals with interpersonal familial drama and wealth. Similar to the Real Housewives basking in Beverly Hills, Keeping Up with the Kardashians revels in Calabasas. The Kardashians and fellow celebrities have made Calabasas the Great Gatsby’s West Egg to the Tom’s Westside East Egg. Calabasas to a Los Angeles native feels remote. The city is far enough from Los Angeles to feel elite and private while being close enough to Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Hollywood to feel relevant. The area itself is perfect embodiment of the pre-2008 McMansion lifestyles. The city is a cluster of multimillion dollar homes nestled behind metal gates. The local strip mall has a luxury jewelry store and the parking lot resembles Jay Leno’s car collection. Calabasas is a suburb that is distinctly LA, a suburb with glitz to it.
The Kardashians are also a perfect example of the role of social media and constant performance in a 24-hour news cycle world. Keeping Up with the Kardashians has done what the Simple Life always dreamed of: provide a reality vehicle to launch a lasting personal brand. The Kardashians have launched a media empire: the show, their app, a jean company, a general clothing line, and personalized apps to keep up with each family member. There seems no end to the Kardashian reach. Despite the glitz and vapidity, for better or worse, the Kardashian clan is a staple of pop-culture. Any activity that any of the family members are involved in is front page news. The slightest family squabble or new outfit is enough to derail an entire entertainment news segment. The Kardashian presence is so rampant that it serves as a viable pop-culture reference joke. For example, in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s second season, a running joke is that various characters know things about the Kardashians having never watched the show. When Kimmy herself recalls a Kardashian fact she reflects for a moment on where she heard it. She smiles and states, “I heard that on the regular news.”
One cannot help but think about Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public again in the context of our current political climate. The documentary details the human ant farm installation that Josh Harris constructed in New York. The exercise in humanity consisted of 100 artists living under New York City under 24 hour surveillance. The documentary at its heart is about our construction of personal identity. As social media is used widely by celebrities, both reality star and actor alike, the line between the real and the unreal is blurring. Stars are born on YouTube and presidents elect now tweet.
Vulture is ignoring one important thing: Americans love reality television like they love social media. The illusion of pulling back the curtain and watching what happens in another person’s home is irresistible. However, that does not mean that we value genuine vulnerability. Real emotion and human vulnerability is the line in the sand we have drawn between the comfortable unreal (social media and reality shows) and the uncomfortable peeping (hacking and invasion of privacy). Let us hope that line in the sand remains firm.