No, I haven’t watched the show. Yes, its (fleeting) cultural footprint is inescapable. But I do want to discuss reality television in light of Jonah Goldberg’s latest column, which makes a bunch of smart points but (I think) fundamentally misunderstands the essential nature of trashy programming.
From my cultural vantage point, ‘Jersey Shore’ isn’t a celebration of muscleheads or guidos. Granted, the show’s very existence validates their subculture, but its core audience is made up of voyeurs indulging in bad television from the safety of their living rooms, not potential imitators. Read a smattering of reviews or check out Vulture’s oh-so-clever episode recaps – critics are laughing at the show’s participants, not with them.
I seldom watch reality television, but some shows – Survivor, The Amazing Race – strike me as basically benign competitions among well-adjusted adults. ‘Jersey Shore’ and its ilk seem fundamentally different. Instead of competition, MTV (and Vh1) collect a bunch of of maladjusted personalities and throw them together under one roof. Add money, booze and sex and the show’s original premise is almost irrelevant – the core appeal of these programs is the chance to watch people make fools of themselves on camera.
Goldberg suggests that instead of reacting with horror, viewers aspire to imitate the antics of the shows’ contestants. But the appeal of reality television is more complicated. Instead of emulating the participants, audience members indulge in a voyeuristic free-for-all that winks knowingly at the genre’s conventions – the staged fights, the absurd competitions – while quietly laughing at a series of on-screen caricatures. It’s no accident that Vh1 has taken to recruiting repeat contestants for its programming – these professional laughingstocks are already familiar with the producers’ expectations and have already proven themselves willing to play to type for a jaded audience.
The ultimate irony is that half these programs market themselves as a chance at self-improvement for wayward contestants, from finding true love to becoming a perfect gentleman. Never mind the fact that only one contestant can ‘win’ while the rest are kicked to the curb. The point, we’re told, is to help these people, which comes off as an awfully thin excuse for televised mockery.
I believe in personal agency, so if people want to subject themselves to what amounts to ritualized public humiliation, I can only shake my head and look the other way. But I do have a plea for the viewers who sustain these misbegotten franchises, the same people who would never consider subjecting themselves to the whims of MTV’s cameras: Please, don’t feed the beast. It’s not funny or clever to laugh at people whose failings are mercilessly exploited by the reality television industry.