Extreme Makeover?

To say “watching Being Lara Bingle is about as much fun as colonic irrigation” might sound like a sarcastic throw-away line, but I mean it quite literally.

Last week I was shocked to see Bingle actually undergoing the procedure on national television. My horror was compounded when I tuned into The Shire and learnt that finding a grey hair was the most traumatic experience of Vernesa’s life. High drama, indeed!

Whether it’s The Biggest Loser, The Voice, Australia’s Got Talent, Amazing Race, Survivor, The Apprentice, The Block, Big Brother or MasterChef, Australian television is dominated by programs about ordinary people, doing ordinary things.

What does this obsession with the mundane say about our society – does reality television reflect the real Australia?

There can be no doubt that the trend towards reality TV over the past decade has been driven by financial imperatives. For networks, the genre represents a cheap and easy way of producing local content and meeting their Australian television quota. But this doesn’t explain the public’s enduring fascination with it.

The phenomenon is curious, particularly given the fast-paced nature of modern life. It’s strange that after juggling work, family and other stresses, so many of us choose to finish our days watching other people complain about theirs.

One explanation is perhaps our convict past, and Australian culture has traditionally encouraged a cynicism of people in authority and a celebration of the ordinary.

We can even see it in our politics, as Australians have often embraced politicians who appear relatable and ‘down to earth’. The phenomenon of Pauline Hanson, now a regular on the reality TV circuit, is a case in point.

The genre is perhaps also indicative of the broader conflation of the public and private self that has occurred during the past decade. On reality TV, nothing is really private and all aspects of life are laid bare.

In this sense, the genre reflects our modern obsession with the confessional; but in the 21st century you don’t share your secrets with your priest, you share them with 1,000 of your closest Facebook friends. Big Brother really is always watching!

However, reality TV doesn’t just reflect social values, it reinforces them. By presenting a contrived version of Australian life, such programs blur the lines between reality and fiction in a way that shapes our impression of ourselves and our conception of the ordinary.

For instance, reality TV personalities are encouraged (either overtly or covertly) to dramatise their experiences, and if the pressure-cooker of MasterChef is anything to go by, literally crying over spilt milk is a daily spectacle.

The Shire takes this conflation of reality and drama to a whole new level. Not scripted and featuring ‘real’ people rather than actors, the program follows the trials and tribulations of a group of young Sydneysiders: weight-loss, plastic surgery, beauty pageants and, of course, the terrifying reality of the ageing process!

If this is everyday life, it is not just banal but tediously superficial. Certainly diving into the shallow end of the ocean, The Shire makes Home and Away look like The West Wing.

Such programs not only reinforce the widely held belief that ‘real life’ is a constant stress, their emphasis on the superficial perpetuates the very insecurities that make it so. Whether it is being the best singer, dancer, chef or athlete, the genre encourages our unhealthy obsession with perfection and continuous improvement at the expense of authenticity. Those that fail to measure up are simply ‘voted off the Island’.

By glamorising the lives of those struggling to comply with unrealistic social stereotypes, reality TV legitimises these pressures. No longer is the insatiable quest for perfection the domain of the rich and famous, it is presented as an inevitable part of everyday life.

They say that reality television holds a mirror up to society. If this is true, based on some of the genre’s recent offerings, perhaps it’s time for society itself to have an Extreme Makeover!

This piece was first published on The Drum Opinion on the 27th of July 2012. 

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