Bitches, pimps, and hoes abound: Riesman's 'The Lonely Crowd' and the development of the reality television persona.
In 1969, David Riesman told his readers to visualize a different world--a world in which Americans are shallow, frivolous, insecure, immoral, and self-seeking. This world, he said, was on its way. In 2013, his words seem astutely prophetic. What Riesman did not outline, however, is a world in which what happens behind closed doors is normal, everyday water-cooler talk; nor did he envisage popular media teeming with inequality and stereotyping, or the rise of archetypal "bitches," "hoes," "pimps," "thugs," and "skanks." Reality television has solidified these characters as part of our everyday milieu and effectively made characters' personal lives of our own concern.
Riesman (1961) identifies these characteristics as "other-directed," noting the fundamental shift that lies within the insatiable concern for others. Moreover, social mobility relies "less on what one is and what one does than on what others think of one--and how competent one is in manipulating others and being oneself manipulated" (p. 45). Riesman notes that the "other-directedness" reshaping American society is transforming the traditional, independent, all-American character into one obsessed with acceptance from, and competition with, all other people.
Thriving upon these traits, reality-based television supplements its audience's mania for comparison and self-effacement while playing into Americans' insatiable drives toward social recognition. Additionally, the "reality-star" persona is an immediate product of this "directedness." This article discusses the post-World War II shift in character that laid the groundwork and desire for such programming. Resulting from these qualities, the development of reality television feeds the other-directedness of contemporary society in four ways: (a) by transferring the reality "star's" locus of control to their viewers; (b) by allowing its audience to place their own lives in juxtaposition with others' that they presuppose are socially inferior; (c) by marketing/allowing voyeuristic entry into the taboo aspects of others' lives; and (d) by fostering a sense of easily-accessible stardom among viewers. Because of these developments, the notorious aforementioned archetypes flourish. More conspicuously, they give rise to the primary focus of the "other-directed" individual: other people. Riesman, et al. might not have directly predicted this smorgasbord of drama, yet their assertions delineate a clear foundation for reality shows and their characters-formidable forces of media that pervert TV and catch our eyes today and that uncover a phenomenon reflective of a significant character shift in modern society.
The Development of Reality Television
Participatory media can be traced back to women's confessional magazines in the nineteenth century, a dynamic later expanded through talk radio. The fundamentals of modern reality-TV take shape within early game shows, contests, and documentaries, including the Miss America Pageant and Candid Camera. Even then, such shows advanced viewer interest; as other-directedness progressed, the exposure of others' problems became more beguiling. As this interest inflated, game shows naturally progressed into talk shows, and thus into the personalization of other peoples's problems. As Daniel Beck et al. (2012) observe, "With the game element omitted, it was a short step from such shows to the confessional talk show genre, focusing on ordinary people instead of celebrity guests that appeared in the classical talk show formats" (p. 8). This shift in focus continues in today's media, most clearly in reality television programming.
Frequently considered the first true reality show, the PBS docudrama An American Family, which aired in the 1970s, was the first to focus solely on entertainment value and to allow a changing society a glimpse into the lives of others. The show proved controversial and true to reality-TV form (and Riesman's forecast), was criticized as representative of decaying morality. Shortly thereafter, true crime shows featuring magazine-like format changed the landscape of television forever--thus, media analysts coined shows like America's Most Wanted and Rescue 911 as "reality TV."
Reality shows, as we know them today, trace back to MTV's The Real World which began airing in 1992. Fox was the next network to indoctrinate their viewers (and to gross staggering viewer ratings) with the launch of Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? in February 2000 (Posner, 2012, p. 12). Since that date, Fox has grown to where forty-one percent of their airtime in 2009, and forty-eight percent in 2008, is dedicated to reality programming; various other networks are not far behind (ibid., p. 282).
The Archetypes of Reality TV
Unbeknownst to many fans, reality programs carefully structure events and film footage to maximize production outcome, i.e. to produce a spectacle. Selected for their controversial traits and personalities, producers mix the perfect drama-laden cocktail of characters and intentionally create the proverbial "train wreck" from which viewers admittedly cannot turn away. Blunder and Katz's work on uses and gratifications can help to clarify why reality programming keeps viewers enthralled. The theory outlines five assumptions within uses and gratifications, outlining that "communication behavior, including media selection and use, is goal-directed purposive, and motivated," and that "people take the initiative in selecting and using communication vehicles to satisfy felt needs or desires" (Papacharissi & Mendelson, 2007, p. 356). Correspondingly, a 2004 study conducted by Steven Reiss and James Wiltz concludes that the principal vehicles of viewer appeal pertaining to reality TV are status and vengeance, respectively. Status, the study notes, reveals the viewer's need for the feeling of superiority: "Viewers feel they are more important (have higher status) than the ordinary people portrayed on reality television shows" (p. 373). Vengeance, the second motivation that the study identifies, allows the viewers a cathartic display of competition and interpersonal conflict (ibid., p. 373-374).
These traits are ubiquitous among reality stars and storylines. One need not look far for the quintessential "bitch," "pimp" or "whore"; programs including America's Next Top Model, Flavor of Love, and The Bachelor are full of "catty" women, and are a petri dish for explosive interactions. Reality shows are also known for their iniquitous displays (and careful selection) of emotional outbursts, while bolstering stereotypical gender dynamics. Shrewdly positioned character types and volatile circumstances create frequent emotive eruptions. For example, "celebrity" contestant Toccara, on Celebrity Fit Club, became a notorious spectacle after "judges" and other contestants badger her about her self-worth. For Toccara, harassment ensued at each "weigh-in" as she expressed comfort with her plussized figure. Forced week after week to talk about her self-confidence as a form of "denial" (after all, how can an overweight woman be happy?), Toccara finally snapped, exclaiming, "All they see is the fact that I say I love myself. That's an issue?" (Posner, 2010, p. 83). Unfortunately for Toccara, in the eyes of show producers, this is an issue; albeit an issue easily exploited.
Even more appallingly, these shows tend to assign such characteristics and encounters to minorities and women; not men. Men are not exempt, however, as most programming also solidifies patriarchal ideals and antiquated notions of masculinity. In her analysis of these implications, Posner writes that such allusions have incalculable sociopolitical significance. Posner provides a plethora of examples in support of her claim that "these shows frame their narratives in ways that both play to and reinforce deeply ingrained societal biases about women and men, love and beauty, race and class" (p. 17). Countless characters, like Toccara, transform from strong minority representations to disgraceful "divas" that need to "have some class," while their personal (or manufactured) demons are exploited as a vehicle for ratings escalation (ibid., 83).
For women, reality TV typically emphasizes the importance of being thin, white, young, surgically altered, and hyper-sexualized (yet chaste). For men, the appraisement is concerned with income level, overall manliness, sexual appeal, and male camaraderie. Those of either gender that do not fit the mold typify corresponding formulaic attributes, such as flamboyant gay men on What not to Wear and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, violent and over-sexed black men on Flavor of Love and I Love New York', and aggressive, money-hungry black women on The Real Housewives of Atlanta and The Apprentice. In a society in which the average American watches over thirty-one hours of television per week, and with new reality-based programs added each season, the foreseeable consequences are worrisome. As Posner notes, "this form of media has the power to influence our notions of normalcy versus difference, convince us certain behaviors are 'innate' for different groups of people, and present culturally constructed norms of gender, race, class, and sexuality as 'natural'" (ibid., 98). Riesman cautions against manifestations of other-directed concerns, mainly allowing oneself to epitomize these "ideals" around us. "Great sensitivity," he writes, "keeps [us] in touch with others on many more levels than the externals of appearance and propriety" (ibid., p. 24).
Regardless of the stereotypes portrayed or the abundant media inculcations, audiences of reality television programming continue to grow, and productions continue to expand. As indicated in The Lonely Crowd, society is changing; as is true throughout history, we shape our media and our culture to fulfill our needs. Fortunately for the wallets of conglomerates, yet disputably unfortunate for society, reality programs seem to meet these needs (Reiss et al., 2007, p. 370).
The Shift in Audience Control
These social changes inevitably force alterations in personal character, values, and lifestyle. The fundamental values of capitalism shift in an information-based society, and reflected throughout our media and technology is the evident movement from individualism to what Riesman labels "other -centeredness." Additionally, as technologies such as social media, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and smart phones integrate themselves into our everyday lives, the lives of others become readily available. This growth of new technology and proliferated exposure has not only opened up the publicness of our lives, but in the context of reality TV programming, new media have also allowed for a perceived transfer of power from character to viewer. This transfer serves to increase and fortify viewer interest, as the audience is granted the power to participate in the creation and control of the show's content.
This perceived transfer of power is a formidable aspect of the reality television genre. Yet Andrejevic (2005) outlines the ways in which reality television is not the "realization of the democratic ideal of civic participation, but a means to promote the normalization of increased surveillance" (p. 139). With an audience that demonstrates an increasing willingness to submit to constant observation, reality TV producers are never in want for participants. Vying for any spot that might foster a few minutes of fame, countless participants willingly forfeit personal privacy as a means to achieve some semblance of renown. Although this status is often attained (albeit maintained only briefly), the monetary payoff remains in the production companies' favors. Andrejevic additionally notes that implicit within reality television rhetoric and intended for mass audiences is the underlying message that to submit to surveillance is of great value; being watched increases one's likelihood of being a "star" (ibid., p. 138).
Because of participant willingness, low production costs intensify the reality TV appeal. Posner (2010) reports that reality-based television show production costs are fifty to seventy-five percent lower than scripted programs, juxtaposing NBC's $9 million per hour The West Wing with the $500 thousand per hour The Weakest Link (p. 14). Correspondingly, reality television has become one of the most lucrative programming genres, as these other-directed tendencies encourage and drive purchasing and consumption, thus adding to their appeal to television producers. According to Forbes Magazine, American Idol has recently earned its place as the top-grossing television show of all time, earning $7.11 million for Fox Net work from each half-hour of airtime (the runner-up, CBS's Two and a Half Men, at only $2.89 million) (Pomerantz, 2011).
As with any successful show, advertisers closely follow these revenue streams and vie for affiliation. In addition to traditional advertising, product placement easily integrates within many reality show formats as a considerable majority of them focus on a particular niche or occupation. For example, the 2003 season of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition earned $1 million from Sears Department Stores for narrative assimilation into the "home design" motif of the show. In similar fashion, Cover Girl Cosmetics not only provides extensive advertisements throughout America's Next Top Model, but also benefits from free modeling labor fostered from the show's contestants. For Cover Girl, Top Model has become quite the lucrative undertaking, carefully constructing the "ultimate prize" of free model-labor, along with a laundry list of aspiring models clawing at each other in order to win such an honor. Cover Girl is not alone in such ventures as a plethora of other shows offer the same sort of prize awarded through (or along with) contestant product endorsements and/or supplies of their products (Deery, 2004, p. 2). Thus, the economics behind reality television programming, coupled with their social suitability, make them a powerhouse within current media and help to solidify their place within current cultural phenomena.
In their 1956 article "Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance," Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl introduced the phenomenon of the para-social relationship. They assert that mass media creates a quasi-relationship between media figure and audience member, a relationship founded upon direct address (from actor to audience member, for example) and a "simulacrum of conversation give and take" (p. 374). Through para-social interaction, media personae promote the feeling of intimacy and of a continuing relationship, which then develops the feeling of "friend, counselor, comforter, and model" for the audience member (ibid., p. 375). The only thing missing, they claim, is reciprocity. The audience member is not likely to establish any form of true liaison with the persona, and there is no mutual rapport.
However, through the composition of reality TV, this dynamic is now possible. Part of the allure of shows including American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and Survivor is that they are broadcast live, and that the viewers can vote, message, and follow any character of interest via social media platforms. This transfer of control alters our relationships with television figures and increases viewer buy-in. Following their qualitative study, Lundy et al. (2008) note, "Aside from the pure entertainment factor of reality television, participants [are]...addicted to following the characters and situations in reality television," and that some viewers become so emotionally invested that they find it "nearly impossible to prematurely abandon the show" (p. 215). As Riesman (1961) describes, the other-directed person is unable to "go it alone" in life; he is unable to maintain a comfortable social aura without consistent and reliable interactions from others in his "group milieu" (p. 25). Ultimately, the desire to become an integral part of the group fosters audience participation, as audience members feel an important and influential part of the show and its plot advancement. "Voters" feel a responsibility to the show and its participants, counting their contribution as support to their favorite (or least favorite) characters.
By adding this facet of participation, the personae of reality television encourages audience interaction; this, in turn, satisfies immediacy needs, precipitating the instant fulfillment of social acceptance. Horton and Wohl (2004) discuss the importance of this family-like feeling:
His appearance [the persona] is a regular and dependable event, to be counted on, planned for, and integrated into the routines of daily life. His devotees "live with him" and share small episodes of his public life--and to some extent even of his private life away from the show...in time, the devotee-the "fan"--comes to believe that he "knows" the personae ... (p. 375)
Because reality television has coupled with social media and other technologies, this pseudo-relationship is now even stronger; the reciprocity that was once absent gives way to an interactive and immediate connection that increases the viewer's psychological bond to the personae and to the storyline. As such, the viewers not only feel a connection with the personae, but they also foster a perceived sense of control over aspects of the personae's life. Moreover, audiences perceive that they have become a part of something bigger, a part of the reality-star's social milieu. In his article "Do Reality Shows Teach Us Anything," Chris Fotinopoulous (2004) writes that "not only [does reality television] provide us with the opportunity to engage in a community of ethical appraisal by entering a series of numbers or text messages on a phone, but offers temporary respite from the everyday pressures of work, school and home" (p. 58). Ultimately, the TV star who once seemed independent of influence and who only existed with a certain level of detachment, is now a "friend" whose destiny lies in the hands of his or her viewers (Kjus, 2009, p. 294).
Why We Watch
In a wealth-driven society and the world of reality TV, even the seemingly altruistic "do-good" shows have ulterior motives. Stuffed with strategically placed ads, trailers, and monikers, shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Secret Millionaire, and Undercover Boss have "products and brand names woven into the melodramatic interventions, and as many critics have noted, complex social issues and socioeconomic inequalities are simplified and downplayed" (Poniewozik, 2010, p. 69). Even so, the majority of reality shows are full of what audience members see as socially inferior cast members. Shows that portray the "Average Joe" permit us to see ourselves as superior; we are unable to stop ourselves from watching others humiliate themselves and destroy their lives (Ouellette, 2010, p. 6970).
In addition to the "Average Joe," reality television has helped to transform our sense of socially acceptable behavior. As Riesman predicted, the area between moral and immoral is increasingly blurred. Because of this shift in morality, there is increasing anxiety about what is magnanimous and increasing ambiguity about what one can "get away with." In turn, shows that depict "real" people pushing the envelope of morality become increasingly alluring. Some scholars claim that reality TV has taken over controversial psychological and sociological research that has been abandoned because of various regulations--research that tests societal norms and limits (Lundy et ah, 2008, p. 209). Concurrent with other-directedness, the desire for self-affirmation is changing societal mores. In line with Andrejevic, Vincent Pecora delves into the increased willingness of Americans to submit to surveillance as a means of attaining social prominence. Pecora (2002), however, discusses the change in our perception of surveillance. As such, he notes that "for a growing number of people in contemporary Western society," surveillance has become less a regulative mechanism of authority (either feared as tyrannical or welcomed as protection) than a populist path to self-affirmation and a ready-made source of insight into the current norms of group behavior" (p. 348).
While testing moral and normative limits, reality-television also allows for entry into the most taboo aspects of others' personal lives; aspects that remained unmentionable during "inner-directed" times and that feed voyeuristic and pornographic interests. Moreover, interest in such personal and intimate details of others' lives is displayed and/or inferred through the power of "behind-the-scenes" technology. Needless-to-say, as Americans become primed for surveillance, the intrusion becomes welcome and anticipated; people are just as willing to participate in the production of reality TV as they are willing to consume such programming. In addition, Reiss and Wiltz show that morality inversely relates to viewing habits; that is, the more an individual watches reality programming, the lower their moral compass. In their research, Reiss and Wiltz (2004) explain, "The finding that viewing reality TV shows is negatively associated with the extent to which a person embraces morality (honor) is not surprising because many reality television shows champion expedience over ethics" (p. 374). The result is a dangerous cyclical alteration, one in which a population is more accepting of the less moral behavior as viewership increases, and where viewership increases as people become less moral.
The Reality TV "Star"
The cult of celebrity is a growing area of study. Within this body of work, McCutcheon et al. (2003) report that among other analogous characteristics, celebrity worshipers exhibit "lower psychological well-being" than those without such fixations (p. 309). The obsession with the lives of seemingly perfect, exuberantly glamorous, and utterly fascinating celebrities is a growing area of popular and scholarly attention. Such cathexes become a bit more comprehensible upon analysis of research such as that reported by Posner (2002):
In 2007, the Pew Research Center reported that 81 percent of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds stated that being rich is the first or second most important goal in life for their generation, and 51 percent chose fame. Only 30 percent identified helping people in need as their peers' top proprieties; and just 22 percent said community leadership, (p. 32)
Posner also concludes that idolized depictions throughout reality TV exacerbate such desires and help to maintain viewer appeal.
Part of reality television's success relates to the accessibility of celebrity. The genre fosters what appears to its viewers to be an easily achievable stardom, a "quick-fix," to the formerly hopeless dream of attaining fame. Hollywood exudes possibility, epitomizing the American Dream--a place where a "nobody" can become an instant household name, an instant celebrity. Powdermaker (2004) expresses this sentiment as she writes that the game of chance exists in the possibility of "an actress [becoming] a star because a producer chanced to notice her and give her a role in a picture which happened to become a hit" (p. 282). Reality TV has increased these odds by employing entire casts of "real" people (who work cheaply) and by advertising upcoming auditions where they seek out anyone who will add drama, flavor, and a touch of "reality" to their upcoming production.
In addition to the possibility of stardom, audiences are also able to visualize themselves through the depiction of "average" occupational storylines. For example, aspiring designers can easily visualize themselves as a competitor on Project Runway or 24 Hour Catwalk, and the local diner chef can imagine competing on Top Chef or Hell's Kitchen. Other shows use this same type of appeal by employing "small town" settings, such as the local beauty salon on The Glam Fairy or the suburban street of white picket-fenced homes on The Real Housewives of Miami. Even though not all programs are filmed in such quaint environments, they are all successful in facilitating reproduced content "in the space and time of new national settings [...] generally featuring ordinary people as participants, effectively incorporating local languages, cultures and temperaments" (Kjus, 2009, p. 291). To solidify their "realistic" appeal, "reality concepts derive from universal conditions such as love, family life, careers and singing/dancing, which are likewise mobilized in traditional genres of popular culture" (ibid., p. 289). Additionally, reality TV programming helps to create and maintain an air of acceptance for any Average Joe, acceptance that plays right into the most basic need of other-directed individuals.
Riesman writes that one of his goals is to see how changes in character will relate to changes in meaning--within not only the interests and pursuits of his time, but within the interests and pursuits of the future (1961, p. 126). "Of one thing I am sure," Reisman concludes, the value of "the individual himself." Yet, as this article shows, in some sense Americans continue to stray far from the path of individuality. Reisman's (1961) closing thought only solidifies our concerns about the implications of reality programming, as he pleas for his audience to remember that "men are created different; they lose their social freedom and their individual autonomy in seeking to become like each other" (p. 306). Riesman sought to raise the awareness of such social shortcomings by encouraging audiences to work toward autonomy by withstanding conformity and surpassing the status quo. Despite his admonition, we have done quite the opposite as we increasingly scrutinize others' shortcomings, continue to work against autonomy as we gravitate toward conformity, and propagate the maintenance of the status quo.
Although his predictions are judicious where aspects of reality TV are applied and corresponding characteristics of society are considered, such revelations become more disquieting. As Riesman predicted, societal shifts ripple throughout popular media. In the case of reality television, such shifts warrant careful scrutiny and scholarship; they stand to teach us about current and future mores and ideologies. More directly, American viewers should heed Riesman's advocacy of individualism, and future scholarship should critically assess reality television and its influence on American society.
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Annaliese B. Piraino
Doctoral Candidate, Comm. Media & Instructional Technology
Indiana University of Pennsylvania; Indiana, PA
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|Title Annotation:||Bitches, Pimps, and Hoes Abound|
|Author:||Piraino, Annaliese B.|
|Publication:||Journal of Communications Media Studies|
|Article Type:||Author abstract|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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