Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Reality Lies

Paddy Chayefsky was years ahead of himself when he wrote the film Network in predicting the superficiality of television that would later morph into, so called, “Reality Television” – advertisement snuff that preys on low self-esteem, constructed beauty and anorexia as the acceptable norm. In the film Peter Finch stood before the network during a live news feed and announced his upcoming death before millions of viewers, which – to no surprise by today’s standards -- caused the ratings to go up higher than they had ever been and wide-eyed America awaited the promise of live death that was to come their way; and that is exactly what they got.

Spike Lee attempted this same premonition with his film Bamboozled when he tackled the New Millennium Minstrel Show, where Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson shame(ful)lessly put on black face make up before a live studio audience to portray the dramatist personas of Sleep and Eat, and do a throw back to the old black face entertainers (at a time where black performers could only work if they were willing to make their already black faces blacker). Though Lee’s Bamboozled is an amateurish attempt at his own version of Network (including the worst screen performance of the decade by Damion Waynes), both Chayefsky and Lee’s points were clear in the direction they felt American entertainment and advertising was destined to go: the rise of “Reality Television.”

Technically Reality Television can be taken back to the talented (and sociopathic) Chuck Barris, with his creation of The Gong Show, The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game – all based on the concept to use “real” people for viewer relatability. Barris knew people would flock at the chance to be on television no matter the risk for humiliation, since the satisfaction was not for the sake of upward mobility but plain old fashion bragging rights of one being able to say, “I was on T.V.” This concept is alive and well, more than thirty years later, in the era where reality television commands a large population of the air waves; one would think that Barris should be considered, some what, a hero in the eyes of the executives to embrace the strategy of using “real” people as oppose to actors, since you don’t have to pay these “real” people as much money as an actor because the “real” people have no union to protect them. Not to mention the concept passes the message to the young viewers that to be “ordinary” is to be ashamed of one’s self. For Reality Television preys upon the viewer’s insecurities; and in the case of young viewers these insecurities are heightened, since they have no tangible comparison to who they truly are. Young minds are a cotton field for advertising executives, causing the young viewer to serve as their own slave, picking the cotton in the hot sun, for the profit of the slave masters, and being whipped for stepping out of line; translation for today’s symbolic slavery: they are made to feel shame for not responding to the trends of popular culture and risk being left behind and unacceptable amongst their peers; and this serves as the bread and butter for today’s networks.

“Sex sells” -- so goes s the cliché in advertising and entertainment -- and there is no better example than America’s Next Top Model -- which advertises sex and beauty as a selling point (much like conservatives advertise God as a weapon) and discredits all the inner workings of an individual’s personal stamina, and promotes beauty as a physical prerequisite in the lives of young girls. “Sexy” is the stamp of approval to exist before the public eye (or in the case of young viewers, the school campus). For, without this stamp, one is “less than” and required to stand clear and sit on the bench, while the approved “beautiful ones” roam the field and live off the proverbial “free pass” because who can argue with a person of beauty? “Sexy” not only sells the product, but plays into the arousal of the male audience (the ultimate goal) which translates into the approval of the consensus, which then becomes the “universal” opinion for what “sexy” is (hence, the “free pass”) and therefore, becomes law in the book of popular culture (God help the child who breaks this law). This creates the image of what women are suppose to look like and plays into the insecurity of the average fourteen year old who will vomit herself fifty pounds lighter to be seen as “pretty” and risk her health and psyche in the interest of what we are told “beauty” is. Never mind that beauty comes from within. Never mind that it leads young girls to have sex for the sake of acceptance (nothing at all to do with the natural flow of their sexuality, but the ongoing approval from men.). The ratings are up! And for a network to take responsibility for the product that is peddled and force fed so often down our throats that we take it in as part of our daily lives, would just be asking too much.

American Idol not only serves as the type of trash TV that supports Top Model, but stands as the “New Millennium Minstrel Show.” The Minstrel show thrived on entertainment at the expense of humanity; popularity over craft; laughter over content; and while American Idol appears to be a showcase for talent, it serves as the ultimate cesspool for insecurity; and not only this, people go about the show feeling like the judges are just “being honest” (in a time of Myspace and text messaging where honesty no longer exists), and yet the credibility and behavior of the judges must be left to question. We have a pill popping, burnt out, untalented singer (Paula), a second rate producer (Randy), and a cynical Brit’ who has never played an instrument, well, in his life (the infamous, Simon). And yet, these are the opinions that America listens to? The answer is, “absolutely yes.” The reason? “Sex sells” but only second to “insecurities” and it shows we learned nothing from the popularity of teen suicide in the 1980s (the movie Heathers beautifully communicates this). Popular Culture creates a standard. And when one does not live by this standard, one is ex-communicated and left for isolation (which are motivating factors in the shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech). Not to say this is the complete fault of Popular Culture; nor would I ever take a stance of censorship for television or any medium of communication and entertainment. However when advertisement insists that one “be apart of or get the hell out”, this insists on pressure for acceptance and paints individuality as taboo, whereas individuality should be encouraged. American Idol, in their search for the next “idol” does not seek the individual as themselves; but the individual as they would fit in the created shadows of what popularity is. There is a self-proclaimed stamp of knowing what is popular and what isn’t (Simon). Yet to know what will be popular is for one to fool themselves, since popularity is generated from a mood that, often times, viewers and consumers have no idea they are feeling, until the product or song or film is placed in front of them; then suddenly they find the connection and the potential of popularity grows from that. Yet to state what “sexy” is, what “beauty” is, what “will be popular” is a pompous point of view that thrives on arrogance, rather than knowledge (Barry Gordy refused to release Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On album, based on his prediction that the album would not be popular; and yet, when the album was released it became the fastest selling album in history; and to this day, What’s Goin’ On is deemed the best soul album of all times). The film Napoleon Dynamite found a “cult following” because it immortalized the angst of the outcast, which resonated to the mood of the viewer. Yet it is Will Farrell who holds the crown in popular comedy because Farrell is an acceptable figure in the tradition of self-humiliation for the sake of entertainment. Hallie Berry has been deemed one of the most beautiful women in America; and though I think Lilli Taylor and Kerry Washington are beautiful women (more so than Berry, based on personal choice), they are not yet excepted figures of beauty because America has no comparable figure to place them against; therefore, they sit on the outskirts. All of this is based on what we are told, through advertisement, of what we are supposed to feel about these figures leaving no room for individual input. It’s baffling, it’s barbaric, it’s bullshit. Popularity is based on mood, not dictation. Sexy is based on personal choice, not industry standard. It confirms Chayefsky and Lee’s point, in that television tells us what to think, and we may rest in comfort from not having to take the responsibility for ourselves. Yet the comfort creates a discomfort; and the discomfort creates low self-esteem; and it is the low self-esteem that has filled the pocket books of many Americans, without consequence through the genre of Reality Television.

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writer, actor, & producer in training. in 2005, along side my partner in film and best friend since childhood, we produced and executed 3 films. to this day i am still working in "the business" to the best of my abilities and moving forward to the "next level." currently i am producing a film project, co-writing another, awaiting word on a stage play for New York, and pursuing my next one-person show. i'm also in school pursuing my Ph.D in Social Science.