The Racial Equity of Reality Television

Reality television shows have fast become the next great American pathology and that is not such a good thing. But in the interest of good humor I will at least say that reality television is fair. Fair in what regard, you ask? Well, for starters, the origin of this blog post can be attributed to a facebook status update I posted regarding Black television sitcoms. I essentially asked what happened to the good, wholesome, family oriented programs such as Family Matters, Hanging with Mr. Cooper, and The Bill Cosby Show, just to name a few. After a few comments, I responded by saying that Black television shows have now been dominated by reality television that places Black folks in a negative light. However, I will admit that there are some positive Black reality television shows out there. Unfortunately, these positive programs are grossly overshadowed by the “coonery” we see on most other reality oriented programs. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I used the word “coonery” to describe the behavior of African-Americans. And as an African-American I believe I have the right to engage in a self-critique of the Black Community. But I digress and that is a conversation for another day.

This facebook post then got me thinking about America’s fascination with reality television in general. But if I really wanted to be controversial I’d use the word obsession rather than fascination. So let us entertain that notion of obsession. A part of me feels like this obsession stems from an inherent sense of boredom that is an unfortunate byproduct of America’s fluctuating unemployment rate. Because people are unemployed they are now spending more time at home. As such, they have plenty of time on their hands to watch television. Now, I will assume (and yes I know the adage) for a moment that many of these unemployed people are deeply upset about their disposition and are looking for an escape from their misery. For the sake of this post, let’s call this form of escapism vicarious living. Now this is not to say that the audience of reality television consists only of unemployed. I only used that example to highlight the example of vicarious living. But all of us have a desire to live vicariously through someone else. It’s the reason we go to the movies, read books, watch sports, and play videogames.

Where is the evidence of this obsession? Just because someone likes to watch a particular program doesn’t mean they are obsessed. Yes, that is correct. But the obsessive aspect of reality television does not necessarily involve the viewer but rather the television networks. The ever-increasing volume of reality telvision program should serve as ample evidence of this obsession. The airwaves are completely inundated with reality shows for nearly every conceivable occupation, lifestyle, culture, subculture, etc… The obsession also includes the participants as well. Everyone is scrambling to make a name for themselves, even if it costs them their last shreds of personal dignity. Some people will do anything to get noticed and sometimes its those very same action that lead to their downfall. People are obsessed with telling their story and even more people are willing to be exhibitionists. Yet, in many instances, the audience is ridiculing rather than admiring the individuals they see on the tube. And lastly, the audience is made up of a collective of voyeurs who derive pleasure (let’s not make this sexual, folks) from watching others whore themselves out for the rest of us to see. We feel like we are being let in on some secret that really isn’t a secret because everyone else is watching. There is a certain degree of excitement we obtain from looking on people interacting within the privacy of their own home. And that is also sort of creepy when you really think about it.

As I see it, reality television offers viewers an opportunity to be someone else for an hour. It allows them to experience the drama of being a supermodel, an elite socialite, the divorcee of a former athlete, a partying youth, or the lover of a hip hop mogul. The allure of reality television is its ability to play to our inner imagination and make us feel like someone else. But what I have found particularly interesting is that reality television soon devolves into display of cultural caricatures that are nothing short of embarrassing. And while I could make the point that reality television disproportionately focuses on the wild behavior of Black folks, I would not be giving the whole truth.

The fact of the matter is that reality television makes fun of all ethnic groups. There are reality television that embraces the caricatures of White people, Black People, Latinos, and even Iranian Americans. So in that vein, I cannot call reality television discriminatory. If anything, reality television is an equal opportunity bigot who is not shy of attempting to validate stereotypes. But I only blame those who put themselves up for such ridicule as opposed to those who actually produce the show. Yet, since the dawn of time, men and women have been quite eager to prostitute themselves for want of riches. That’s simply the way of the world. And I also believe the audience should be held accountable as well. The monster continues to live because we let it live. These programs remain on air because it allows us to laugh at the foolishness and yes, even the misfortunes of others. Schadenfreude anyone?

But should we really be ashamed of ourselves for looking at these programs? Sometimes I think we should and other times I think we shouldn’t. Everyone looking at reality television merely likes to get a quick laugh or experience the excitement of drama so as to have something to talk about with friends and co-workers. And we don’t feel bad because we know that reality television makes fun of everybody. We know that there are White people laughing at Black people making fools of themselves while White people know there are Black people laughing at White people act foolish. It’s a fair form of prejudice if such a thing could even exist. I’d even go one step further and claim that reality television is actually helping to foster a national conversation of race, albeit, in a crude sort of manner. It reminds me of the race pixies skit from the Chappelle Show that essentially made fun of all racial stereotypes. Reality television can be thought of in the same way. If we can step back for a moment we can begin to see that the majority of people rarely act like the buffoons on television. It just helps to remind us what we don’t want to become and assure us that our lives really aren’t half as bad as they seem.


Categories: Social Commentary

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