The Unreality of Reality TV

Reality TV

Reality television is often a guilty, or completely embraced, pleasure. It embodies the voyeuristic delight of the ‘peeping tom’ figure— the viewers can look into the lives of celebrity contestants or individuals competing in talent shows, to assume the implicit role of judgement. While shows like Big Boss enable the viewer to posit himself/herself at a higher plane than the viewed, and thus play the role of ‘God’, other shows like Khatron Ke Khiladi, or India’s Got Talent conflate the viewer with the people judging the show, indirectly validating his/her own opinions. The superiority complex underlying our interaction with reality shows provides momentary escape from our own, usually grim, realities. It is believed that despite being scripted, dictated by producers to gain TRPs, or faking behaviour to win audience approval, the reality being portrayed on television is relatively trustworthy. That connects the participants in this engagement through the barrier of the television screen, making one laugh, cry or get angry at what the actors (in the sense that they are enacting reality) are doing on the other side. This relationship also evokes other feelings linked with our perception of social and personal identities. For example, if certain television stars are preferred in advance or have a positive image generated in the media, one may wish for them to succeed over others. Similarly, in case of shows that are premised on the universally liked ‘rags-to riches’ stories, the desperate conditions of the deprived or marginalised participants can be emphatically evoked to sway the audience. This can be read as an exploitative marketing gimmick, or an ancillary way of benefitting the most disadvantaged. On the other hand, regional, religious, or caste identities can also drive political movements on television. During Season 3 of Indian Idol, for example, Prashant Tamang became a veritable symbol of Gorkha identity. With the Gorkha agitation at its peak, local leaders exemplified the possibility of victory of their movement by equating it with the victory of Tamang on the show. Many Gorkhas supporting the cause voted for him in overwhelming numbers, due to which he eventually won in the show.

It is easy to dismiss reality shows like Rakhi ka Swayamvar, as ‘cheap’ strategies poised on vulgarity and exaggeration. But, it must be remembered that this dismissal also comes from a certain class position, making this critique similar to the debate around Dhinchak Pooja (who is also a contestant on this year’s Big Boss, by the way). We love to hate the cringe-worthy lyrics and off-beat music of her songs, helping her grow in infamy. This disgusted fascination elevates us, and makes us feel better about ourselves. The actions on TV can be deliberately cruel and artificial, but they do familiarize us with some elements of human nature that all of us share. Do we detest the same facets on TV that we hate in ourselves? Is there a subliminal connection? Andy Dehnart explains, “What is now clear, however, is that reality television reveals a lot about humanity. It is at once a window and a mirror, showing how real people react and interact in extraordinary situations. It also forces us to consider how we’d respond — and how we are responding to what we watch.” However, if reality shows are to be defended by being called entertaining, a sense of responsibility needs to be set in stone because the freedom they espouse doesn’t exist in isolation. They are products of our context, and affect the audience in direct or implicit ways.

This is especially so in case of reality shows involving child participants, or being viewed by children. Children’s terrors or efforts are glorified and romanticised on screen, directing their performances on the basis of public criticism. When children are made to wear revealing clothes, sing or dance to demeaning songs, or soundly scolded in front of a large in-studio audience, and external TV audience, the disastrous effects of aggressive, public competition can be surmised. This has an adverse effect on their personality development, shatters their self-esteem and makes them feel guilty, that is, blame themselves for failure. Dr. Veena Tucker examines the role of parents in this scenario, “They could be forcing them or through them fulfilling their own desires or even trying to earn some prize money. It is possible that the media world is seen as attractive, glamorous and parents hope that their child will become famous, and get an opportunity to build a successful career using this jumpstart.” Amol Gupte accuses the nature of the media system to claim that the parents are not solely at fault, “But to simply blame parents’ ambitions for this cruel and inhuman practice is absurd. Parents, who pressurise their children to excel on reality shows, are as much victims of a system that fosters and encourages unrealistic ambitions, as the other perpetrators of this criminal treatment of children.” Hence, we need strict protective guidelines that regulate children’s working hours, employ psychological counsellors on set, provide decent amenities to the participants etc.

If children become products of their environment, and adults revel in finding entertainment in it, the reality shown on screen must do away with its exploitative elements.

-Contributed by Tript

Picture Credits: pinkvilla.com

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