One of the hardest things to do when teaching visual anthropology is to get students to understand the constructed nature of reality. Although still difficult, this is easier to do when talking about written texts. Students are inclined to believe what they see with their own eyes. One reason for this might be the fact that students are regularly asked to produce written texts, but rarely asked to manipulate images. Reality TV is not the phenomenon here in Taiwan that it is in the US, but one strategy I often use is to discuss the efforts of reality TV writers to unionize. As one union official put it:
“The secret about reality TV isn’t that it’s scripted, which it is,” Mr. Petrie said in a statement. “The secret is that reality TV is a 21st-century telecommunications industry sweatshop.”
Such scripting doesn’t entail writing dialog so much as fitting existing dialog into a standard three-act narrative arc. Or even creating situations designed to ensure that the narrative moves in a certain direction.
Despite the fact that one of the prime motivations for producing reality TV is saving costs on writers and actors, it does seem to draw heavily from the social sciences. Specifically, experiments in social psychology. Interestingly, while it would now be considered a gross breach of professional ethics to engage in the kind of social experimentation we see regularly on reality TV, it is somehow OK if we do it for the camera. (In much the same way that paying someone to engage in sexual acts is illegal if done privately, but perfectly legal if done for film or TV.)
In many ways reality TV is the true inheritor of filmmaker/anthropologist Jean Rouch’s concept of cinétrance: the concept that interaction with the camera (in the hands of a trained ethnographer) creates a trance like state in both the filmmaker and the filmed subject, allowing a deeper truth to emerge. In their classic movie Chronicle of a Summer, Rouch and Morin created (provoked) situations which they hoped would be interesting for the camera. The rules that govern reality TV shows have a similar purpose, except that their idea of what is interesting is mostly to provoke conflict. Conflict is key for creating any kind of narrative arc.
One “reality TV” show I watched recently tried to move away from the Zimbardo Stanford prison experiment model and adopt something more ethnographic. The premise of 30 Days with Morgan Spurlock is similar to that of Spurlock’s film Super Size Me, in which, for thirty days, he restricts himself to a diet made up entirely of food available at McDonalds and denies himself any more exercise than the average American gets in a given day (not much). As in that film, the show uses one individual’s personal experiment as a framework around which to hang numerous asides into the central issue being discussed. In Super Size Me Spurlock visited school lunch rooms to see what they served, and discussed other issues involving fast food and obesity in America. Similarly, in the issues I watched, on minimum wage and Islam in America, the central “reality TV” narrative was framed by numerous humorous and informative asides regarding the issue at hand.
Not surprisingly, the only person to seriously question the premise of Spurlock’s show has been the right-wing commentator Debbie Schlussel. In a Wall Street Journal editorial piece, Schlussel wrote:
While Mr. Spurlock is often referred to as a journalist, and touts “30 Days” as a “documentary,” the outcome of the show was decided before production began.
The same could very much be said for much of the content on FOX News, but what upsets Schlussel is that the predetermined outcome of Spurlock’s show on Islam was that the main protagonist would “emerge from the immersion situation with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Muslim-American experience” … heaven forbid!
Similarly, in another piece, Schlussel observed that Spurlock’s show featured cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. I found this disturbing myself (I found Schlussel’s pieces googling to see if anyone else had picked up on this), but it is very clear from the context that the reason such depictions were used is that Spurlock was at pains to show how Islam is “just like” Judaism and Christianity. This necessitated a certain parallelism between the prophets which a strict observance of Islamic iconoclasm would have forbade. However it was strange that Spurlock was so intent on having the show’s protagonist follow and respect Muslim traditions, but was unable to do so himself. Schlussel, of course, seems mostly upset that Muslims didn’t start riots over this. With people like her you are dammed-if-you-do, dammed-if-you-don’t.
There is no doubt in my mind that the outcome of Spurlock’s show is, in some important ways, determined in advance. In the show on minimum wage I found it odd that both Spurlock and his fiancee ended up visiting the hospital within their 30 day experiment. If they hadn’t they would probably have barely broken even, instead they ended up deeper in debt. This is an important point to make, and since I never treat “reality TV” as reality anyway, I admired the way they handled it. But would I have admired the show so much if it had been produced by Bill O’Reilly?
A positivist approach to this problem might demand that the filmmakers spend some time each episode explaining how the shows were constructed and declaring their own ideological bias. But why single out 30 Days for such treatment and not Survivor? After all, even survivor has an implicit utilitarian ideology. And how about FOX News? There are even deeper epistemological problems associated with assuming that ideology is little more than a measuring bias which can be corrected by applying the appropriate degree of reflexivity. No, I think the best approach is to have a better educated audience, one more capable of reading the truth claims of visual texts.