Reality TV, reality me.

31 08 2010

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, February 12, 2010


This blog post begins with a confession: I love reality television, like really love it —in fact, I might be addicted. As is often the case with graduate students, when I like something, it is for the selfish reason that it reminds me of my project. That’s right! Reality television makes me think about my research on contemporary liberal Protestants. Specifically, it reminds me of the ways that Evangelical Protestant conversion rhetorics are mirrored in non-evangelical environments.

Religion and Reality TV

I am certainly not the first person to note the religious elements of reality TV. Many have commented on the ways which shows like Survivor or Big Brother seem to replicate the liminality of an initiation ceremony à la Victor Turner. Others have taken note of the genre’s explicit religious references: prayers and religious discussions by contestants, the God-like powers provided to the audience who are often given final judgement over the fate of the contestants, the overly ritualised ceremonies of elimination, so on and so forth. Still others have reflected on the fact that after having passed through this period of testing and undue suffering, the contestants are granted celebrity status similar to that of the mythic heroes of old (although whether or not one designates them as heroes or so-called Z-list celebrities depends on one’s own affection or lack thereof for the genre).

The upcoming season of ‘Survivor: Heroes versus Villains’, which premiered last night, is banking on the hero designation from its fan-base. This season features a Manichean casting of the ten most benevolent against the ten most malevolent contestants from past series (the American version of the show is in its twentieth season). Astute observers of the show will note that rather than the familiar slogan: ‘Outwit, Outplay, Outlast’ this season’s catch phrase has apocalyptic undertones: ‘Return, Revenge, Redemption.’ If last night’s episode is meant to set the standard, it is clear that the show is seeking to complicate the hero-villain dichotomy by suggesting that the status of hero is retroactively applied after all the chips have been played.

Their Eyes were Watching Us


Scholars of reality TV (yes, there is a vibrant discourse on the topic) have found that while many cultural commentators dismissively presume that audiences are attracted to reality TV by some sort of sick voyeurism, the majority of viewers tune-in specifically because they seek an experience that is simultaneously authentic and performed. According to Hill (2005) reality shows have “capitalized on this tension between appearance and reality by ensuring that viewers have to judge for themselves which of the contestants are being genuine” (70). This quest for a determined authenticity appeals to the inner-Calvinist, which Weber tells us we all possess as members of Western society, and echoes concerns of the “frozen-chosen” about who is and who is not predestined for salvation.

In reality television the tension between the performed self and the authentic self is addressed in the contestant’s one-on-one interviews with a silent, off-camera interviewee (who stands in for the viewing audience). In CBS’s Big Brother these interviews take place in a special location of the house known as the Diary Room, which is off-limits except for these moments of introspection. In their interviews, contestants reflect upon their actions; these monologues often resemble a confession of sorts explaining, or perhaps justifying, acts of deception within the game. The audience, having been provided with “the whole story,” is therefore able to determine whether or not the deception (dare I say, sin) is forgivable.

The winner is ultimately selected by either the television audience or the other contestants themselves. In Survivor and Big Brother the two finalists are subjected to one final grilling, or judgement, during which they are asked to account for all of their past actions. In this context their past sins are arranged narratologically in such a way that we are made to understand that while they may have deceived so-and-so it was done for the greater glory of the game (evidenced by their position in the final two). With liturgical exactness, all of their past sins are brought to light by the former contestants, and they are ultimately deemed worthy or unworthy—see Susan Hawk’s infamous snake and a rat speech from the finale of the first season of Survivor as an example.

These various depictions and presentations of the self are what I find most fascinating about reality television, as they seem to follow a pattern and adhere to tensions evident in contemporary Protestant narratives of transforming identity (I refer specifically to the conversion experience most popular among evangelical Christians which advocates a new self brought about through the process of having been ‘born again’).

It’s Just a Game; It’s Just your Life


The recognition that “it’s just a game” is common in shows like Survivor, Big Brother and The Amazing Race, which establish themselves as competition-based. A second genre of reality television, the Makeover Show, intersects intimately with the so-called real lives of real people.

Popular series such as TLCs ‘What Not to Wear,’ the Slice Network’s ‘Last Ten Pounds Bootcamp’ or NBC’s ‘The Biggest Loser’ are specifically focused on exposing its subjects failings and enacting a permanent physical, psychological (and moral) transformation. In What Not to Wear, the participants are unknowingly filmed for weeks to expose their many fashion faux-pas and then subjected to 360 degree mirror in which their favourite outfits are mocked and critiqued. They are schooled in the laws of fashion and are then sent out into the world to attempt to abide by the new rules. The initial attempts of the contestants are never successful, and after a tear-filled recognition that they cannot save themselves from their fashion failings, the perfectly assembled co-hosts swoop down to save the day. In the Slice Network’s ‘Lat Ten Pounds Bootcamp’ contestants’ cupboards are raided and their junk-food consuming sins are exposed for all to see. The hosts make the offense especially clear by dumping pounds of lard and sugar on the floor to represent the calories consumed each week by the lethargic glutton. NBC’s hit series ‘The Biggest Loser’ follows a similar pattern: contestants are stripped naked and dramatically confronted by their obesity on a weekly basis. They are asked to account for each calorie consumed and each minute of physical activity. Each week those who lose the least amount of weight are eliminated until the final individual must stand alone in judgement providing a full account of his or her actions. In each instance the problem is recast as a moral dilemma (contestant A does not respect her body; contestant B has a weakness for potato chips; contestant C is living in the past—evidenced by her inability to give up her nineties-styled hair scrunchies and neon pants). These problems and others are overcome by hard work and the right program: as long as she follows the correct diet/exercise/colour coordination she will find relief.

In each instance the champion emerges as a new self–the unfashionable heroine is decked out in the latest trends; Ali Vincent loses 112 lbs in Season Five of The Biggest Loser; and contestant after contestant on The Last Ten Pounds weeps because she is finally able to fit into her wedding dress/string bikini/skinny pants.

The Makeover Show provides a neatly packaged thirty minute/one hour/or season-long transformation of the old self into a new (and better) self. In the end, despite the humiliation, the subject represents his or herself as improved and redeemed. Affirming for the viewing audience that the process was “the best thing ever,” participants understand themselves as having received deliverance from their food/bad fashion/etc. sins. This transformation, they tell us, would have been impossible were it not for the actions of the hosts and the good people at [insert major television network here].

The ultimate thanks, however, goes to the individual herself. She enacts agency and brings about her own physical (moral) transformation. A revelatory moment of self-awareness and an inner-desire for change prompts her to take that initial step, that first act of faith to contact the producers and audition for the show.

The resemblance to Protestant conversion rhetoric is telling; participants in the Makeover Show follow the traditional model for a Christian testimony. The Pauline echoes of the new self are palpable. As with the final vote ceremonies in Survivor and Big Brother, the subject summarises all of the events into a concise and coherent narrative of transformation. The past self is no more as the new and better self emerges; this transformation is visually signified to us by new clothes, better hair and a fitter body, as well as the many declarations that now, at last, they feel fulfilled.

Confession and Obsession


It all starts with that initial recognition that something is not right—the public confession on the part of the reality television subject ensures the ultimate resolution and transformation. So maybe there is still hope for me. I have after all taken the first step. I have confessed my addiction in this very public forum of the Religion Beat Blog – I’ll be waiting for my million dollars and my new and better self but until then I’ll be tuning in to Survivor on Thursday nights.







Savage Minds

Notes and Queries in Anthropology

Culture on the Edge

Studies in Identity Formation