January 22, 2008

Reality Life

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

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).clip_image002

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.

Are the lives of wealthy people really more interesting than everyone else’s? clip_image004

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-clip_image006year-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 clip_image008personality 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.


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Did you see Jamie Johnson's film "Born Rich"? Johnson is of the Johnson & Johnson family and now has a second film "The One Percent". I believe both of them are a look at the "power elite", such as his family. I wonder what kind of viewership these get - nothing on the scale of the shows you mention...

This category focus on the everyay life sociology, particulalrly on class and stratification.

In my recent study related to inequality and stratification, sociologist arrived in common observation and understanding that certain conflict and diferences can dissapeared the moment that individuals ceased to live.

On the other hand, it seems that up to the grave, inequality and stratification persist since class origin and the natural stratification process is brought up to the grave to a particular individual.

As sociologist, i think that our duty is not only to understand the trivial phenomena and described whatever is entertaining to the public but also to determine on how to lessen the inequality among the members of society.

The Veblen's “leisure class” or the "power elite" of CW Mills may continously entertained the general public about their trivial life style but in the end, sociologist must ask themselves if this cultural and economic divide among social classes up to their own graveyard can help the general public especially in the society of the living.

albert banico

Gotta love Survivor and The Bachelor for sociology, really shows what people are like at times.

Like everyone else, I have a guilty pleasure. Watching the Kardashians and their crazy life every Sunday evening is mine. Maybe not something I’m would say I’m proud over, but it’s the honest truth. And I think I share this guilty pleasure with a lot of people. What fascinates me the most when reading this article is the fact that, 5 years after it was released, it could have been written yesterday. The fascination of the so called “leisure class” is as strong as ever and the only difference that could have been made in the article are the names of the show we are watching today, compared to the ones we were watching five years ago.
The American dream is a concept that will probably never die, and in my opinion it is the factor that keeps reality TV alive. If people like Kim Kardashian and Snooki can become famous and rich, then why can’t I?
People love to love and hate. We hate these celebrities as much as we love watching them. Many Americans probably know more about Jersey Shore than the stock market or the global news. It’s media working at its best to consume us, to make us want more of them because we need more building blocks for our American Dream, we need more hope that we can have the intragenerational mobility in our open system in this stratified society.
What I wonder, is why we haven’t start questioning the real powerful people? Why haven’t our interest in the Power Elite increased, and why do we let them hide behind the leisure class? Why is the leisure class something we want to achieve? Why aren’t people aiming for the power elite? Is it impossible to get there? The American dream, the factor that makes us watch the shows, says it’s not. I think the American dream may have lost its realistic perspective. It’s exactly what it’s called, a dream. So maybe it’s easier, and more fun, dreaming about the life of a Kardashian sister than the one of a president or CEO of a global company. Or maybe it’s even so that the factors of what defines social class are beginning to slowly change. What we can determine it that maybe people and their interest and dreams haven’t change much in the last five years. Maybe we will sit with the same reality shows in another five years. Or maybe we’ve started dreaming bigger by then, maybe the American Dream can stop being a dream, and we can make it into our own reality, instead of spending our lives watching reality television.

Nice post ! Am so into reality shows that i tend to forget movies and series exist. I like how it goes down ...the feuds and fights.. love and hate etc.

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