At Netroots Nation, I picked up a copy of Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free by Charles Pierce, and thoroughly enjoyed its often-hilarious, generally impatient, occasionally lyrical examination of the stranglehold Idiot America has on our once-great nation. Pierce's great contribution to the growing pile of books bemoaning the same loss is to distinguish between the American crank, a species he has great respect for, and Idiot America. The difference is a simple one: cranks know their place. They don't vie for power or mainstream acceptance. They offer their crank ideas to the world and let them subvert the common wisdom, but don't employ volume, power, and money to elevate crankery to a level of prestige it doesn't deserve. The good cranks in Pierce's eyes are JFK assassination conspiracy theorists (except probably Oliver Stone), the Mormons in Joseph Smith's era, and the guy who came up with the theory that Atlantis is the source of all civilization. Idiot America, however, is George Bush suggesting that we should "teach the controversy" over evolution. Idiot America are the people who tried to lay claim to Terri Schiavo's body that encased her slowly liquefying brain. Idiot America is Justice Scalia referencing "24" as if it had any bearing on how torture works in the real world.
Pierce's insight is a surprisingly useful one. It's all too easy for people to grow genuinely scary shit like powerful wingnuttery with other things that are simply tasteless and stupid, like reality TV, and suggest it's all part of a general trend of American fuckwittery. But in Pierce's universe, something like reality TV should be viewed benevolently as part of the American tolerance and even love of irreverence. Reality TV stars, after all, aren't running for public office, and more importantly, they seem to have a grasp of their own station in the public eye as objects of ridicule that are paid in fame. They're fine with this, so no harm, no foul. Like Pierce says, we should worry not that reality TV shows are scripted, and more about the Bush administration that fantasized its own reality.
Reading this and listening to the most recent "This American Life" about "Frenemies" dovetailed neatly. Rich Juzwiak has put together a video of all the clips he could find of reality TV contestants spouting the all-time best reality TV cliche, "I'm not here to make friends."
Okay, so that's really funny and his dissection of the history of this cliche on "This American Life" is hysterical. But it got me to thinking about how reality TV has really come into its own in the past few years, and what that means for our culture. Why do we love watching "ordinary" Americans tear each others' throats out in the most degrading way, all while spouting their battle cry, "I'm not here to make friends!" It's not that much of a mystery, really. The country as a whole has really been in a period of cutthroat capitalism, backed up by war-mongering. We, as a nation, are reaching heights of bloodthirstiness and stupidity. No wonder we want that reflected back to us in our TVs.
But it's not as simple as stating that Americans are stupid and bloodthirsty, and therefore that's what we make our entertainment. Reality TV is more than modern bear-baiting, though it seems like that on its surface. The truth of the matter is that a substantial portion of the audience for reality TV---perhaps even a majority?---watching it is not about enjoying it in a straightforward manner. It's ironic, and about feeling superior. The pleasure is in not buying in the values espoused in the reality TV show, but actually rejecting those values.
It reminds me a lot of how the 80s had a spate of movies that had an ambiguous relationship with hyper-capitalism, with "Wall Street" being the most famous. Is it satire? Is it celebration of debased rejection of basic decency in pursuit of the almighty buck (or fame)? Depends on who's watching. Reality TV occupies the same ambiguous space for us.
Now that we're in a recession, perhaps the pleasure/disapproval continuum of reality TV shows will end. It's time, anyway. Reality TV entered its baroque period when they started doing vagina shots on "Rock of Love". I'm not going to write some preachy piece celebrating the end of irony---I fucking hate that shit---but I suggest that perhaps Americans have a different fantasy/disapproval need. During economic hard times, that usually centers around the concept of luxury, from the lush films about the upper classes from the 30s to Chic singing about "Good Times" in the 70s---for Americans in hard times, these products produce a fantasy for those who want that, and a satire for those who want that. I expect we'll start seeing a 21st century version of that soon.