Elle Ayres explores why we turn to other people’s drama to avoid our own, and whether it does us more harm than good.
The camera pans to a country garden scene. Champagne and Pimm’s are sipped as people stand chatting by a banquet laid on a long table. Bunting is strung from the trees, picnic blankets and cushions cover hay bales and of course there is an old fashioned ice cream bicycle. Music plays, it’s an idyllic but fun late afternoon garden party scene. Life with an Instagram filter. But the champagne and Pimm’s aren’t real: it’s cola and fizzy grape juice (something to do with licensing laws). The food has been staged there since 8am so I wouldn’t touch that olive, and the ice-cream bicycle is a prop.
This is not a real party.
‘Guests’ are extras being paid to chat in fixed positions until the scene is perfected and although it feels unnatural, there is no music. We are essentially furniture exchanging pleasantries as the camera rolls. The weather, however, is totally real; it is a gloriously sunny day (but far, far too hot for this tweed jacket). I overhear ‘That was great but let’s have the conversation again, this time don’t flick your hair’. The dialogue isn’t scripted and neither are the life choices but how we come to hear about and see them is meticulously guided. At the start of the scene someone whispers in a cast member’s ear what’s ‘just’ happened to refresh their memory and inspire their reaction for the camera.
When we break for lunch, I chat with some of the cast briefly and they are all friendly enough with their well-spoken English accents and perfectly manicured finger tips edging around their iPhone 7’s. But mostly they keep to themselves amongst their real (possibly – It’s hard to know what’s real and what’s contrived in this context) friends. I see a lot of selfies being taken, coming to an Instagram near you and am informed by a member of the production team that that is how they make all their money. The show gives them a platform to get followers and Instagram sponsorships pay the big bucks, if you have enough people watching you. The bottom line: interest people, whatever that takes.
Instagram and reality TV thrive off each other. If we’re being candid here, Instagram has low key turned us all into stalkers. Before Instagram, the way a celebrity was presented was almost entirely up to the media; you never knew what was real and what was rumour. Now? You can watch any reality TV star (or any celebrity, for that matter) on Snapchat, Instagram and read their tweets about their trip to a supermarket. Social media and reality TV have given rise to an era of Paris Hilton-esque personalities in a quantity that is almost overwhelming. And we care. We look to these total strangers for style advice, music choices but mostly we just look at them. We watch a life of someone who isn’t a friend or family with almost religious diligence from the side lines. Why?
People are interested in other people, people are nosey and people are aspirational. Reality TV is equated to wealth; we don’t watch them going to the food bank and picking up their benefits. Reality TV is watching holidays and parties. We either want what they have or we just want to see how the other half lives, or both. The strange thing is a lot of what we see isn’t real – we’re aspiring to attend parties and events that are entirely fabricated. In many ways, they live a lot like us; maybe that’s what we want to affirm. Groups of friends spend their Wednesday nights gathered around a TV, or more likely, a laptop and they judge a group of strangers sitting around their million dollar kitchens doing exactly the same thing; gossiping, cooking, doing their nails.
Reality TV is a visual product to be sold and everybody buys in because they want to see how a different ‘reality’ plays out. We want to speculate, accuse and thrive off of the imaginary presented as reality. When a fight starts in a movie, no one is hurt – but in a reality TV show? The drama is real. There are consequences. Consequences we can see pan out off the show onto all the screens of our devices. We move technology to more and more realistic goals; HD TV, Virtual reality. Perhaps our love of reality TV comes from the same need. Why watch scripted drama when ‘real’ drama exists?
While envy might play a part, our obsession with the lives of the rich and famous is more of a distraction; the modern solution to easy escapism.
Reality TV is the new fantasy; it’s escapism close enough that it feels tangible. Even though it’s their life, an aspirational life to many, by following it in some way it becomes yours – and even if it doesn’t, looking to a screen is the quickest way to look away from whatever crap is going on in your own life. Reality TV is visually appealing; the people and the setting are always attractive. What they are saying, sometimes significantly less so – but there is a unanimous pleasure in watching beautiful things. I know a lot of people (myself included) who watch reality TV to switch off. To switch off from things that mean stuff to them. If I’m focussed on the menial drama of London’s elite, I’m not thinking about my workload, troubled love life or the fact that the president of the USA is a narcissistic toddler.
The need to drown out life with the white noise of another person’s life is overwhelming sometimes – like a feel good friendship that you don’t need to put any energy into. You can flip it on with just one finger, receive distraction and comfort with zero reciprocation expected. On the screen, even the downfalls and drama are shiny and pretty, red lipstick tinted messes. This isn’t revolutionary, Instagram is now filled with the ‘perfect’ shots, and reality TV is Instagram in motion – glossing over life’s imperfections. It’s addictive in the same way social media is. Mindless scrolling and low-key fixation.
But the reality is that this escapism is hollow and unsatisfying – and that’s before we discover the crowd in the background aren’t their real friends and all the champagne is Appletiser – because an TV show is a quick fix to a longer term discontentment. At the same time, we fuel our own discontentment by filling our idea of ‘the best life’ with fabricated scenarios, and plastic cakes. Our mindless escapism isn’t perhaps as mindless as we’d like to believe – and constantly relying on reality TV to escape is probably feeding the discontentment we want to drown out.
As the use of social media rises, so do levels of depression in young people, so do eating disorders and a general feeling of a life not well lived. The easiest fix to a problem is almost never the healthiest; turning to the over-edited lives of others as a respite from reality is doing more hurt than help. With every warning against the misconceptions of perfect instagram feeds and the dangers of spending too much time scrolling, it seems strange that we don’t offer the same for reality TV – the moving version of those social media outlets. Images will seem just as distorted in a dodgy mirror as ‘reality’ will be when represented on TV.
We objectify reality TV stars, turning them into a spectacle, and they perform with their fake bubbly and staged conversations. They become moving visual icons for a lifestyle of partying, lunching and leisurely work. Regardless of whether we watch reality TV because we want to imagine what it might be like for us to achieve that lifestyle of very little limits, or to escape our own lives, or both, it is in the end all about us – not the people on the screen. We sit and watch, and then we return to reality – and there are no post-production edits for us to use there.
Follow Elle on Twitter: @AyresElle
Illustration: Eri Kai