Life imitates art; art imitates life. But there’s a grey area between the crafted artifice of one and the organic authenticity of the other. And in that area lives two of the most popular trends of the last two decades: Reality TV and “found footage” film.
The latter category started with “The Blair Witch Project,” whose popularity seemed like a fluke, but more than a decade later, film franchises such as “Paranormal Activity” and “[Rec]” have shown that there is plenty of scary potential left in shaky cameras and semi-scripted acting.
Reality TV, however, is a far broader scope and more culturally pervasive. After all, the Oscars have yet to introduce a “Best Found Footage Film” category, while the Emmys now have three dedicated awards for the reality TV genre. New twists on the theme seem endless – celebrities in real life, real life people becoming celebrities, any mixture of the two doing tasks from the mundane to the spectacular.
While it may be stretching things a bit to connect modern Baudrillard philosophy to “America’s Next Top Model” and other reality shows, there is indeed a strong connection between the two. The key is the concept of “hyperreality,” which is essentially the observation that there is a cognitive overlap between authentic reality and simulated reality, and that neither, ultimately, has any better claim to absolute truth.
Baudrillard’s concepts found their clearest example in Disneyland. Both children and adults are subjected to a fantasy so complete, so overwhelmingly detailed, that the mind tries to reconcile immediate sensory perception with the knowledge that it has all been created. Children, of course, exist in an unfinished reality much of the time (typically at an inverse proportion to their age), so the suspension of disbelief is easier and more complete. But even adults can find themselves subtly and semi-consciously treating the Main Street environs and costumed inhabitants as if they actually possessed some of the qualities suggested by their outward appearance.
The potential of hyperreality finds its greatest extension in science fiction, where countless writers and filmmakers envision a thoroughly immersive artificial reality. Consider examples such as The X-Men’s “Danger Room” and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “holodeck,” where physical space becomes meaningless – you can potentially walk a hundred miles in an area less than a few dozen square feet. These simulations are so complete that they need to be programmed NOT to inflict grievous bodily harm, and users are warned that prolonged immersion can easily result in a disconnect from the reality outside the simulated environment.
But how does this help us understand the appeal of reality TV? The important part to recognize is that the closer a simulation gets to convincing you of its authenticity; the less difficult it is to suspend that disbelief. When viewers are presented with a scripted story, known actors, and designed sets, there is an unspoken agreement between the creators and the audience: “This is art, this is entertainment. Let us enjoy the show.” You can accept that they are watching something which isn’t real, and immerse themselves in it while always being on the other side of the fourth wall, outside of the TV show’s “reality.”
With reality TV, there is always the recognition that the characters are real people in the real world. Your distance from what is happening can be measured in real miles and real hours. You watch reality TV as if from a security camera or TV news report. You start from a point where your disbelief has already been suspended as far as it can go (given the fact that you’re watching, rather than living, an experience), and only build suspicion into it when you see something that suggests artifice.
The least amount of suspension of disbelief can be achieved with “hidden camera” shows, which tend to be far more widespread in Japan than they are on Western television. However, there are exceptions, as far back as “Candid Camera,” the great-grandfather of the modern reality show. With “Punk’d” and “Scare Tactics,” we get to see unsuspecting real people reacting to scripted surprises — although the range of reactions is understandably limited, they are still “real” reactions. On the other hand, the viewer is always “in on the prank,” and therefore retains much of the fourth-wall distance that reality TV tries to dismantle.
As with Schrodinger’s Cat, you are tacitly aware that the existence of the camera affects the reality. Even “COPS,” the forerunner of the reality TV boom, depicted policemen who were more or less aware that their activities were being recorded. Although we could watch it as if it were a documentary, we never quite let go of the understanding that the events were not a completely representative depiction of what “actual” (i.e., untelevised) police officers would do or say. As with the more sensationalistic talk shows, you could only suspend your disbelief so far; yes, they’re real people, but do they really behave that way when the camera is off?
You know that these people would, or maybe just “might” act differently if they didn’t know they were being filmed. The element of artifice is almost never fully absent; from “The Real World” to “Big Brother” to “Fear Factor” and “Survivor,” reality TV typically takes people out of their “real” surroundings and puts them in a “set:” a situation that is inherently unreal and therefore inauthentic in many ways, and scripted to the extent that external elements are introduced to provoke some sort of unscripted response. Yet the people themselves are real, the environment has extension in the real world, and what occurs is largely the way that we know we might react given similar circumstances. We don’t ever know that they are acting or reacting; because in real life, there are plenty of natural over-actors, under-actors, convincing fakes and unbelievably honest people.
Celebrity-driven reality shows reverse this dynamic by taking people who are well-known and following them in real situations. Whether it’s the larger-than-life domesticity of “The Osbournes” or the contest pageantry of “Dancing with the Stars,” we are able to see the actors playing themselves. There is something uniquely humanizing about the results, a temptation to overlook artifice simply because it is someone who we’re accustomed to seeing in an artificial context. We say “oh, Tommy Lee’s not on stage right now, so we’re seeing the real Tommy Lee.” Despite any amount of evidence that the situation is unreal, the sheer weight of an actor playing themselves can transform our expectations.
Yet, when it gets right down to it, who is the “real” Tommy Lee? Would he be any more real if the cameras were off completely? The unique burdens of celebrity confer an additional layer of artifice that extends into real life; one becomes accustomed to living up to strangers’ expectations of a character that you’ve portrayed. Ultimately, it’s not a celebrity issue at all; it’s a human issue. Each one of us subtly or drastically alters our persona, depending upon the expectations of the situation, and the people that we encounter. Are we any more real first thing in the morning than we are at 4pm? Are we truly more real to our families than we are to our bosses?
“If a fake is so that even after the most thorough and trustworthy examination its authenticity is still open to doubt, is it or is it not as satisfactory a work of art as if it were unequivocally genuine?” – Aline B. Saarinen
The desire for authenticity has been a struggle throughout the history of Art, and never more so than during the 20th Century. From the rise of cinema verite to the embrace of art brut, our aesthetic need has demanded that we find satisfaction in forms that strip away any veneer of artifice.
Yet artifice in itself is a basic human characteristic, evinced in the roles that we play on a daily basis. The cameras that are focusing on us are the eyes of our friends, co-workers, strangers that we pass in the street, and even our closest loved ones, who never truly know all that goes on within us, see us as actors who are no longer assuming a role, but are playing ourselves. Because we are real at home, we are more believable.
Reality TV is not the imposition of entertainment upon the real lives of strangers. It is a reflection of that grey area in which we all live, the border between a truth which we can never fully discover, and an Art which can never be separated completely from real life. We are irresistibly attracted to it because we know that it’s staged, and we know that it’s real — and the difference between the two is nothing more or less than the difference between our lives and our thoughts.
Stephanie Caldwell is from Salt Lake City and writes for CableTV.com. She loves to read, run, and watch TV.
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