The State of Reality TV: When Reality Worlds Collide
Lately, this question has entered my thoughts more than it should. Apart from the confessional impulse that haunts the academic study of popular culture, I “admit” this because it leads me to a more important question: Why do I (and presumably many others) care? Recent gossip and celebrity news reports have been preoccupied with the romantic status of the Jersey Shore (MTV 2009- ) and Teen Mom (MTV 2009- ) “stars.” Radar Online boasts an “EXCLUSIVE” story in which Pauly D “Denies Affair” with Farrah; countless blogs speculate about the evening the two spent together at a Houston nightclub; and Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, US Magazine, and NBC’s Los Angeles affiliate have all reported on the relationship at various times from late January 2010 until the present. Although this story will likely prove short-lived, the intensity with which it is being discussed indicates larger issues raised by the alleged romance. Do we wonder about this relationship because of the speculative fiction this produces? The fabulously tragic possibilities it promises? The hopeful story of slim chances and reformation through true love? The answer is yes, yes, and yes. This romance certainly promises to gratify our investments in generic formulations of “the couple,” but there is more to the story than this, something more specific at stake than these narrative satisfactions. What, then, does this rumored union “mean” to us? And, more to the point of this article, what does it tell us about the state of contemporary reality television?
Pauly D and Farrah’s “affair” reveals the tensions of reality television’s current state of ideological and economic affairs: necessarily divided, but paradoxically and intimately connected. In part, the romantic rumors about the two engage public curiosity because of the incongruity of the two televisual worlds they occupy and the almost-certain disastrous consequences should these two worlds meet. (My immediate response to the news was to hope that Farrah has learned about effective birth control methods and/or that Pauly D is well-versed in pregnancy prevention—hopefully true, given what seems to be his non-reproductive track record in light of prodigious sexual activity—to prevent a recurring spot on Teen Mom for Farrah). Each person/ality occupies a reality TV series that trades on the dramatic possibilities of young adults’ sexual activity. What is clearly different in each case, however, is the presence/absence of consequences for this sexual activity. While the Jersey Shore cast engages in seemingly endless sex with strangers, friends, and romantic partners, the consequences of these actions are non-existent or rendered humorous. In contrast, Teen Mom foregrounds the material and emotional consequences of sexual activity via unplanned pregnancies.
These sexual worlds are bifurcated along gender lines. Jersey Shore’s sexual activity is defined as masculine, primarily reserved for men (while the show’s female talent clearly initiate and engage in sex with multiple partners, they do so in fairly “masculine” ways and are alternatively praised for their abilities to function “like men” and criticized when they behave too promiscuously). Jersey Shore does not reflect upon the emotional, social, economic, or physical outcomes of sexual behaviors. Instead, sexual partners are (quite literally) escorted from the scene after the primary goal of sexual conquest has been achieved. This pattern of finding, acquiring, then ridding oneself of a sexual partner is repeated the next evening, in the next club scene. Unlike the cyclical narrative of club-going, drinking, and hooking up, which Jersey Shore repeats with little variation or consequence, Teen Mom roots us firmly in a cause-and-effect narrative, in which young women centrally occupy, in intensive ways, the consequences of sex. Clearly pregnancy itself constitutes the primary dramatic conflict of the series, and stands as evidence of teen sex, but the aftermath of sex sets into motion a series of other effects (conflicts with parents and with the father of the baby, physical stress and transformation, flagging grades and failure to graduate high school, social isolation, and economic troubles). The female-centered narrative of the teen pregnancy series is deeply rooted in consequences, with an ever-widening circle of effects that the pivotal moment of reproductive sexual activity has set into motion. When oppositional worlds of gendered sexuality meet—as in the case of Pauly/Jersey Shore-Farrah/Teen Mom—it is compelling and/or anxiety-provoking, especially when the viewing audience of either show clearly has not been conditioned, asked, or led to understand these worlds as linked.
This meeting also brings into relief the increasingly conflictual terms of reality television. On one hand, there is a crucial ideological segregation of similarly themed programming. The romantic fantasy of The Bachelor (ABC 2002- ) works only if see it apart from the frightful pressures placed on brides in Bridalplasty (E! 2010- ). The accumulation of goods safeguards American cultural history in American Pickers (History 2010- ), but only if we do not interpret it within the context of Hoarders (A&E 2009- ). Man v. Food (Travel Channel 2009- ) is a narrative of a masculine triumph of the will over food-as-obstacle, but not if seen alongside Heavy (A&E 2011- ) or The Biggest Loser (NBC 2004- ). On the other hand, there is an economic imperative for reality TV of interconnectedness, whether implicit or explicit, through formula, repetition, and relationships among texts. MTV continues to fill its programming needs through a Snooki and JWoww spinoff. The Real Housewives (Bravo 2006- ) franchise continues to expand, return season after season, and provide guests for Watch What Happens Live (Bravo 2010- ). Strictly Come Dancing (BBC 2004- ) begets Dancing with the Stars (ABC 2005- ) and over 35 other global variations on the format begets Skating with the Stars (ABC 2010- ) and so on and so on.
To avoid exposing the ideological contradictions of its reality TV universe and for each individual series to “work,” MTV relies upon a Jersey Shore “Guido” and a Teen Mom to occupy separate worlds. Given, however, the current industrial model of reality TV programming that rewards proximity, repetition, and convergence, their relationship is always an intimate one. Pauly D/Jersey Shore and Farrah/Teen Mom: An ill-fated union? Probably. An inevitable one? Most certainly.