Confession: I am fascinated by reality shows. Not the game show kind, where there is a contest or people get eliminated (although I was into them at first). My weakness is for the ones that follow people around and promise to give us a glimpse into their everyday lives. I don’t admit this very often, but I have often thought about the significance of shows like The Osbournes, Hogan Knows Best, Hey Paula, My Life on the D-List, and Newlyweds. (Yes, I have watched several episodes—okay, every episode—of all of these shows…and others like them).
Most of these programs feature the daily lives of people at various levels of celebrity, or people who become celebrities based on their appearance on their show. We get an inside glimpse of what it is like to be one of “them” and temporarily feel like members of their inner circle. There’s a bit of a paradox working here: on the one hand the shows present their everyday behaviors that make them seem more like “us,” but the fact that they even have a reality show reinforces (or creates) their celebrity.
If you’ve ever seen the Geico insurance ad, you might have noticed that in spots like this one they pair a “real person” with a celebrity, as if the terms were mutually exclusive.
Even though some of the shows, like The Real Housewives of Orange County, The Hills, and My Super Sweet Sixteen focus on people who are not famous (at first), they do have one thing in common with “celebreality”: all the people we are watching are rich.
It all depends on what a large number of people find interesting. And it just so happens that living in a fabulous home in an exclusive community filled with great stuff is interesting to a lot of people (myself included). This has something to do with how we currently define the American Dream: having financial independence and, of course, fame. What is it like to have all that? What’s it like to be the child of somebody rich and famous?
The flip side to all this should be lost on no one who has ever seen one of these shows, which are edited in such a way to help us feel a bit superior to them. Now, I would not say that the people on the shows are just “made to look bad,” as some reality show participants later complained, and that it is only because of the editing. But in addition to watching reality denizens bask in their high tax bracket status, we get to judge them too. Remember how Jessica Simpson seemed to be, er, intellectually challenged? Or all the dog doo lying around the Osbourne house? The temper tantrums when the “sweet” sixteen-year-old didn’t have her way?
The wealthy people we see on television aren’t always admirable, either. Often shows like The Real Housewives of Orange County (which don’t really feature “housewives” since nearly of the women work outside the home and some aren’t married, but that’s the topic of another post) highlight the excesses and superficiality of their subjects. So in a way these shows both celebrate wealth and criticize the wealthy. If we’re not in the exclusive club of being wealthy, watching them might make us feel better about our relatively modest lives.
All of these examples point to the combined fascination and disgust that celebrities often generate. They have come to define what sociologist Thorstein Veblen called the “leisure class” in America. The real upper crust, whose money is not nearly as new, would probably not allow cameras in their home or want to call any attention to themselves, so they remain largely invisible. This helps to maintain the illusion of a completely open society, since it appears that anyone with an interesting personality can be famous, and perhaps rich. As of 2006, only 17 percent of American households earned $100,000 or more, and the wealthiest one percent of Americans hold about one-third of all wealth.
The continued focus on the newly-minted rich serves to mask how the real elite got that way. CEOs of major corporations, families with multi-generational wealth and power are off of the pop culture radar screen. Sociologist C. Wright Mills called these people the “power elite.”
Are they less interesting than the Hogan family of wrestling fame? Who knows. But one thing is for sure: no matter how wealthy (and strong) the Hulk might be, he has a whole lot less power than the invisible rich in the grand scheme of things. And our continued focus on wealth coming from hard work, talent, and being on a reality show masks the reality of where wealth mostly comes from in America.