By DON OH
Since The Real Housewives series and Keeping up with the Kardashians first aired, their new format and redefinition of reality television has captivated the public. Unlike the previous wave of reality TV shows that reset participants every season after achieving specific goals — enhancing professional credentials for The Apprentice, losing weight for The Biggest Loser, advertising clothing design for Project Runway — the new wave of reality shows placed focal points at the participants themselves, showing their day-to-day reality for the sake of reality to the entire globe.
The success of fictional genre TV programs are usually attributed to the public’s fascination with professions in certain industry. Medical drama, legal affair and criminal investigation have been immensely popular for their insiders scoop, and in the due process, it has also educated the public with medical terminology, legal proceedings and political processes in this country. Some shows were so influential that ER and Grey’s Anatomy inspired millions of young people to pursue careers in the life sciences — at least until they encounter Orgo — and application to science investigators spiked after the success of the CSI series.
This new generation of reality shows, on the other hand, exerts zero to minimal pedagogic value. By featuring the everyday triviality of parental conflicts, sibling rivalries and girlfriends drama, these shows seduce viewer of any educational credential to tune in by stripped away professional jargon and pedantry employed by screenwriters. Although in a certain sense the lives according to the Kardashians, The Real Housewives of New Jersey and Duck Dynasty can differ in greater degree than fictional drama from one’s immediate reality, the low barrier allures viewers with its melodramatic, incendiary storyline.
By establishing non-actors as fixed, recurring characters, reality shows have generated yet another phenomenon: Famous for being nothing. Kim Kardashian is one of the top celebrities. Her sisters Khloe and mom Kris frequently decorate magazine front covers independently, but there is no conspicuous reason for their success.
There has always been trashy TV, and in every entertainment outlet there will always be tacky, low-quality productions. Throughout human history, however, forms of entertainment have always contained a grain of truth. It is only when elements of reality are reconstructed and reorganized in a way — whether that be sarcastic, humorous, revealing and uplifting — that’s when people experience a sense of fulfillment in human desire and thus feel entertained.
At times, without a doubt, a barrier was placed to preserve exclusive, hierarchic social construct by limiting the access to these mediums to only those of means and status. Only the elite could read Latin to understand poems and plays; only the literate could read; only the ones exposed to great art could distinguish and appreciate political undertone of a painter.
The three Kardashian sisters’ incessant obsession with their appearances and insatiable desire for male attention is reinforced and affirmed in our society. It sends a paralyzing message to young people, especially to girls, that pursuing external beauty above all else is worthwhile and may lead to marrying a celebrity with fame and money. Their utter negligence and oblivion in regard to non-superfluous elements such as intellect, intrinsic character, authentic self and service for greater humankind is neither questioned nor acknowledged. This complete absence of regard for the non-material world is appalling. The more the public is exposed this type of media, the more they will spend greater resources on cosmetics and beauty industry whose profit will be reinvested into this cycle.
One layer deeper, there is another party that benefits from relegating citizenship to mere consumerism in the capitalistic scheme of profit maximization. Myopic perception of construed reality abets complacency and a false sense of security. Rather than bursting out of one’s bubble to explore higher aims in larger society, the reality shows portray the outside world as self-sufficient and thus unworthy of our attention. This seductive message to overlook any major economic, political, environmental, humanitarian issues around the globe is surprisingly convincing and convenient. Why should one go through all the trouble of doing homework, attending college, questioning authority when the secret to success lies no farther than your dressing table?
The current state of education in this country is already dire enough that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice designates education in America as the “greatest national security challenge.” Intellectuals call our generation “the dumbest generation” for this is the first generation in the history of the U.S. to be less educated than its previous generation. I might be a paranoid conspiracy theorist, but the influence of these reality TV shows will only grow unless addressed.