“My staff look amazing. I mean they really are gorgeous. Sometimes I wish they were a little more beautiful on the inside, but they look great.”
To say that reality television showcases “shitty people” for us to gawk at is, generally speaking, a misguided cliché. It presumes that normal people are not shitty in the first place, and more importantly it fails to appreciate the permeability of the boundary between self and other.
The basic draw of reality television is that it gives us an opportunity to form preconscious identificatory relations with the human beings on screen. What’s interesting is that there is something about these relationships makes them feel more “real” than those involving fully fictional characters. All entertainment lets us incorporate something intriguing from outside, but reality television does it with a cognitive immediacy that traditional fiction sometimes lacks.
So no matter how “scripted,” story-edited, or smoothly produced a given reality show may be, it intuitively feels different than fiction television. In a sense, the experience of watching reality television is something like Philip K. Dick’s Voight-Kampff Test or the Turing Test in action; it affirms on some intangible, impossibly nuanced level, the uniquely human ability to distinguish an organic consciousness from an artificial one.
Even if we concede the significant level of “dramatic manipulation” exacted by most reality shows’ producers, the fact remains that we are still watching real-live personalities undergo that “dramatic manipulation.” Thus, we do not ever truly enter the state of pure intra-psychic imagination that we do when experiencing fiction. Rather, there is always an irreducible measure of shared metaphysics to reality television, if only because a real person that has been put in an artificial situation is always still a real person.
This innate ability of ours, our capacity to intuit a real human subjectivity and distinguish it from a fictional or artificial one, is what makes reality television so thrilling and satisfying an experience. This is of particular importance to those reality shows so notoriously lowbrow that we hesitate to mention them in polite company, those reality shows that even as we admit to the inescapable “guiltiness” of the pleasure we get from them, we cannot truly evade the depth and legitimacy of that pleasure while we are experiencing it.
The fact that the pleasure associated with reality television is anchored in two psychic phenomena (intuitive recognition of organic consciousness and intersubjective identification with it) is the baseline understanding necessary for a meaningful take on reality television.
If the above helps us understand why, very generally, we watch and enjoy reality television, then we can move on to the more focused question of why we watch and enjoy the particular shows we do.
(Specifically, I’m interested in those shows I referred to above as “notoriously lowbrow” for their “inescapable guiltiness,” since those are the shows that are hardest to justify.)
It is a common mistake to think that reality television appeals only to our scopic sadism. In fact, enjoying reality television is just as often anchored in our sense of empathic masochism. We yearn to experience the kind of remarkable suffering we see on Bravo and E! because we recognize that kind of pain to be the pilot-fish of true passion. Thus, to an intimately real part of us, reality television shows us what we actually want our lives to be like, in spite of and because we know it is all so awful.
But in a more radical sense, reality television is attractive not because it gives us some fantasy mirage in place of the actual lifestyle we desire (the “real thing”), but because by engaging with it we create a psychical-social process that allows us to actually approach the “real thing.”
On a subjective level, just by tuning in to Keeping Up with the Kardashians, we actually become partially “Kardashian” ourselves through what Melanie Klein termed introjection, i.e. the process by which our personalities are constructed by internalizing things from outside. On an inter-subjective level, watching and conversing about KUWTK sustains it as a socially relevant and economically viable social agency.
All of this is merely to say that the distance between self and show is probably far shorter than is commonly thought. The power of reality television is in the interpenetrative nature of its consumption, a process sustained by our capacity to recognize and internalize the subjectivity of another human being even as it is filtered through a television screen. In other words, when we experience reality television we are exploring the way empathy helps structure our personality.
At this point I want to turn to a certain Bravo treasure called Vanderpump Rules. With its third season having just wrapped up, I can say that this show is probably the most cruelly fascinating and morally corrupt things I have ever seen. It’s also my hands-down favorite thing in the world right now. Having watched every single episode very recently, I can tell you that it has been a painful and ecstatic experience that has opened up for me numerous avenues of personal reflection.
It’s not productive for me to sit here and summarize the whole show and its characters, other than to say it’s about a group of waiters and bartenders that work at a restaurant called SUR, located in West Hollywood and owned by Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Lisa Vanderpump. True to cliché, the staff is made up of aspiring/washed-up models, actors, and pop stars utterly consumed with beauty, pleasure, and what appears to be a state of pure wonton evil.
The lives of these people are packed with betrayal, duplicity, and manic selfishness the likes of which I’ve just never seen before. There is a surprisingly sophisticated sense of irony to the show’s interlocking plot threads, sustained by the truly incredible talent each character has for lying to the people closest to them. If one little fib can form the basis for epic drama, Vanderpump Rules boasts what seems like dozens of lies per episode. And through all the rage and deceit, rarely (if ever) do the various parties experience regret, authentic guilt, or the genuine capacity for forgiveness. Each person remains a miserable, pleasure-seeking island.
Witness Stassi’s stagnant morbidity, teeming beneath an elegant rich-girl exterior and screaming to get out and obliterate every person, friend or foe, she comes in contact with. Kristen is a walking bundle of raw nerves, animated by complicated narcissism and self-hatred that slowly degrades into something like borderline personality disorder. Jax, a committed sex addict incapable of adult love, is an energizer bunny of cold hedonism, trapped in a hell of his own entitled enjoyment. Tom Sandoval, feminized to the point of diabolical, evokes the queer villains of Alfred Hitchcock, and I wonder whether there was ever a human face beneath Sheana’s Botox mask. Tom Schwartz and Katie are the innocent but all-too-corruptible mediators, overwhelmed but fully complicit (like the viewer) in this tornado of temptation, transgression, and despair.
Obviously: I adore them all. I seriously love these characters, with a particular attachment to the most sadistic and unstable among them (Stassi, Jax, and Kristen). If you watch the show, you probably feel the same way.
Considering the role that preconscious identification and introjection play in the enjoyment of reality television, what does it say about me as a person, or about us as a culture, that the dark heart of Vanderpump Rules is so invitingly charming, so seductive? How can we approach this question without resorting to the commonplace fabrication of ethical/metaphysical distance between self and show, when we know that distance to be totally illusory?
This is an obvious comparison that has probably been made before, but the toxic nihilism of Vanderpump Rules legitimately approaches that of an early Bret Eason Ellis novel. People like Stassi, Jax and Kristen would all be well at home in Bret Eason Ellis’s moral universe, constituted as it is by the dialectical mirror of beauty and ugliness.
Within what I consider to be his core oeuvre (Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, and Glamorama), Ellis’s fiction may be characterized by its preoccupation with a distinctly American class of beauty, a beauty that is ugly specifically because we never truly admit to ourselves that it is objectionable.
Ellis’s work runs the constant risk of misinterpretation, so often reduced to either haughty satire or empty shock-sensationalism. But in Georgina Colby’s Bret Easton Ellis: Underwriting the Contemporary, she “rejects any kind of branding of Ellis as a moralist, satirist, nihilist, or postmodernist.” Rather, as the book’s title implies, Colby argues that Ellis’s literary technique specifically involves an underwriting (i.e. a ratification, approval, vouching-for, endorsement, guarantee) of the unjust social structures, empty values and coded aesthetics that result in the meaninglessness, alienation, superficiality, selfishness, etc. of what she calls “the contemporary,” essentially corresponding all the most troubling features of late capitalism:
“[Ellis] underwrites in the legal definition of the term by supporting and guaranteeing the contemporary. He takes responsibility to disclose the cultural and political apparatus instrumental in the oppression of the individual within that social apparatus. His work guarantees to unveil the sociopolitical workings in American culture that are not always immediately visible to those who are part of that culture. His method is not to allude directly to a subjective political opinion but instead, through a process of exposure, to reveal the underside of contemporary culture.”
In other words, Ellis’s fiction does its work not by directly highlighting the all-too-obvious hatefulness of the contemporary, but rather by opening up for the reader the possibility of embracing it.
If there’s redeeming value to that project, it’s in the notion that we cannot truly reject something until we see what it looks like to affirm it. More importantly, underwriting the contemporary gives us the opportunity and option to affirm it, if we so choose.
In this way, Ellis’s underwriting differs from satire and nihilism insofar as the former directs the reader to an intended “moral of the story” and the latter removes the possibility any moral conclusion at all. In contrast, Ellis’s work leaves the ball firmly in the reader’s court, where it belongs, in a place of deep-seated ambiguity.
On a more particular level, watching Vanderpump Rules is a bit like seeing everything Bret Easton Ellis wanted for The Canyons (2013). On his podcast and elsewhere, Ellis has given all sorts of excuses for the curious misfire, notably blaming Lindsay Lohan for distracting everyone from serious assessment of the film. But if you watch The Canyons (a bad yet very interesting film) the only thing clearly wrong with it is its script. It’s obvious Ellis wanted to tell a story about the inevitability of transgression in a kind of Hollywood underworld, but ultimately the effort felt contrived and mailed-in, a degraded de-novelization of what he’d already accomplished in his fiction decades earlier.
But on Vanderpump, we get precisely what Ellis has always been shooting for: a group of shallow aspiring models so infested with privilege and pleasure as to estrange them from identifiable human thought and emotion.
For example, take the principal storyline of the recently concluded third season, Kristen versus Tom Sandoval. This was a battle of the exes amplified by the legitimately complex history of the characters, including the late season two reveal that Kristen cheated on Tom with Jax, her best friend Stassi’s quasi-ex-boyfriend and also Tom’s best friend. Kristen spends all of season three trying to prove that Tom cheated on his new girlfriend Ariana (with whom he cheated on Kristen), obviously trying to leverage the exposé into a rekindled relationship with Tom, all the while claiming to love her current boyfriend James, an effeminate English DJ/busboy ten years her junior.
This conflict is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen, specifically because it lacks even the slightest morsel of redeeming value. There are no good guys and there are no winners. I don’t even see right and wrong in this vile microcosm anymore, somehow robbing its few victims (Ariana and James, arguably) of our sympathy.
If you watch the show, you know what I’m talking about and if you don’t then I hope you’re intrigued.
Vanderpump Rules provides the same fascinating, complex underwriting function as Ellis’s fiction, forming a kind of meta-critique available only through its uncompromising endorsement of the contemporary in all its conspicuous superficiality, foolishness and moral corruption. The beautification and sensationalism of this coarse behavior is entertaining for a reason, not least of all because of the effortlessness with which it can be beautified and sensationalized.
To sum up, here is a quote from Bret Easton Ellis himself, which succinctly captures just about everything that I’ve been talking about here:
“I don’t believe in the idea of guilty pleasures because I don’t think you should feel guilty about liking anything.”
This is precisely what underwriting the contemporary is all about. Reality television, just like Ellis’s novels, provides a singularly honest avenue for exploring the relationship between guilt and pleasure, the hope being that we can exorcise of the former and come to terms with the latter.
Many viewers rejoice in judging reality television stars in an effort to distance themselves from the hypnotic ugliness on screen. But the clear irony, of course, is that just as we make judgments and rationalize/proselytize about the “guilty pleasure” of such lowbrow entertainment, the very agencies that have so distorted the cast members’ souls –physical beauty, inborn wealth, unbounded self-involvement, sublime frivolity –remain forever at the deepest foundation of our own desire.
The trick here is to avoid the obvious psychic defense mechanism that I hope to have deconstructed above, namely the false distancing of one’s self from the reality television circus. In truth, the circus exists only because its audience is made of clowns.
Underwriting the contemporary is about asking whether you’re willing to admit that.