Reality Shows As Aspirational Bootstrapping Dramas

I have never been a fan of the reality show genre, I freely admit, but like many people living in this society, I’m still steeped in it. I understand references to reality shows, I often have a loose idea of the most popular ones currently airing, and I know that many of my friends eagerly follow them, sometimes eschewing social engagements and other activities to catch a live broadcast. I find the phenomenon deeply puzzling and always have, which of course makes me all the more eager to probe not just my own reaction to it, but that of society in general, to understand why they’re so popular and why I’m so unmoved by them.

One thread I note running throughout many reality shows is the ever-present pop culture narrative in the US of aspirational bootstrapping. On the reality show, you have utterly ordinary people, people like you and me, people you might encounter at the grocery store or see on a bus, who are suddenly thrust into an environment filled with opportunity. From the very start, the process promotes a bootstrapping ideal; the casting process for reality shows is carefully documented and in some cases shows about casting are almost as popular as the show itself. Viewers like the idea of people working really hard to get something they want, and they like it even better when this is presented as a competition.

First it’s about showing yourself to be good enough to compete on air; you have the right voice, the right looks, the cooking skills, the right level of fatness for a dramatic weight loss series. You enter a casting process with scores of other people who are all your potential rivals, because any one of them could bump you out of your spot. For viewers, this rings true to their own experiences in society, which is structured in an every person for themselves sort of way. You can’t care about the people around you because you need to focus on ‘working your way up’ and pushing your way to the top by any means possible.

This sets the reality show up as a microcosm of society. What viewers don’t understand or don’t seem to care about is the fact that even the casting is carefully engineered. This is not about who works the hardest and who is the best, but which people the network wants to put together on screen, thinking about the potential ratings. Networks think about interpersonal drama, they think about which people will likely spark fireworks, which people will work well together or backstab each other or fall in love with each other. They think about how people will look on screen, and whether they have the right look and feel for a given production. The goal here is not an honest depiction of people competing for a prize, but an entertainment for ratings, which is a different matter altogether.

Once cast, the participants proceed through a series of carefully staged episodes in a dramatic dance intended to look spontaneous, making viewers feel, again, like this could be them too. Anyone has the potential to be on that stage dancing or presenting a finished plate of food or singing or sashaying away. You just need to dream hard enough, and turn that dream into work and commitment to your goal. Networks heighten the tension and try to create a sense of reality and connection by profiling individual competitors and starting mock wars to keep viewers engaged and make them tune in on following weeks. All of this contributes to the artificial sense that this is entirely natural and spontaneous, that these individuals are here because they earned it.

And as the show progresses through to the finals and someone is declared a winner, viewers are often unaware that winners are preordained, that from the start, the show was carefully and meticulously planned out to achieve the desired effect. For the network, ratings are an immediate concern, but so is the maintenance of the bootstrapping dream, because that’s what sells reality shows. Networks want people to believe that they could be in reality shows someday because that’s what keeps them watching, and this also contributes to the continued widespread belief that everyone in society has a fair shake, that anyone could grow up to do anything, that if you work hard enough, you’ll get what you want, and you’ll deserve it when you get it.

For the upper classes, the widespread popularity of reality shows must be an utter delight. At the same time it pacifies people with entertainment designed to distract them from the realities of the world, it also reinforces social messaging about power and who deserves it. Within the reality show world, the power goes to the one who earns it, and people sucked into that world come to think the same of the society around them. People in power must have earned it, not taken it, because if anyone can become a pop star, surely anyone can become a politician or a CEO. We live, after all, in a free and fair society where anyone could become the star of a show about her own life, and she could leverage that into a dizzying array of products and spin-offs. We are all Kardashians and Kelly Clarksons, if we want to be. We just have to reach for it.