As I watched Kim and Kourtney Kardashian sunning their augmented breasts in Miami on a friend's yacht, I thought to myself, "How do we watch this stuff?"
I was watching a clip of Kourtney and Kim Take New York on Hulu, and Kim was on this yacht with her sister and a friend. She was fidgeting with her ever-present Blackberry, and she let out a big sigh that drew their attention. They asked what was wrong, and Kim said, "I'm just trying to deal with this kind of like privately, but Reggie and I broke up."
I was struck by the irony of her statement. She was trying to deal with her Bush break-up privately -- while being filmed talking about it.
I know this is not an original question. I imagine most of us would answer it quickly: "Not very."
Since we know their reality is limited, I asked myself whether we watch such shows in a manner different from the way we watch "regular" drama. When we watch a regular drama, we know what we see is not real. It may imitate the real, and it may do this quite faithfully. But those of us in the audience know what we watch is, in a sense, a lie. This does not stop us from getting emotionally involved in the events. This does not stop us from experiencing emotional reactions to what we see on the screen.
At the heart of the audience's experience is identification. People in the audience identify with the people they see in the production. They may think, "She is like me. I have felt her pain before." Or they might think, "I have never known that fear, but I imagine it is powerful! Look at me, my heart is racing, yet I am sitting safely in my home, wrapped in a Snuggie and eating S'mores." That is to say, even if we cannot relate our own lives to the lives we see on the screen (or read on the page or witness on the stage), we imagine ourselves in those lives. We experience, vicariously, the actions and emotions being imitated for us. And the fact that they are not really happening does not diminish our pleasure nor our participation.
Although Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief" to argue for implausible or fantastic events in stories, the idea extends to many forms of storytelling. For instance, while watching 3:10 to Yuma, I am supposed to suspend my disbelief that a man with a prosthetic foot -- one made in the 1870s no less -- could jump from roof to roof in hot pursuit of a bad guy. (I'm sorry. I snorted in the theater at those scenes.) But at a more fundamental level, I suspend my disbelief enough to watch any of the film and allow it to influence my thoughts and emotions.
And so, while watching a show such as Kourtney and Kim Take New York, the viewer allows himself to forget that everything the sisters say is being recorded and they know it is being recorded -- and surely the sisters shape what they say or do because of that camera. At some level they must be aware of how what they are saying is fitting into some storyline that has evolved through the creation of that episode or that is likely to evolve. (They also must know their show is a collaborative effort. What they say and do will be further shaped by editors, especially after the sisters tape the various cutaway commentaries on the episode's events.)
In this sense, a show such as theirs is not so much "reality TV" as it is "improvisational drama." Larry David's HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which he plays a character named "Larry David," is famous for its improvisational creation. David gives his actors the bare minimum for a scene, and the actors create the rest as they go along. As they stay in character, they are aware of the plot they need to follow, but they also are aware of the need to make each scene funny.
Similarly, Kim Kardashian plays a character named "Kim Kardashian" in scenes that are meant to resemble her life, knowing that as she goes through each scene she must do and say memorable things -- look glamorous, be happy, be heartbroken, be sentimental, be rich, etc.
After I started thinking about this aspect of shows such as hers, I came across another name for them: docusoap. Part documentary, part soap opera. It sounds fitting. But that name seems reserved for the types of shows that document people (most likely not celebrities) doing things in the "real world," such as Deadliest Catch. The people in those shows may play to the camera, may manufacture drama in order to get more air time, but they also must be aware of the competition they are a part of or the dangers that surround them.
The kind of crabs that might threaten Kim and Kourtney are not the kind you pull from the Bering Sea.
|Aqua Teen Hunger Force|
I realize that not everyone watches these shows in the way I have described. Not everyone watches something like Jersey Shore in the same way Aristotle would have enjoyed Antigone. Some watch more like Romans enjoying their gladiators -- if the warriors sported Bumpits and fake tans.
I know many people tune in to see the human train wrecks that some reality TV shows present to us. But not all watch for that, and some folks even watch as if the shows presented unmediated glimpses into the lives of other people. But even those who watch like Romans at the Coliseum are to some degree reacting to events on screen as if they were accurate imitations of life, not people impersonating themselves in storylines intended to attract attention; the Roman-style viewers react as if they are watching real people doing real things -- evoking from the viewers genuine outrage, pity, scorn, or laughter, evoking that catharsis and purgation of human emotions for which Aristotle said drama was intended.