Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Across the globe, voyeuristic programs are sprouting all over the television. It appears that spectators want to take a look at the controversial show that is reality TV. After reality TV’s exceptional success, closet peeping toms were ready to sneak out of hiding and are currently getting voyeuristic enjoyment in a manner that the society can tolerate. Reality TV spectators can stay conveniently in the privacy of their own sala and study the personal lives of strangers unfolding before their very eyes. One good twist about this is that they can look and look, but voyeurs will have no chance at being caught red-handed by the very people they ogle at.
A closer examination of reality TV can articulate the question of how real it is. In a voyeuristic relationship in reality TV, the first set of participants comprises individuals who do the watching, and the other set comprises individuals who are unconscious that they are being watched by some outsiders. The latter group goes about in their lives without any regard that they have become unwitting performers for some invisible audience. The recent deluge of reality TV shows seems to be an unadulterated voyeuristic display or perhaps better, since program participants commit complicity with their exhibitionism, or their desire to be watched for entertainment purposes. How much exhibited actions are actually real by virtue of the unawareness in which they were projected? Are the participants natural, or naturally acting?
This voyeur-exhibitionist relationship appears in "The World of Wrestling." Author Roland Barthes identifies pro-wrestling as a spectacle that is the modern counterpart of the ancient drama in the panoramic Greek amphitheater. The audience watches god-like performers in the dramatic gesture of resolving good-versus-evil conflicts. In displaying suffering, defeat and justice, the actors don a tragic or comic appearance, aware that they must bring some purgative experience to their spectators. On a mutual act, the public views the ongoing drama in order to release cathartic emotions. While the invocation and acquisition of catharsis are somewhat questionable in Reality TV, it is noteworthy to see this modern phenomenon’s similarity to an ancient practice in terms of the unfolding drama as well as the mutual relationship between the watcher and the watched.
This is the case with imported franchises like the controversial Pinoy Big Brother. The participants of this reality TV program are aware that their actions are being recorded on video to be consumed and examined by millions of judging people. While the participants of this show are not performers in the conventional sense of the word, it becomes practically improbable to be comfortably themselves in front of a camera no matter how persistent they attempt to. Nonetheless, the show’s producer maintains that if a camera immerses itself within the people’s daily and natural environment very much like a fluorescent lamp or a vase, the subjects will lose their inhibition and shed a bit more of their real selves over time.
It is also possible that the characters may become exaggerated with particular aspects of their lives, or may pretend to cultivate a certain personality while the camera rolls in front. This was seen when one of Pinoy Big Brother’s hosts who became a housemate herself seems too sweet and concerned to look natural in the latest season that unfurled. They may also turn to dramatic overtures, exhibitionism or coming out into the open about their sexuality. In the case of Pinoy Big Brother, certain housemates have been notorious for being cry babies, for being too confrontational for comfort, or for admitting his homosexuality way too late when all the Philippines rightly suspected so.
Since reality TV does not demand for the conventional role calls, producers seek through piles and piles of videotapes provided by hopeful participants—their version of actor screenings when selecting a cast for a reality TV program. Candidates are picked based on personality and their potential of drawing a huge audience. Without scriptwriters to give guidance to the characters, the show will be only as good as the cast of participating individuals. Characters with certain personalities are cast together since they are potential contributors to bombastic stories. Pinoy Big Brother had its share of a frank half-breed who did not hesitate picking on rather self-confessed liberated women, elite model types side by side with jologs comediennes, bohemian artists compelled to hang out with pop individuals.
When casting coup is finished, the production team takes the task of transforming non-scripted stories into attractive tales that will rival elaborately woven fictions in terms of intriguing quality. At the end of taping, the production team will spend time drawing interesting story line, plot and unique characters out of film footages. With the more accurate portrayals of characters probably culled out of the footages, the more notorious and ratings-worthy episodes are aired on TV. In other cases, producers hire writers who do not create scripts but observe hours of taped sessions in search of the most enticing storyline buried in the piles of recorded footages. These writers become responsible for the creation of characters that the audience can like, empathize with or vilify. This kind of editing may seem improbable to undertake unless particular characteristics emerge from a person. In any case, whatever is broadcast on TV as a result of this creative and complicated editing will be watched and judged by millions whether they show true or they manifest acted-out personality of the reality TV subject. Only when the viewing becomes habitual that revealed personalities are decidedly good, bad or, at most, truthful.
The popularity of reality TV can be viewed as a reduction into voyeurism. Why not, when a season’s opening of Pinoy Big Brother will have at least five spawn programs that are variants of the primetime show offering? There are the 24-hour live streaming on cable, the uplate, the regular updates, the fillers, among others. The many permutations attest to the demand for the reality TV to be more accessible to the masses.
This pleasure in voyeurism and exhibitionism is discussed by a host of critics in "Pleasure and Meaningful Discourse: An Overview of Research Issues." Barbara O’Connor and company argue that media audiences commit to what they view because they experience pleasure in it. In the context of their viewing act, the voyeurs enjoy social and cultural instruments like genre variations, class, gender, sub-cultural identity and generation being displayed by the performers. Reality TV provides just that with its motley array of participants exhibiting class or jolog-ness, eccentricities or belongingness, comicality or seriousness, liberalism or conservatism, ethnic, regional and character differences, personal, cultural and religious diversity, and straightness or gayness. As a result of this diversity, the viewers find enjoyment from Reality TV and follow developments in it to sustain the pleasure that they get out of the viewing experience.
The lack of cathartic experience—only voyeuristic pleasure at most—in Reality TV can be explained in the light of Neil Postman’s "The Disappearance of Childhood." The deluge of Reality TV does not deviate from an emerging problem when Americans produced television technology: they ignored the psychological and social effects of TV on culture. As a result, the new technology wholly undid the young generation’s childhood phase in which children educate themselves in functional preparation for their adulthood. With TV, children get exposed to political, social and sexual content way before their gradual maturity. In effect, they become adults without undergoing the phase of childhood, with TV as culprit. This implication can be extended in order to include the entire population of viewers who are stripped of some aspects of their human development as they watch Reality TV. To illustrate, they are exposed to the idea of competition as something vicious so competitors vote off fellow contestants if only to give themselves the unfair advantage, are presented with unguarded moments in which morality and sociality are being pushed to the limit, among other issues. The whole generation of viewers is fed with shows like Reality TV and grows in its midst with the expected cultural dysfunctions owing to Reality TV’s psychological and social shortcomings.
Two of the most commonly repeated truths about reality TV viewers are that they watch in order to talk with friends and co-workers about the show, and that they are not as smart as other viewers. Although some people may watch because it helps them participate in the next day's office chat, and although reality TV gets easily dismissed for lacking substance, the voyeurism committed somewhat empowers them, for there is no risk of being gazed back at by the looked upon. It also empowers them because of the judgment they can pass on the participants whenever they undertake or finish tasks, show an eccentricity no matter how good or bad, or express the fellow humans that they are.
Barthes, Roland (1984). "The World of Wrestling." From Mythologies, Roland Barthes, Annette Lavers, translator. New York: Hill and Wang.
O’Connor, Barbara, et al (2000). "Pleasure and Meaningful Discourse: An Overview of Research Issues." International Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3. London: Sage Publications.
Postman, Neil (1994). "The Disappearance of Childhood." From The Disappearance of Childhood, Postman, Neil. New York: Vintage.