Erica Harp

December 13, 2011

Spectacle, Deception, and Everyday Resistance:Reality TV in Postmodern Life

I. Introduction:

What is so Pleasurable about this Guilty Pleasure?

In January 2010, MTV struck gold—and rhinestones—with the unexpected hit Jersey Shore.

The show, which chronicles the summer

experience of six Italian-Americans in their 20’s in Seaside, New Jersey, followed the self proclaimed “guidos” and “guidettes” as they drank heavily at nightclubs, hit the tanning bed, engaged in physical street fights and verbal cat fights, and engaged in sexual escapades. The show introduced popular terms such as “smush room” (a sparse bedroom designated for one-night stands), “GLT” (the daily schedule of gym, tan, laundry), and a “grenade” (an unattractive woman taken home from the bar) into popular vernacular and it has become common knowledge who and what a “Snooki” is. Jersey Shore is brazenly sexual, superficial, and considered “tacky” TV—and yet, it is enormously successful. While it is difficult to imagine a sitcom about fake-tanned “jersey girls” and “juiceheads” (muscular men) fist pumping on the dance floor being a network hit, as a reality show, it’s wildly celebrated—at least as a guilty pleasure. What’s more, the show is popular despite being known by audiences to be largely staged, scripted, and manipulated; the generation that grew up with The Real World and The Bachelor is well aware that voiceovers, video clips, and interview room footage are spliced and rearranged to create story arches and that the men and women on camera are prompted by producers to create plot lines. Reality TV is known to be as fictionalized as traditional television genres, and yet its popularity suggests it resonates and is on par with—if not preferable to—conventional television formats.

Considering the potentially higher quality of acting, casting, and production found in conventional television and cinema fictions and that audiences are aware that reality TV is essentially just as “fake” as the more traditional television media, why would audiences accept and even prefer the false “realities” of reality television?

By using Guy Debord’s theory of the spectacle, Roland Barthes’ notion of the photographic image, and Michel de Certeau’s ideas of everyday subversion, the success of reality TV and what it reveals about postmodernity’s relationship with cultural production will be explored.

II. Debord and the Spectacle:

Stars, Celetoids, and the Question of Fragmentation

To better understand reality television, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle provides useful insight. Debord defines the spectacle not as the images of cultural production, but as the social relations mediated through those images (Debord, Thesis 4). The spectacle displays the ideal appearance of life and affirms cultural hegemony and the status quo. According to Debord, the spectacle forms a pseudo-world apart; this separate world is virtual, but acts as autonomous and actual. The spectacle’s pseudo-world exists only in viewing—this world cannot be directly lived but only experienced through a mediated screen. Nevertheless, the spectacle is not disempowered because it cannot be directly lived, but instead all the more powerful as it serves to reinforce itself and is not subject to the limits and fragments of “real” life. The experience of living amongst the spectacle creates a fragmented existence for the masses; the barrage of competing ideologies, lifestyles, and aesthetics makes a holistic integration for the individual impossible—confronted with the spectacle, a sound and stable embodiment of life will always evade the masses. Amidst the confusion of the spectacle, the appearance of unfettered integration appears: the star. Debord’s explanation of celebrity posits that stars, spectacles as living people, are able to appear whole and un-fragmented; stars seem to organically and totally embody a spectacular lifestyle or aesthetic approach in a way that will always be impossible for the masses (Debord, Thesis 60). The celebrity, not fragmented, is enabled to engage with the pseudo-world in an organic way, possible only as living spectacles.

"The agent of the spectacle placed on stage as a star is the opposite of the individual, the enemy of the individual in himself as well as in others." (Debord, Thesis 61)

Debord's theory of the spectacle is embodied by the notion of reality television--"everything once directly lived... moved into representation" (Debord, Thesis 1). Considering Debord’s theory of the spectacle, fragmentation, and celebrity, two clear answers to the curious question of reality television emerge: reality TV provides an opportunity for the masses to experience the wholeness and engagement with the pseudo-world of the celebrity and, conversely, it provides opportunity to watch the satisfying failing of other non-celebrities engage with the spectacle. In the first scenario, reality television presents everyday people transcending the spectacle’s impositions and fragments of everyday life; to return to the example of Jersey Shore, the Long Island native Jenny “J-Woww” lives in the same world outside of the show as anyone else—a world where ideas, fashions, and ways of life are expressed in contradicting and competing images and spectacles. Within the confines of the show, however, J-Woww inhabits a world that can only be viewed in the final cut of the episode—one where the show branding of life on the shore is consistent and total. Whether the audience desires wholeness in the Jersey Shore sense or not (likely not) it is satisfying to see another everyday person achieve it. While this scenario provides an optimistic dream of the individual’s engagement with the spectacle, the other appeals to an more pessimistic confrontation with the spectacle. In contrary scenario, the everyday individual is cast into the pseudo-world not as a compliment to it, but as still fragmented; here, the reality “celetoid”—one achieving fame for a brief time—is unsuccessful in transcending the trappings on non-stardom, instead he fails at being integrated amongst the spectacle just as the collective audience does (Smith and Riley, 167).

Joey Kovar appeared on MTV’s The Real World Hollywood. Kovar, of Illinois, was cast as the stock bodybuilder “hunk” with a troubled past. In his audition tape, Kovar described his history with addiction and his current state of sobriety in recovery. True to reality TV form, Kovar quickly relapsed in the spectacular setting of a mansion in Hollywood. Kovar, who dreamed of being an actor, left the show to attend rehab. His erratic and destructive behavior under the influence were staples in the early story of the season and displayed repeated on weekly in-network promotions. Following The Real World, Kovar appeared on Celebrity Rehab on VH1, continuing life a a reality television character burned by the spectacle (IMDB, 2011). In Joey’s case, the reality celetoid is not admired for a star-like engagement with the pseudo-world, but celebrated for his demise; Joey Kovar exemplifies the reality TV’s success because it affirms the mass audiences feelings of doubt and fragmentation--seeing Kovar’s failings alleviates the torment of everyday fragmented life under the spectacle’s rule.


In this way, reality TV satisfies the masses not by allowing them to envision themselves as stars, but allowing them to take comfort that others fail to be stars just as much, if not more than, they do (or would.)

Using Debord’s language of spectacle and star, the reasoning behind reality television’s success becomes clearer: reality TV both allows a conception of life where everyday people organically interact and live with the spectacle and allows the alternate option where everyday people fail spectacularly. The former affirms a hope for success and the latter satisfies a desire to at least see others flounder if the viewer must suffer life amongst the spectacle as well.

III. Barthes and the Photographic Message:

If the Image is Convincing Enough, Pseudo-real is Better than Not Real at All

In the chapter "The Photographic Message" in Image, Music, Text, Roland Barthes suggests that the visual accuracy of photographic representation is such that the human mind wishes to experience the media as “real” despite it’s knowledge that it is not (Barthes, 17). When viewing a photograph of a woman, the viewer may acknowledge that the image does not indicate the presence of an actual person, but unable to view the image critically—seeing the image as indexical and purely denotative and rejecting awareness of connotative, pseudo-real elements. This argument regarding still image applies to moving image as well; what is viewed as video is similarly convincing and experienced as an accurate and unchecked expression of reality. This is not to suggest that viewers are wholly duped by photographic image—especially contemporary viewers. At the time when Barthes was writing, it is perhaps more possible that viewers lacked critical awareness, but as with all media, the cultural training around photography and videography has come to include an awareness of connotative elements and potential falsification; the postmodern media consumer knows to expect more than literal meaning or “face value” when confronted with an fashion ad or dish soap commercial. Nevertheless, the seeming authenticity of photograph and video remains powerful—the most damning evidence in the legal and public court is picture or video and the basic premise that a photo “could” be doctored is the exception that proves the rule: what is photographed still feels real.

In the discussion of reality TV, Barthes’ point is an important one: however aware of potential falsification viewers may be, the visceral truth of photographic image remains preeminent. Not only does this phenomena explain audience attachment and investment to reality television despite their knowledge that it is scripted and misleadingly edited, but it may also explain why audiences would accept or prefer reality television when higher quality, but openly fictional television is available. Perhaps with reality television, it is simply a bit easier to suspend disbelief; even though the audience knows Cops is manipulated, its still less manipulated than Law and Order. What is real is powerful, as demonstrated with the idea of court evidence photographs, and while reality television is known to not be entirely real, its feels more real than a drama and that makes it more powerful too.


To illustrate the preference of false “reality” to fiction, Fox’s the O.C. compared to MTV’s Laguna Beach demonstrates the power of what feels real. The O.C. was indeed a popular television drama, but Laguna Beach was equally popular amongviewers and went on to spawn multiple spin-offs, The Hills and The City, which surpassed the even the original show. Laguna Beach and the O.C. approach the same subject matter and similar story lines: each show features the interpersonal dramas of the_oc_pc.jpgwealthy young people living in Orange County, California. The shows differ only by the element of “reality”--MTV’s iteration features local teens from the area as opposed to trained actors. The intrigue surrounding Laguna Beach at the time of its airing captured the essential difference between the two--discussing Mischa Barton’s character from the O.C. was television water-cooler talk, but discussing Stephen and LC’s ongoing romance from Laguna Beach resembled high school gossip. For teen viewers, the prospect of “being” Lauren Conrad (Laguna Beach) seemed more real than the chance of mastering the spectacle like Marissa Cooper (Barton in the O.C.). However “staged,” Laguna Beach’s cast of unrealistic--but more realistic than conventional television drama--attractive teens with money, means, and vibrant social lives resonated with viewers in a way that felt “real enough.” Here, the desire to believe the photographic image explains the appeal of reality TV despite known falsities and the option of admittedly fictional entertainment.

IV. de Certeau and Everyday Resistance:

The Satisfaction of Subversion Appropriated by the Spectacle


While the allure and desire for the spectacle is powerful and pervasive, the desire for small-scale, everyday autonomy retains an appeal despite the glamorous draw of the performance of life. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau describes the

significance of engagement in everyday activities for the postmodern person; it is with pleasure that man acts out his subversive desires in smalls ways as an assertion of individuality within a repressive cultural structure that self-affirms its own agenda and limits the agency of individual actors (Smith and Riley, 154). By performing subversive acts in daily minutia—de Certeau provides the example of a pedestrian defying the social controls of topography by taking shortcuts or detours at her own accord--the individual is able to resist the overwhelming spectacle without an outright rejection of it. On some level, there is an awareness of falseness and deception in cultural production and, with it, a longing for authenticity that is satisfied in outlets of everyday, ironic resistance.

In reality television, subversion of the spectacle is appropriated by the spectacle; what was an act of transgression is integrated back into the dominant system. This less explains the role of viewers in the popularity of reality TV and more explains reality TV as an element of the spectacle. By definition, the spectacle reproduces itself and fulfills its own agenda to remain hegemonic—what better way to manage subversive activity than to claim it as not oppositional but cooperative? The shiny package of spectacle that is seen in Hollywood dramas lacks elements of daily life that plainly oppose norms or display mundane autonomy. In reality television, however, the mundane and subversive are appropriated and exploited within the mainstream.

500x_custom_1278958004709_picture_193.jpgThe reality program Wife Swap, for example, details two families per episode and repeats the plot line of two mothers switching places from their respective families. The selected families are characteristically “extreme:” whether vegan raw foodists, end-of-days survivalists (see left), home-schooling evangelicals, or stereotypically liberal new-ageists, the reality celetoids of Wife Swap always engage in subversive activities. The “radical” lifestyles are then presented in a pseudo-world where they are employed for entertainment to the benefit of the spectacle.

A Wife Swap episode featuring the Fine and Baur families perfectly demonstrates the spectacle’s use of reality television as a method of managing subversive behavior of the everyman. In the episode, the Fine family is depicted as essential suburbia--the family who’s mother is a professional organizer, daughter is a cheerleader, and son is a football player--is “perfect” to a degree that the portrayal is negative; the family’s strict organizational habits and desire to conform come across as robotic, obsessive, and tragic. On the other hand, the Baur family lives life with “pirattitude” as a high priority--they are a family living as pirates.

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The Baurs, depicted as dirty, dumpy, and flea infested, are shown as non-conformist to the point of an equally negative portrayal. Unable to pay utility bills and raising children who use obscenities, the Baurs are presented as ridiculous. With the Fines and the Baurs, the spectacle elegantly appropriates transgression for its own purposes as a cultural product for the masses. Even more cleverly, the spectacle also depicts subversive activity such that it obscures any legitimacy; by showing divergent behavior in extremes and in contrast, the show casts any non-normative behavior as absurd thereby affirming the spectacle’s ideologies and effectively dismissing any meaningful discourse on reasonable resistance. By making a mockery of everyday, personal-choice subversive behavior the spectacle provides an outlet for viewers to indulge in non-normative ways of life while simultaneously capping the possibility and any viable alternatives.

V. Conclusions:

Reality TV as Postmodernity’s Reconciliation with and Resentment of the Spectacle

Reality television is at once both postmodernity’s way of accepting and way of resenting the imperialism of the spectacle; using Debord, Barthes, and de Certeau, reality television's functions for contemporary culture become visible, revealing attitudes regarding the spectacle and the social relationships mediated by it. Reality TV allows mass audiences to envision the star life for themselves and to see others fail in the role of "star" due to fragmentation that the audience too suffers; reality television allows the audience to suspend disbelief and put stock in something “real” while still knowing that it is not; reality TV allows subversive activity to be encompassed by the normative and allows viewers to indulge in the desire to transgress while actually safely cooperating with dominant culture—reality television allows for the illusion of democracy and diversity while maintaining the stability and comfort of homogeneity. Reality television also affirms the undeniable cleverness of spectacle—it deceives viewers into believing they are not powerless to it, all the while asserting evermore control over the masses. As stated by Debord, "In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false" (Debord, Thesis 9).

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. Hill and Wang: A division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, New York. 1977.
Google Books source

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Hobgoblin Press. Canberra. Free source:
Zinelibrary Open Source "Joey Kovar." Accessed 9 December 2011.

Smith, Philip and Alexander Riley. Cultural Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. : Malden, Massachusetts. 2009.

Images: (Michel de Certeau) (Celebrity Culture Image) (The O.C. Cast) (The Laguna Beach Cast) (Joey Kovar) (Survivalist Wife Swap Family)