• SumoMe

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Recently, Wired published an article called “Why Reality TV Doesn’t Suck, and May Even Make Us Smarter,” and it was the ultimate in face palm experiences. Look, I am a fan of finding new ways to keep the social sciences relevant in the modern age, but this just went too far, and I think was just plain bad anthropology. The article’s author is Grant McCracken, a PhD holder in anthropology from the University of Chicago. Despite his training, he makes some seriously bad conclusions based on flawed observations. For instance, he flatly states:

Reality TV makes anthropologists of us all.

Way to cheapen the entire discipline. Watching reality television makes me no more an anthropologist than watching the NBA makes me an incredible basketball player. Anthropology is “the science that deals with the origins, physical and cultural development, biological characteristics, and social customs and beliefs of humankind.” An anthropologist studies this science. You would think, on its face, that watching “reality” television would shine some light into the reality of the cultural development and social customs of humankind. However, this conclusion is fundamentally flawed because reality television is no more real than a Saturday night improv class.

To think that reality television sheds any sort of genuine light onto the cultural development and social customs of humankind is to truly not understand seemingly basic principles of anthropology. If you think that for one second the people on those shows aren’t fully aware they are being filmed and therefore loosely “performing” before an audience, then you might want to ask for a refund on your anthropology degree.

I’ve watched my fair share of reality television shows. I treat them just as I would a sitcom–fake. Absolutely fake. There are a few recurring themes in reality television that should put any viewer (or an anthropology PhD holder) on notice of the show’s artificiality:

1. The amount of shots taken from inside the home of the dweller answering the door and acting surprised. If you watch reality television, wait until someone opens the door of their home, only to the surprise of “Oh my god, it’s you!”. You will see the outside shot, as well as an inside shot. Tell me, how did that camera operator get inside their house? The subject knew who was at the door, and the surprise is fake. I see this all the time.

2. The “confession” shots are filmed after the fact, and provide narrative where no narrative exists. I don’t know when this started… maybe with MTV’s “Real World” show. Around that time, the “confession booth” shot has become totally pervasive. This feature is where the producers cut away from the rolling footage and let the subject say, “I was so nervous at this point, I didn’t know [such and such] would happen at all!” Yeah, okay. Hindsight narratives do not make for objective observation, and making any anthropological conclusions based on the insights of confession booth shots is lazy anthropology.

3. The sound editing is absolutely insulting. Go watch “Toddlers in Tiaras.” Yes, it’s terrible, and has no redeeming quality. However, it illustrates this point better than any show possibly could. Wait until there’s a competition. When the poor girls are up there performing, listen to the sound editing. You’ll hear the same whistle looped literally every 3 seconds, over a song that wasn’t played over the speakers at the competition. The competitions, as portrayed on television, are some of the most artificial events in reality television history. Other shows loop sound effects constantly as well, just listen and you’ll hear them.

4. The subjects (and those around them) know they’re getting filmed. If you think for a second that what you’re watching isn’t contractually planned, you’re severely mistaken. The people in these shows know a camera is pointed at them, a microphone boom is hanging over their head, and perhaps some intern with a clipboard is standing by as well. Even the people that the subjects have conversations with are aware of this fact. The point of this is that people have a tendency to behave differently when they’re being watched. Even if they do something stupid, they know who/what they’re supposed to portray in order to continue to make money by drawing audiences. If you let yourself think that you’re watching something truly candid or voyeuristic, think again. Everyone knows the camera is there–just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean they can’t see it.

The list could go on, but I think you get the point. McCracken further asserts:

A key feature of anthropology is the long, observational, “ethnographic” interview. Anthropologists believe one of the advantages of this method is that no one can manage appearances, let alone lie, successfully for a long period of time.

McCracken thinks that if we air enough episodes of “Keeping up with the Kardashians” that sooner or later we’ll understand the souls of the Kardashian sisters. This is lazy armchair anthropology, if it’s anthropology at all (which is still up for debate). How can you study the culture of a person/group if you’ve never even met them? You see only what the producers (and perhaps the subjects) want you to see. That’s like saying, “I understand cell physiology” without ever looking into a microscope. Good luck getting a PhD with that. To say you understand a culture based on a reality television show cheapens the entire discipline of anthropology, and is honestly embarrassing.

The article makes other wild claims, but you can poke holes in all of them by asking, “How accurate is reality television, anyways?” I encourage you to read the full article and make up your own mind. However, I stand with strong conviction that studying culture through the medium of reality television is not only irreparably flawed, but foolish and lazy. Reality television might not entirely make us dumber, but it certainly doesn’t make us smarter.

What do you think? Is there any/enough accuracy in reality television that we can study the subject’s culture? Let’s get anthropological in the comments below.