During my time studying History and Sociology at Sussex University, my interests and approach were moulded towards grassroots and cultural perspectives. One tutor in particular inspired an enthusiasm for appreciating the importance of popular culture and everyday life in order to explore wider historical and sociological trends and events. There was an increasing interest in the use of cultural studies to examine people, patterns and events towards the end of the 20th century, since the birth of the Birmingham Contemporary Centre of Cultural Studies in 1964. Inspired by subcultural theory and sociology that grew out of this Centre (such as Paul Gilroy’s usage of sound system culture to analyse race), as well as efforts to rewrite history from a cultural perspective (e.g. Alwyn Turner’s reassessment of the 1970s in Crisis? What Crisis?), I am keen to consider how the popular culture of today can tell us about the state of our society, and the political changes that are occurring within.
I’ve chosen to focus on reality TV, and draw connections between mainstream culture and the ‘post-truth’ condition of our contemporary society. The genre has encountered immense criticism: it is regularly vilified it as the lowest form of entertainment, and frequently denigrated as an insult to our collective intelligence. Even those who tune in shamefully shrug it off as a ‘guilty pleasure.’ However, I propose that if we overlook shortsighted criticisms of the crass behaviour and shallow personalities, and instead take the spectacle seriously as a prevalent part of our popular culture, it can provide a valuable insight into the hyperreal state of our society and the consequences this has on politics and widespread political disenchantment. This is especially important in the current political climate: last year two successful political campaigns (Trump and Brexit) were won by teetering between the ‘real’ and the fictional, achieved during a background of global and national humanitarian crises.
The nations magnetism to reality TV is nothing new. Since pioneering shows Big Brother and The X Factor hit our screens, a plethora of reality shows have captivated the population. Although the viewing figures of these original icons have indeed dropped, claims that reality TV is dead are unfounded. 2016 saw the population hooked on reality game shows Love Island and I’m a Celebrity, ongoing support for docusoaps such as The Only Way is Essex, and high ratings for all that comes in-between (First Dates, Gogglebox…the list goes on). What does appear to be changing is the ways in which we engage with television. Where TV was traditionally a more linear experience, it has expanded into all corners of our lives. Evolving technology has provided us with access to reality stars ‘personal’ lives through Instagram profiles and live Snapchat feeds, in addition to more traditional involvement, such as live appearances and branded merchandise, offering a sense of omnipresence while further blurring the borders of ‘reality.’
Voyeuristic tendencies and an appetite for the confessional can be traced back centuries, and we welcomed the spectacle of reality TV greedily. Other propositions for the popularity of reality TV include that these shows represent much of what the working class want. Whether or not this is true, the distracting and absorbing qualities of the shows is what I find important. What is especially interesting about how prevalent reality culture is both on and beyond our screens, is that it demonstrates the extent of which scripted reality is normalised in our society. We have embarked on a faux-reality culture, where manufactured images and imitations triumph over original artefacts and events. This constant enhancement of reality has enabled a hyperreal political climate where the overlapping of the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ is facilitated under the illusion of authenticity. Thus while we were being distracted and desensitised with mesmerising and sensationalist images through stupefying forms of entertainment, failing to distinguish between what is reality and what is not, faux-reality culture has extended into news, journalism and politics.
This brings us to ‘post-truth’ (‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’), branded the word of 2016 by Oxford Dictionaries. I propose that the bombardment of ‘reality’ material on the television, in social media as well as more traditional forms of media, could have aided in dulling the distinction between reality and fiction, and could potentially expand on why it is increasingly acceptable for the public not to demand facts or fact-checking. Rather than objective truths, the public are satisfied with and influenced by statements that hold little or no corroborated evidence, but appeal directly to ideologies and sentiment. From this contention, the spectacle of reality culture can be seen as acting (albeit indirectly) as a mode of social control by have the effect of disengaging individuals from the production of their own lives, and paralysing the public from determining between truth and fiction.
It was the symptoms of a ‘post-truth’ society that arguably aided the conquest of two of the most controversial campaigns of 2016: the UK’s decision to leave the EU, and Trump’s succession to US Presidency. By no means am I suggesting that reality TV has a causative relationship to these matters, but the genre and its popularity seem to epitomise a culture in which our perception of reality is so skewed that political movements riding on unchallenged and unsourced ‘facts’ can snowball into power. I would argue that a ‘post-truth’ society is not one in which that facts are reinstated by emotive and populist politics – facts and figures are still utilised. However, their objective truth is of little importance, and they are always attached to an ideological anchor. There is indeed a tension between the succession of the narrative and the factual. We have to question what happens when the public choose a narrative (e.g. anti-immigration) which doesn’t fit with the facts. That you like a story does not make it true.
Trump’s campaign did seem to demonstrate that in some ways the public care less for hard facts, responding better to appeals to their emotions and personal beliefs; there is plentiful support for a public figure who is willing to reject traditional politics, offer a challenge to the establishment, and speak as the public wish to speak. Trump’s triumph demonstrated the character he commandeers is more important than his objective credentials. Here again, mirroring reality culture and characters, representation is victorious over reality.
However, it is not simply that facts do not matter – we can see clearly the power of the figures and statistics thrown around during both campaigns that stuck fast. The Vote Leave lobby capitalised on the unfounded allegation that Britain paid £350 million a week. Even following public discrediting, the powerful figure still held persuasive prominence. Similarly, Trump’s infamous promise to build a wall, and “make the Mexican’s pay for it” seemed entirely baseless, but found perpetuation due to its heightened symbolic meaning. Indeed, it is in this atmosphere we supposedly find ourselves in a ‘fake news’ crisis, where evolving technology has provided us with innumerable and immediate news and opinion platforms. Ironically, even Trump has disparagingly drawn public attention to ‘Fake news’ (with a capital F.) Hence, possessing and utilising ‘facts’ comprises a central battleground in an ideological war. Whoever can harness, own and utilise them in a certain way to present the ‘truth’ can project themselves as the ‘truth teller.’ What is dangerous is that once these ‘facts’ are out there, bolstering a certain ideology, it is very hard to challenge the publics emotional response, even if any wrong information is subsequently retracted. Therefore, although ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ do exist in a ‘post-truth’ society, they are generally subjective claims – not verifiable actualities – with ideological causes and consequences, drawing on existing public sentiment and employed to further a political lobby.
In addition to associating the contagion of faux-reality culture with the creation of a hyperreal society (in which we are less able to distinguish the real from a simulation of reality) the embarkment into a post-truth society, I’d also like to briefly speculate the ways in which reality TV could have a more direct correlation with public opinion and politics. With regards to the popularity of television shows such as the ‘Educating Essex’ (and its consecutive shows, which film ongoings in schools across the countries), and ’24 Hours in A&E,’ could it be the case that engaging in these matters on-screen diminishes how in-touch we are with subjects of schooling and NHS in real life? Equally, the happy-ending narrative these shows often perpetuate could result in a disillusion in the state of Britain’s schools and health services. This hypothesis was challenged by BBC 2’s recent show ‘Hospital,’ in which they outlined the crisis our National Health Service is undergoing by specifically focusing on the problems facing the NHS, and their consequences. However, it is still arguable that engaging emotionally and empathetically with these concerns via a TV show may replace a strive to engage actively in these crises. Equally, there have been suggestions that witnessing global disasters occurring via visual news mediums detract from the ‘realness’ of the situation, making viewers feel as if they are involved and informed enough so as not to engage actively in these matters. Other television shows, such as ‘Benefit Street’ and ‘The Undateables’ can be clearly seen to perpetuate certain stereotypical narratives under the guise of ‘reality.’
However, this hyperreal and post-truth nature of society does not have to be the demise of trust and progress. We need to look towards methods of expressing agency through a voyeuristic gaze, and move away from the limiting view that all viewers are just passive sponges. Awareness of faux-reality could offer the building blocks of resistance and reclamation of agency.