October 12, 2011

Tuning In to Tune Out

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Whenever anyone asks me if I “saw that episode of The Office where …” or, “How excited are you for Modern Family?” I always respond, “I don’t watch T.V.” Everyone spends their “free” time differently, and, since Friends was cancelled (may it rest in peace), I have never had the patience or interest to religiously watch a show, season after season. I wish I could participate in conversations about Glee (I hear they’re trying to make it to sectionals again), and in high school I always wanted to take part in the Lost parties my friends threw, but systematic television watching is just not in my DNA.

So I was surprised to find myself sitting on the couch many nights this summer tuning in to watch Real Housewives (of Orange County, New Jersey and New York), Platinum Hit, Millionaire Matchmaker, Top Chef and — I’ll admit it — The Bachelorette. I quickly started recording Real Housewives, watching missed episodes of Top Chef online and reading about The Bachelorette in tabloids while in line at the supermarket. But it wasn’t until this weekend, when I spent a total of four hours of my life — 240 minutes that I will never get back — watching Kim Kardashian prepare for her wedding, that I realized I had gone from “I don’t watch T.V.” to “I only watch embarrassingly trashy T.V.”

The Kardashian special (pardon, “Kim’s Fairytale Wedding”) was aired in two parts. As I sat down for the second round, I wondered: What about the first episode had I enjoyed enough to devote even more of my time to this famous-for-no-reason family? How had watching Khloe intervene on Rob’s “binge eating,” Kim pick out her Hermes dishware and Kris undergo neck reconstruction surgery managed to pull me in for round two? The banter was stupid, but it was so bad I couldn’t stop myself. A textbook definition for addiction. Appalled that precious hours of my life had been spent on what even Kardashian fans can agree is garbage (no matter how entertaining Kris and Bruce’s trip to Hustler Hollywood was), I started to think about why, psychologically speaking, many of us fall prey to reality T.V.

Since 2000 when Survivor first aired, it seems every television network has premiered every possible twist on the genre — and people are still watching. The Real Housewives don’t offer perfectly planted dramatic twists like The Sopranos do, and none of the Beverly Hills ladies are as talented as Steve Carrell or Kathy Bates, but I still spend my T.V. viewing hours watching the “normal” folk over the well-seasoned actors. But why?

Some argue that these shows appeal to our basic human hunger for genuineness. In a world of phonies, we like to see real people in an “unscripted” manner. We latch onto the realness of Ashley and J.P.’s love. But others believe Americans are hooked on the idea of instant fame. Woody Allen famously said, “Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.” Viewers, consciously or unconsciously, want to gain status through reality T.V., just like the contestants do. We watch the Kardashians because deep down, somewhere in the abyss of our unconscious thoughts, we want to someday marry Lamar Odom, too.

Two media psychologists, Steven Reiss and James Wiltz, surmise that, “People prefer television shows that stimulate the feelings they intrinsically value the most.” They argue that television is a convenient way for us to vicariously experience a specific type of joy, based on what we decide is important. For example, they’d argue that aggressive children watch violent T.V. because it satisfies their aggressive desires.

The researchers found that those who watch reality television are more motivated by status, vengeance, social contact, order and romance. Well, those are rather unflattering results for the Bravo T.V. fans out there. These results would suggest that by watching contestants on Top Chef compete, I am satisfying an innate desire for revenge. Or perhaps I unconsciously gain intellectual status by watching the Kardashians, who are sometimes so ignorant that any educated person can only laugh. Or maybe I like Chopped because I’m secretly lusting after unscriptedness in a life that at times seems so ordered.

As a newfound reality T.V. fiend, I’d like to think that Reiss and Wiltz’s study, while interesting and probably at least somewhat accurate, is incomplete. It is possible that I am status-aware and interested in watching others’ unscripted romances play out, but it is also possible that the mindlessness of reality T.V. makes it easily accessible for me because “I don’t watch TV.” I can turn on an episode of The Kardashians and be entertained, regardless of whether or not I know what happened last week. It’s entertainment on my time, no prior experience necessary.

If we all use T.V. as an escape from the lives we live, maybe we are — during what little free time we have — using reality T.V. as a (shamefully sleazy) break from our reality. Whatever my reasoning, I have grown to appreciate that reality T.V. serves some purpose — holds some place in the collective subconscious of Americans — or else we wouldn’t all tune in. And to those of you like me, closeted or out-and-proud reality T.V. addicts, rest assured: Wiltz and Reiss also found that those who enjoy intellectual activities are no less likely to watch reality T.V. It’s a slippery slope, even for the smart ones.

Hannah Deixler is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at hdeixler@cornellsun.com. Shades of Grey appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Hannah Deixler