March 13, 2011

Reality vs. Documentary

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My housemate cries during I Used to Be Fat. Once, when I pressed her for an explanation, she explained, “It’s just so beautiful when their families see them after all this.”

I Used to Be Fat is an MTV series that features young adults who want to lose weight during the summer before college. I can’t blame my housemate (I’ll just call her C.) for getting a little emotional. According to MTV’s website for the recently broadcasted show, “this summer is about more than just losing weight for these teens — it’s also about figuring out who they are and who they want to be … It’s a chance for them to realize that if they don’t take charge of their lives now, they never will.”

The website even goes so far as to describe I Used to Be Fat as a “documentary series.”

Is a “documentary series” different from a so-called “reality series?” To me, the term ‘documentary’ implies some level of artistic innovation, and often, a type of altruistic aspect. A reality show, on the other hand, implies … well … it implies Real Housewives or Jersey Shore.

Shows like Jersey Shore showcase the ordinary shenanigans of ordinary people, and shows like Real Housewives showcase the unordinary shenanigans of incredibly unordinary people. It can be pretty shocking to see how the ordinary and the unordinary start to look incredibly alike.

Probably higher up on the reality show hierarchy are the shows in which the reality stars actually have to do something. Shows in this category include American Idol and America’s Next Top Model. Even the contestants on The Bachelor have to do something more, at least, than Snooki does.

The true reality, though, is that both types of reality shows exploit the contestants for our entertainment. Some contestants, especially ones in the “doing something” category, achieve fame, glory and maybe even happiness. But I think that more often, the newly-anointed stars might end up worse off than they were when they were just ordinary people, if not in the realm of the wallet, then emotionally. When you look at the life stories of more conventional celebrities — divorce, drugs, sex scandals, psychiatric illnesses — it makes sense to conclude that many reality show stars are likely to have similar fates.

But is there a new type of reality show on the verge of taking over television? This type includes I Used to Be Fat as well as E’s television series, What’s Eating You, and MTV’s other hits, 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom. These shows narrate the real-life tribulations of real people, and at least the first two shows aim to actually help them.

What’s Eating You goes a step further than I Used to Be Fat, chronicling not just what appear to be “normal” problems, like the struggle to lose weight, but severe and often bizarre eating disorders such as the overwhelming desire to eat chalk or the tendency to eat garbage. The show, which premiered last fall, features experts in the fields of medicine and psychology, who attempt to help the contestants achieve better physical and emotional health.

The people who appear on What’s Eating You and I Used to Be Fat may receive good care, probably even better care than they would have been able to obtain otherwise. But does this benefit outweigh the risks these people face, as a result of being in the limelight due to a problem they are confronting? If the limelight contributes to the destruction of celebrities, who receive attention because of a talent or privilege they have, what will it do to those souls who are awarded the attention because they have an array of physical and emotional problems to tackle?  This question brings me back to my earlier question — if these shows are viewed as “documentaries,” will this label wipe out the risk of exploitation inherent in so-called “reality shows?”

Maybe the benefits that the contestants receive in return for appearing on these “documentaries” will outweigh the harm done to them. If the shows are viewed as deeply emotional, realistic representations of human suffering and eventual triumph, then maybe they really do represent a new type of reality show, one that is worthy of the tears and empathy sparked in C. It may very well be that the writers of these series originally had this goal in mind.

It is just as likely, though, that the original conception of these shows was just a pretense of emotional depth. In this case, despite the apparent benefits for the contestants, the entertainment industry has tricked society into exploiting suffering people for the purpose of entertainment. Frankly, I wish I could muster the same type of empathy for them that C. does. Instead, though, I find myself simply entranced by their problems to the point that I pity them. Maybe I’m too pessimistic, but I think that C.’s reaction is probably rare.

Whatever the original aim of I Used to Be Fat, I have to applaud my friend and other viewers like her for having the heart to empathize so deeply. Who knows?  Maybe I’d be able to do the same if the show didn’t follow and precede reruns of Snooki and The Situation’s bar fights.

Original Author: Suzanne Baumgarten