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Reality Bites: The Cynical Underpinning of Reality TV


From "Survivor" to "The Amazing Race," from "The Apprentice" to "Runway," the ugly truth is that, far from being a competition in which the best contestant wins, Reality TV shows are rife with infighting, political cliques, backbiting, betrayal, and exclusion. Alliances are formed, individuals are targeted for expulsion, and participants often lie about each other in order to put themselves in a better light than their competitors.

In a recent episode of "The Apprentice," one team discovered that the competing team had arranged to purchase every available megaphone from a store chain for an upcoming promotion. The team that made the discovery beat their competitors to the store carrying the equipment, misrepresented themselves to the store clerk, and made off with the other team's megaphones. Donald Trump's response? "Good for them!"

All of which says what about American culture? Have we entered an era of social Darwinism in which "the survival of the fittest" rules? Is Reality TV redefining the values of the American people, or are they only reflecting a shift that had already taken place?

Consider this: Over a million additional Americans fell below the poverty level in the year 2004. Over forty million Americans are without health insurance coverage. Huge spikes in oil and natural gas prices, even before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, threatened the financial survival of the working poor as they faced a harsh winter and impossibly high heating fuel bills. And all the while, Congress and the Bush administration promoted tax cuts for the wealthy, okayed windfall profits and subsidies for the oil companies, and discussed cutting fuel assistance programs.

Survival of the fittest. Now think about Katrina, and the woefully inadequate governmental response, and the circling of land speculators around the ruined neighborhoods of New Orleans only days after the hurricane.

Substitute food and water for those purloined megaphones, and adequate health care, and decent affordable housing, and ask yourselves: Is the view of life expressed many times a week on these Reality TV shows what we truly want for this country? Do we want our government and private citizens to react to a disaster like Katrina by fighting for necessities, cutting the weak out of the loop when it comes to essential services, and turning our backs on the most vulnerable among us in favor of the strong, the healthy, the well-connected, and the rich? Because those are the values we're worshipping constantly in our support of the ubiquitous Reality TV programming.

We need to take a good look at Reality TV and the morally bankrupt values it is promoting, and ask ourselves this: What do we as citizens want our relationship to be with each other? What do we want our government, which acts as our surrogate, to do to help the poorest and the weakest among us? Are we really committed to the "survival of the fittest" view as expressed by Reality TV, corporate interests, and current government officials, or do we want to create a community which provides a safety net for the vulnerable and help for each other in the event of unexpected misfortune?

Fans may enjoy all the high drama of their favorite reality TV shows, and may laugh at any comparison to our larger social structure. But the grim fact is, Reality TV eerily reflects the cynicism and self-interest that permeates American society today, and the implications of that, should another widespread disaster strike, are not pretty.

Submitted by:

Aldene Fredenburg

Aldene Fredenburg is a freelance writer living in southwestern New Hampshire and frequently contributes to Tips and Topics. She has published numerous articles in local and regional publications on a wide range of topics, including business, education, the arts, and local events. Her feature articles include an interview with independent documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and a feature on prisoners at the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord. She may be reached at amfredenburg@yahoo.com.





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