I’ve posted the lead commentary in The New York Times Room for Debate op-ed blog on reality TV this morning. As I said in the piece, we watch reality television because we like to take the rich and famous down a peg, but also because we experience that sense of relief that, as bad as our lives are, at least we’re not THAT bad.
I called it the “Can you imagine?” factor — and reality shows are full of those awkward moments viewers love to hate.
From The Bachelor and it’s many, many spin-offs, to family dramas like Little People and The Real Housewives of New Jersey, there’s something for everyone to complain about. Perhaps reality TV can be best divided into the shows that encourage competition – Top Chef, Dancing with the Stars, Project Runway and the like – and shows that encourage B-list celebrity voyeurism – including The Hills, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. But is this leading us astray? Do viewers watch reality shows and say, well, hey, if they are doing, so can I?
No: Reality television neither encourages poor behavior nor serves as a cautionary tale because viewers are watching for entertainment, not as a model for “real” life. Since MTV first aired The Real World in 1992, hundreds of shows have freeze-framed on life’s tense moments as producers cut and craft for maximum effect, and viewers know it.
Perhaps what’s most tragic of all is that when the cameras stop rolling, it actually IS someone’s real life – a life that must go on and deal with the damage wrought by the quest for 15-minutes (or 100+ episodes) of fame. Not to be clichéd here, but what’s going to happen to the eight Gosselin children? The impact of their parents divorce—not to mention the odd childhood with cameras rolling 24/7—may have significant emotional and spiritual consequences.
Still, it’s entertainment – and we, the viewers, egg it all on. One of my colleagues at The University of Iowa said she watches reality television because, after that feeling of embarrassment for the “stars,” she doesn’t feel so bad about her own life “when real-person peers are making bigger farts of themselves—and on the national stage. I’m willing to grant these folks fame by tuning into their shows, but in return I get to judge them mercilessly and watch them humiliate themselves, or be humiliated by the show and editors.”
For more analysis, check out The New York Times blog.
Wednesday’s USA Today religion blog carried a great mention — with lots of links —
Want some summer wedding advice? Check it out, and send in your questions!
Today’s Irish Independent quotes me and my research — as I congratulate President Obama on making time for his marriage, despite the demands of oh, say, leading the free world.
And for those of you who are in need of some more practical love and marriage advice, check out the latest episodes of The Princess, The Priest and The War for the Perfect Wedding.
In Jan Hoffman’s piece in tomorrow’s New York Times on the Obama’s date night rituals, I’m quoted to put it into sociological context. And as a native New Yorker who reads the Style Section first when the paper arrives, this kind of exciting.
This is a prime example of what sociologists call “individualized marriage” — where personal fulfillment, romance and novelty are the mark of a successful relationship, not just duty to family and social roles. When “love and mutual attraction” are the #1 things we look for in a spouse, you’ve got to find a way to keep that magic alive, or the relationship ends.
The importance of “date night” for long-married couples is increasingly touted as important by relationship experts, and I think it’s terrific that the Obamas are making time for each other. If the First Family is held up as a model of how all American families should act, then the Obamas are playing this perfectly from a relationship-health perspective.
Interestingly, as well: We didn’t really know this much about the relationships of previous presidential couples. We knew about the duty and social roles aspects of the family — Jackie holding hands with her children, JFK with Bobby on his knee — but we didn’t get a lot of glimpses of them out on the town, a deux, and that’s because family was the more central aspect of a successful marriage back then, not the individual couple’s relationship. When the Kennedy’s where in the White House, the mate preference rankings still listed “dependable character” and “emotional stability” as more important than “love and mutual attraction.” Now times have changed.
The Obama’s public date night is indicative of how “open” we all are about our love lives — and how important it is to be seen as still “in love after all these years.” A successful marriage used to be one that produced well-adjusted children and didn’t end in a nasty divorce. Now, a successful marriage has to be both those things, plus still sexually fulfilling, exciting and heart-poundingly romantic 15 or 20 years in. That’s a tall order, and perhaps one that put unrealistic expectations on our fragile bonds, because now, if we DON’T have those extra romantic bells and whistles in our relationships, we’re more likely than ever to wonder if the relationship isn’t working, if he’s not my soulmate, and to end the union to search for that thrill with someone else.
But I think we need to have a balance: Date nights are great. Married couples need alone time and romance. And yes, if the nation might has some romance envy about our glam First Couple, we should all do something about it. Put your heels on, grab a sport coat and go out on the town. Or have a picnic in the park (it doesn’t have to cost a fortune). But don’t assume just because your spouse doesn’t fly you in a private jet to New York City that the romance is gone.
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