Reality TV, gossip, and empathy
This has been a pet theory of mine for awhile, and I even tried to sell a book that was based partially on it some time back, so I'm thrilled to see Richard Florida embracing it and really spelling it out in easy-to-digest terms.
Though this shrieking sprawlscape is not his preferred haunt, the celebrity urbanist Richard Florida will admit to occasionally cruising reality TV’s endless subdevelopments. Also, the author of The Rise of the Creative Class and The Great Reset watches the Today show while he’s working out, and “when it changes over to Hoda and Kathie Lee, it’s suddenly all about these people on reality shows, so I hear about it there.” What he’s seen has led him to develop a working theory about the genre. It’s not just that a lot of the shows are set in suburbia—suburban life actually creates the appetite for them. “Reality TV (from the Kardashians to the Jersey Shore) is the product of isolation & sprawl” is how he put it when floating the notion via Twitter (tweets being the new white paper).
The way I always put it when bullshitting with friends is that tabloids and reality TV have replaced gossip. People are so isolated in their little suburban cells and while they may have connections, their connections may not be connected to each other, which makes it impossible to really conduct a satisfying round of gossip. You really do need a group of people who all know each other. Tabloid celebrities fill this need. They create a false "community" that we can dish about over the water cooler, since we all know the general characters. Or even if we don't, we know where they come from, so it gives you that sense of familiarity gossip requires to work.
I came up with this theory not because I'm a well-trained urbanist, but because I grew up in a small town. Living in a small town makes you an amateur sociologist of gossip, at least if you're the over-analyzing stuff. Doing my time in a everyone-knows-everyone community made me realize that gossip is about more than being nosy and whiling away the time. I would argue that gossip is one of the primary ways that human beings communicate social values. Living in a gossip-heavy community, I would rank gossip as a values-transmitter far above religious teachings, the admonishments of community leaders, and other forms of moral education like books and whatnot. Gossip seems up there with parental influence in terms of shaping values—at least if you have a steady stream of gossip. (And parents use gossip to impart values.) Gossip is one reason I realized early on that the belief that men are superior to women persists and is often much stronger than the belief in equality, even though even the biggest sexist pricks in our culture officially claim to believe in equality. But jaw-flapping in public about how you're supportive of women's equality has no power compared to the whispers in kitchens and lunchrooms about who's a big slut and the day to day fawning over and privileging of men over women.
But that doesn't mean gossip is inherently bad as a social values transmitter either. It's neutral, I'd say. I've seen positive social values transmitted through gossip. Cheating on your spouse is particularly discouraged in the gossip mill. Domestic violence has become more of a fodder for tongue-clucking disapproval. in some communities, the social price of raping someone is finally going up. (In my community growing up, people automatically sided with the accused rapist, and I suspect this is still more common than not. See: Cleveland, TX.) Instead of just acting offended at the very existence of gossip, I think progressives would be wiser to see it as an opportunity to inject their own values into the gossip mill.
Anyway, the situation as it stands, however, is that suburban isolation is keeping people from scratching that gossip itch. Enter: reality TV (and tabloids, I might add).
But Florida says he’s not trying to stuff burb-based reality TV into a cities=good, suburbs=bad rubric. Instead, he’s tracing a continuum that looks something like: sprawl+isolation=the substitution of televised, crazy-eyed pods of frenemies for actual human communities. “The knee-jerk reaction to reality TV is that it’s dumbification,” Florida says. “But it’s not, and the people watching aren’t dumb. They’re just looking for connection.” Florida uses Cambridge University psychologist Peter J. Rentfrow’s concept of communal consumers to describe reality junkies. “These are people who want stories about people and who used to rely on gossip, or on the little mini-dramas in their community,” he says. “And when you’re isolated in the suburbs, you don’t have that.”
The prospect of having to settle for the sniping of a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills (which has taken on darker overtones following the suicide of a cast member’s estranged husband) in place of a real drama-dishing housewife from down the block is pretty bleak. But such, Florida argues, are the results of picket-fence-bounded displacement. “Think of it this way,” says the New Jersey–bred Florida, setting up a comparison from his own upbringing. “My parents, growing up in Newark, had no need for these types of stories. They could get all the interaction and the drama they needed right there in the neighborhood.”
I completely agree with this. However, I'm going to add that reality TV is a really poor replacement for actual gossip. For one thing, reality TV producers go out of their way to tweak the story to "say" certain things, making the interpretative field for the gossipers really narrow. And all too often, this nose-tugging is pointing you in the direction of beliefs such as "women are shallow gold-diggers" and "men only want one thing from women".
Even worse may be that the characters in tabloids and reality TV have an unreality to them, which is partially deliberately induced by producers, but partially just what happens when you mediate life through the narrative structures of TV and magazines. What happens is that the people you're gossiping about when you watch and discuss reality TV cease being real people to you. The way people go on about their artificial gossip objects online makes this incredibly clear. While the real world gossip mill can be really cruel and judgmental, I don't think it's so indifferent to suffering; on the contrary, a popular form of gossip is to talk about other people's woes and feel bad for them. ("Did you hear so-and-so's in the hospital?" "Such a shame the way he just ran out on his family." Frowns.) Reality TV and tabloids provide all the entertaining judging of gossip but very little of the empathizing.
I honestly do think the spread of suburban isolation has done major damage to our national ability to feel empathy, in part because the chains of communication that keep empathy alive have broken down. Which is why I was unsurprised to see, at the debate, Tea Partiers cheer wildly at the idea of letting the uninsured just die. Despite all the "country boy" preening, the Tea Party is really a product of the suburbs, and the way they breed limited, non-inter-connected social circles. (I suppose cities can, too, and yet in the two I've lived in, I would often exist in an urban tribe, usually formed around common interests—you have enough people on hand to do that, and the travel time to see friends was significantly lower than it was in the suburbs, for the brief period I lived there.) When most of your understanding of how other people are and live comes not from person-to-person interaction or from the gossip mill, but from tabloids and reality TV, your ability to feel empathy for others really recedes. I think this goes a long way towards explaining how anti-choicers are getting more severe in their judgments of the sexually active, as well. They think of a "woman who has sex" as being Snooki, and completely forget that actually, "sexually active" describes moms and church ladies and working professionals and neighbors. That's because those women's sex and romantic lives are completely invisible to them. As weird as it is to say that gossiping about other people's sex lives can actually make you more sympathetic to their health needs, I think there's a lot of truth to that. When the person who has an STD is someone you know, it's much easier to feel that person deserves treatment, because hey, despite their flaws you like them and don't want them to suffer. When the pregnant teenage girl is your neighbor's daughter, that's easy to relate to, and you can feel their need to have readily available abortion services.
But if the majority of your exposure to other people's sex lives is a bunch of reality TV stars having one night stands, you're probably not exercising your empathy muscles. And as we all know, if you don't use it, you lose it.