A Taste for Reality

Curator's Note

The first Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality Program was given in 2001. Despite this recognition, popular discourse about quality programming rarely includes reality television. Here is a clip I shot in 2011 of Reality Rocks, a reality TV awards show and conference that was canceled after its first year. The ceremony included sixteen awards decided by over 100,000 fan votes. Later, the host acknowledges that "reality TV sometimes shows people at their worst and sometimes they show them at their best." Given the highly derogatory terms in which reality television is discussed, it may be hard to imagine the genre as capable of showing people at their very best. What does the one and only first annual reality TV awards show tell us about popular tastes for television?

Reality TV has some of the most diverse casts on television and yet it is often described as trash TV. Although multicultural representation does not equal liberation, I suggest that reality TV’s ill reputation is, in part, about who takes on these roles. The casts and producers are accused of “faking” interactions, while scripted television is complimented on its quality and the “realness” the actors portray. Thus, the produced performances in reality shows are valued less than in scripted television. While reality TV is indeed cheaper to produce, I argue that its lack of prestige also constructs the fans and stars as unworthy. Therefore, both the enjoyment and talent for reality TV are devalued as artificial and disposable. Race and class differences get parsed through the language of taste.

The distaste for reality marks the people and lifestyles represented as cast off entertainment for inferior publics. Arguing that reality has more stereotypical representations than “critically acclaimed” shows underscores how taste is used to manage both class and racial boundaries in the production and consumption of popular culture. Discounting reality television as simply distasteful never sees the fans or actors at their very best, but only and always at their very worst. I would say more but I think Lena Dunham’s about to win Best Director for Bad Girls Club!


As a fan of reality TV I found this post incredibly refreshing! I think the programming of these shows emphasizes your points about race and class. Thinking about VH1's line up of reality TV-- Mob Wives, Basketball Wives, Love and Hip Hop-- it seems these shows are not only for inferior publics, they are being segregated into very specific spaces. You mention that we do not see the actors who are part of these shows at their best, but it is hard to see the kinds of industrial and cultural changes required. But, as Ryan suggested earlier in the week, we can see tastes shift as the highbrow takes cues from the "other guys." Perhaps shows that adopt the docudrama aesthetic could be the beginning??

Lauren must on her A-Game with scheduling this week's because this post provides the perfect contrast to mine yesterday; or what/who determines what constitutes "high-versus-low" brow art. I wonder what Warhol would think about Reality Television? I would to hear you speak more to your "distaste for reality" and simultaneous attraction to it (this is an generalized observation) because I often find myself loathing myself while watching my weekly "guilty pleasures"--from Ru Paul's Drag Race to Duck Dynasty. It is interesting and contradictory how we go about watching "reality" a "class above" as a way for both participating in these characters' worlds and also making ourselves feel better about ourselves. I also think you would LOVE a good friend of mine's article recently published on his inside autoethnographic work on/off the set of Big Brother. I will link you to his work and try to bring him into this conversation! Great stuff!

Thanks for the great feedback Lauren and Ryan! I agree that Lauren did a fantastic job curating this week! I think what I am trying to emphasize is what it might mean to take reality television seriously as a type of constructed performance. The way in which reality TV is set up against scripted drama is a sticking point for me. It seems that the only reason one might judge reality stars as "fake" is because of an assumption that they are not performances. But I think most people understand that reality tv is not "real" in that sense, and yet they still watch. For me, the assumption of "realness" slips into a classic construction of the fans and viewers as somehow duped by the production process. People's reading/viewing processes are much more complicated than that. I guess what I am saying is that have a deep love for reality television even if I am often critically engaged with it. I think taking these shows seriously as entertainment allows a deeper analysis into the connections between structures of race, class and everyday life. Thanks for the article Ryan! I am especially interested in his auto ethnographic piece. The video clip is a part of a documentary short I made on reality TV casting. While I was shooting I acquired a lot of information from stars and hopefuls and casting people on how to get cast in a reality show that mostly focused on "playing up your strengths." I thought about auditioning for a show, but then I am a terrible actor.

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