FNC - Reality TV: A Constant Reinvention for Living in Real-Time? -FNT
3:41AM Jan 12, 2023
Laurie J Ouellette
Hello, and welcome to Feminist Networks and the Conjuncture, a podcast brought to you by the International Communication Association. My name is Sarah Banet-Weiser and I am a joint professor in the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Over the course of this podcast series, I have been talking to feminist scholars about our current moment of social crisis — thinking through what this crisis means for feminism and the possibility for social change. Today, I am absolutely thrilled to have two incredibly brilliant feminist media studies scholars on the show, Professor Eva Hageman and Professor Laurie Ouellette. Eva works at the University of Maryland in the Department of American Studies and in the Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She's been working in television, media production, popular culture, and lifestyle television, which is where we're going to go today in our conversation. She's been working on a book manuscript with the working title: Relatable Meets Remarkable: Crafting Race in the Reality Television Industry. She has also directed several documentaries. She has an essay in Racism Postrace, which I co-edited with Roopali Mukherjee and Herman Gray, called “Debt by Design: Race and Home Valorization on Reality TV.” I am also thrilled to have Professor Laurie Ouellette on the podcast today, who is in Media Studies at the University of Minnesota. Laurie’s work on reality television, lifestyle television, and other forms of everyday quotidian media is very well-known and used in all sorts of ways. Her book Better Living Through Reality Television is considered a trailblazer, and standard in the field, for thinking about how reality television gives us a script for living. She's written about things from Marie Kondo to Teen Mom, to Repo Man, and her most recent book is on lifestyle television. I am also thrilled to have on the podcast today Professor Laurie Ouellette, who is in Media Studies at the University of Minnesota. Laurie’s work on reality television, lifestyle television and other forms of everyday quotidian media is very well-known and used in all sorts of ways. Her book Better Living Through Reality Television is considered a trailblazer, and standard in the field, for thinking about how reality television gives us a script for living. She's written about things from Marie Kondo to Teen Moms, to Repo Man,and her most recent book is on lifestyle television. I’m so excited for our conversation. Why don't I start with you Eva, and ask you about your thinking about lifestyle TV, or reality TV, and how you are framing the question of lifestyle within media representation?
My main focus is reality television, and thinking about how reality television gets framed as the end of civilization, right, and what that means when that's the place where we see the most diverse representation and how these representations are structured by lifestyles. What I'm interested in there is the “life” part of lifestyle: whose life is worthy, how life is represented, and how that is designed and styled. I got here thinking about this through HGTV, mostly watching House Hunters. Then I did some ethnographic work at reality TV conferences, and a lot of the producers and developers were talking about looking for content that was relatable to specific audiences that were shaped by all of those markers that we are also familiar with: age, race, gender; but the way in which they framed "relatable", I have a question about that. That's where the title of my manuscript project comes through: what does that mean, how to be relatable? And, how do you structure that for people who are marked as different?
Yeah, that's super interesting. I've talked to my students a lot about this "relatability" factor, and a lot of my undergrads have been doing work on things like influencers, and different social media self-brands, and the whole imperative to be “relatable” all the time, even though that means obviously constructing a particular kind of persona. It's very interesting to see how “relatable” is then coded by race, coded by gender, in particular ways. So, the question is who is it relating to, as much as whether or not it is "relatable" in any kind of way. What you're doing also speaks to a kind of precarity, right?: “If we have to work so hard to be relatable when we're marked as different”. I think that's such a brilliant point, about how reality TV is seen as the end of history, or the end of television history, and it's there where we see the most diverse representations. Turning to Laurie now to think about these lines of thought that Eva just laid out in terms of precarity, lifestyle, and relatability, how do you see this in the current media landscape?
My work is fundamentally about the way that media circulate advice, or recommendations for living one's life, and managing problems, and becoming the person that you're “supposed to be.” At a certain moment in time in reality TV, there was an explosion of this kind of material; and now, I think that the role of social media has become super important, too. So, I'm still interested in television, but I'm also drifting into the world of social media. I'm interested in media as a response to precarity, defined as a loss of rootedness and security, and how different populations are affected differently by this lack of rootedness, and the way that media culture manages the "precarious self", or presents ways of thinking about how to navigate this. It's super hierarchical, in my mind, because on the one hand, there's a collapsing White middle class, and then there's an explosion of things like the Calm app and Calm TV, which is about managing the loss of a secure social position; and then, on the other hand there's a proliferation of images of people who are presented as “dispossessed”, or even without any identity, and as marginalized. So I wrote about the people who go to the pawn shops on TV and get their stuff repossessed. And this gets back to what Eva works about. I'm all about the dominant discourse; and she's much more about the complexities. There's a whole genre now of people who are, in some ways, dispossessed and marginalized, who are making their own "how to" things on TikTok – a whole genre of “Instacart delivery” TikToks – and so I'm interested in that, too.
What is the “Instacart delivery” on TikTok?
It's about visibility and becoming famous through TikTok through this particular theme of “Instacart delivery.” There's some performativity, but I think it's also a way of documenting – I mean, that's not a fun job right, and it's completely outside the control of the culture industries, although it's working within the TikTok platform, and within the dominant discourses. So, that's interesting to me. There's a “sub-strand”, or subjugated kinds, of knowledges that are also circulating, that aren't coming from a dominant place geared toward a White middle class.
I don't follow Instacart people on TikTok. I watch TikTok a lot through what people share in their Instagram stories, which is a whole other way to bring those subjugated knowledges. There seems to be some sort of gap between who uses TikTok versus who uses Instagram and how there's talk back about weight loss, about body size, and it's a place for these people who are in these roles like an Instacart worker to present the issues that they're facing, and to talk back to their customer and the way that they are talked about in dominant media and the way that their gig economy jobs are talked about in dominant media.
If media is about giving us scripts for living through shopping, or whatever, and then also combining that with media's terrain on which people who have been subjugated from dominant discourses that says, "this is the way that you should live," media has also become a place for those folks to also offer scripts for living. I think it’s a really important point to be making in the media context that we're living in right now. We can see all around us that systems and social structures that are allegedly supposed to give us those scripts for living, and the resources to do that living, are literally designed to subjugate people of color, especially Black women. You know, the medical establishment doesn't believe women. Politicians are taking away rights from our body among all the precarity that emerges when we're still in the middle of a pandemic. I know that people, including myself, often cite Stuart Hall as media and popular culture being a “terrain of struggle,” but I really think that that's true, and that is what you both are pointing to.
Although it's different from when Hall was writing, because that was a different era where there were far fewer media outlets and they were all dominated by large corporations. Now, with social media, there's an opportunity for anyone to broadcast yourself. So there are still these dominant filters, dominant ideologies, and the platforms themselves, through their algorithms and their censorship, have their own role to play, but I think there are so many more opportunities for people to have a voice and a political sense of challenging something. I think it's a really interesting moment that we're experiencing historically. You don't want to be deterministic and say, "these technologies are gonna change everything", but it is a different mediascape. I'm interested in “Technologies of the Self”, um, which draws from Foucault's understanding of that, but Foucault was really interested, actually, in these other kinds of expansive opportunities.
I was thinking about exactly that when the Supreme Court document was first leaked in the U.S.: about what this is going to mean now, for people to harness other sorts of resources that they can access through social media in particular? Eva, Laurie, and I talked a lot about mutual aid in the months after George Floyd was murdered and the ways in which some media channels allowed people to circumvent the dominant channels in order to receive what they need. Like you said, Laurie, the contemporary networked moment is a different moment than when Stuart Hall was writing; it is a different moment when Foucault was writing about the technologies of the self, you know? I do think that I tend to be way too grumpy about a lot of this stuff, because I look at some of those dominant discourses on social media the people who get the most visibility are neoliberal, White women, and so we need to really critique that. Sometimes I really need to read work by you two and others, to think about some of the ways in which this media terrain actually can be liberatory. On that, Eva, something that you mentioned in an earlier conversation: some reality TV shows like My 600-Lb. Life, people go on because the medical establishment has failed them or refuses to serve them, and that's how they access resources.
Yeah, I think about how of course there is this dominant discourse about how people try to access resources, or are forced to access resources, through these things. So, My 600-Lb. Life, or Dr. Pimple Popper, are examples of people accessing medical resources through channels, through self-branding, self-promotion. They have to release a part of themselves in perpetuity to be on these shows in order to access medical care that is not available to them because perhaps they don't have insurance, or perhaps their insurance doesn't cover it, or there isn't a doctor in their area that does this sort of stuff. People have, on Dr. Pimple Popper, a cyst that they've had for ten years because they can't access the doctor, or they're afraid of the doctor because they're afraid of getting a medical bill or the bad interactions that we know are all racialized and classed and gendered about believing people, about accessing care in a timely manner. We now see people accessing resources through these shows. Think about that sort of precarity in terms of bodily health and access to resources through these different new media.
Yeah, it's an interesting, point of tension between Laurie, the stuff that you were writing, about how reality television such as Extreme Makeover are about exactly what you said, Eva: constructing this very particular kind of version of a neoliberal self-brand or a neoliberal persona. We know the medical establishment is designed to not believe particular people when they say, "I'm in pain" or, "I need help"; it's designed to privilege a certain kind of subjectivity. So, if you find another way to access that, I think we need to pay attention to that.
I need to be the grumpy person here, though. If we're relying on TV as a medical provider, there are so many issues. First of all, they're only going to engage with a tiny, tiny percentage of people who submit requests for help. Then if you do get accepted, you're expected to play a role, and it usually has less to do with self-branding than what Laura Grindstaff talks about in terms of “performing” a kind of marginalized persona – poor, person of color, needy – and that's the price, right, that you have to pay to get care. But, when I heard Eva's paper – we were at the National Women's Studies Association Conference on a panel together – her work really opened my mind, even with those parameters, that whenever you have real people, you can never fully control the script. One of the things I remember you talking about Eva was how kind people were to each other and their family members on those shows. In 1000-Lb. Sisters, as an example, you see this kinship network of chosen family members who take care of each other and are incredibly kind and supportive. They are the people providing the alternative to the social structure, the safety net; and it's made visible in terms of how much of that really falls on ordinary people, to drive people around to all these medical appointments and take care of people who are ill. So it's super complicated and messy.
Those ethics of care are the exciting points in those shows – where you get to see people caring for each other, and also different kinds of love relationships being represented that do something different or exciting that is representing, and I put this in quotes, a "normal" life. But what "normal" looks like isn't the setup that we see of the dominant narrative, but all of the messy differences that interact. We see so many different people and that is exciting.
Yeah, it does seem like we're shifting the narrative themes of reality TV n a moment where kindness and care seem to be in such acute crisis. Through everything that's happening in this conjuncture – from fascism, to authoritarianism, to White nationalism, to misogyny, to misogynoir – it's not as, maybe, satisfying to watch these reality shows that are so blatantly capitalizing on the abject. In the first six months of the pandemic when I was so scared for everyone I loved, and for the world, the only TV I could watch was the British Bake Off show because it is so kind. It's not about competition in the way that so many reality shows are about hostile, masculine-informed competition. I think it could be that we're moving in that direction.
Part of what happened to me during the pandemic is that I was only also able to watch certain forms of television, and that did not really include reality television.
I don't know... I really haven't noticed a downplaying of the meanness. I think that the formulas are still there. Often it's just a tweak on the same, They're looking for the “new thing” to revive something old. I haven't seen anything fundamentally groundbreaking in terms of shifting the terrain of reality TV. It tends to be a lot of reinvention of the same. But that caretaking thing is interesting to me; and the idea of people talking back and being more aware that they're part of a show. I recently watched the MTV first season of The Real World reunion, and it was interesting to watch because they were so much more aware of the conventions of reality TV and really working with them. The producers and the camera crew were visible, and it had changed so much. Did you watch this Eva?
I didn't watch the whole thing, but I watched clips.
It was just fascinating to watch as an example of reality TV's own relationship to reality TV and to us. I'm still thinking about it, obviously.
Oh, one other thing that I did watch: there are these “IG TV” Instagram television, or Instagram stories, dating shows. One was called The BachQueer, dealing with lockdown and intense complications [of] what that means for being a single young person dating who is not having contact with people, using the format of The Bachelor, but trying to turn it on its head and make something where the "batch" is really open and honest and all of these little dates happened through the stories. It was a sort of interesting way to think about a direction that reality TV might be going in, bringing it in connection with these social media accounts.
I am just waiting for people like Eva to do the work on these kinds of shows.
Yes, Eva, we're anxiously waiting for you to write this! You're so brilliant on these questions. As you're both talking, I can't help going back to some of my earlier roots in cultural studies and thinking about the way in which someone like Raymond Williams was so persuasive; how he argued that culture makes us, but we also make it, and it's always that push-and-pull between it making us and us making it that I think both of you have captured in your work so well. It's really about how viewers, or consumers, or communities, affirm some of these dominant discourses, but also circumvent them, and also use those spaces as the way to critique the kind of neoliberal retraction of social services, of networks of care, of actual material means for us to live. It's a really interesting moment. This really came up in my class's discussion of your work together, that neither of you do what Charlotte Brunsdon called the "urtext" of feminist media studies, which is to say, "It says it's going to do this, but it actually just does this..." in a kind of “moralizing” move; both of you do this really rich, nuanced historical work that actually shows us how complicated the media terrain is. Like I say, there's lots to be grumpy about, but I think that we still turn to this landscape so often for so many different things, and to think that, even for a few people, it can also be access to resources that the state doesn't give them. It’s a really interesting way to think more richly about media.
Thanks for this.
Thank you so much.
Feminist Networks and the Conjuncture is a production of the International Communication Association Podcast Network. This podcast series is brought to you by the Annenberg Center for Collaborative Communication, established as a joint effort between the schools of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California. This episode was produced by Jo Lampert and Dominic Bonelli, our production consultant is Nick Song, and our executive producer is DeVante Brown. The theme music today is by Lance Conrad. And to learn more about me, my guests today, and our podcast series, check out the show notes in the episode description. Thanks so much for listening.