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Stories, Symbolism, and Stability: Reality TV as Meaning-Making Ritual  

2016-03-10 12:54:36|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Stories, Symbolism, and Stability:

Reality TV as Meaning-Making Ritual

Yiran Zhang

Yale College, TD ’17

Yale University

 

       Randall Collins claims in “Interaction Ritual Chains” that ritual is what holds society together. Citing the Durkheimian model, he argues that “society is held together to just the extent that rituals are effectively carried out, and during those periods of time when the effects of those rituals are still fresh in people’s minds and reverberating in their emotions” (Collins 41). As America becomes increasingly secularized and human interaction becomes digitized and decentralized by technology, the role of collective ritual in our lives seems to be on the decline. One prevailing narrative of modernity is that it has served as a force of alienation, segregating individuals geographically and socially and destroying the glue that coheres our society. Technology has undermined pre-modern and traditional social rituals, but it has also given birth to new forms of ritual that achieve a comparable unifying effect among its participants. Drawing on the arguments of Randall Collins, Paul Ricoeur, and Stephen Vaisey, this paper argues that reality television constitutes one such form of modern ritual for both its audience and its subjects, forging and stabilizing social meaning through texts and images: stories and symbols.

       Reality TV is a television genre based on unscripted real-life situations, documenting real people living their lives as themselves. The people starring in reality dramas seem to be passive subjects captured by an objective gaze, and the genre derives its popular appeal from its proclaimed loyalty to real life. Indeed, some of the most popular reality shows such as The Real World and The Real Housewives series have authenticity as their selling point, as evidenced by their titles. Yet, their “realities” are more contrived than one would assume. A creative team behind the scenes usually takes a long time to gather raw footage, and then edit or frame it in a fashion that highlights dramatic tensions and eliminates inconsistencies as well as the mundanity of daily life. This selective emplotment aims to turn a chaotic and haphazard narrative into a more compact and therefore marketable one with a beginning, a middle, an end, character conflicts, and resolutions. Indeed, Andy Dehnart, a reality TV critic, confirms in a New York Times Article titled “Reality TV Makes Viewers Introspective” that “[t]he presence of cameras and producers may affect what happens, and footage must be edited to condense time and construct a narrative.”  

In extreme circumstances, the original meaning of an image may be altered altogether. For instance, a director may juxtapose a shot of a crying woman and a sick child through montage and generate a narrative of pity, when in reality the two situations are completely unrelated. Even in situations in which directors do minimal post-production edits, the film crew itself is a source of intrusion that tampers with the authenticity of the people’s lives. The director may go so far as to frame an actor’s mood or behavior before the cameras start rolling: telling him or her a joke to set a more playful atmosphere, etc. Hence, reality TV narratives are not necessarily more “truthful” than fictional ones, as both have been filtered through human agency.

Reality TV lends itself well to ritualization, first of all, due to its broadcast nature. As opposed to films, which are usually streamed privately at different times, TV shows’ fixed timetables facilitate “a mutual focus of attention” (Collins 47) and “shared emotion(s)” (Collins 43) among mass audiences, which, according to Collins, are among the defining features of a ritual. Even though the viewers do not occupy one another’s physical presence, they engage simultaneously with the same content. This centralized structure fosters a collective consciousness and even collective effervescence in the case of cult shows with a strong fan base.

Secondly, reality TV manufactures meaning-making narratives through the aforementioned techniques of cinematic and emotional manipulation. Paul Ricoeur would agree that reality TV plays a prescriptive role as well as a descriptive one, as he characterizes human identity as internalized narratives informed by external texts or plots of others in “Narrative Identity”:

 The problematic of connectedness, of permanence over time, or, in short, of identity, finds itself raised to a level of lucidity and also perplexity in fictional narratives that is not achieved by stories immersed in the course of life. Here the question of identity is deliberately posed as the outcome [l’enjeu] of narration. According to my thesis, the narrative constructs the durable character of an individual, which one can call his or her narrative identity, in constructing the sort of dynamic identity proper to the plot [l’intrigue] which creates the identity of the protagonist in the story. (Ricoeur 77)

       Since it has been established that reality TV narratives, too, possess “protagonists” and “plots”, they can be viewed as a generative opportunity for a viewer to frame his or her own experiences and to construct a more “durable character” (Ricoeur 77). Tom Jacobs cites in “Reality TV May Warp Viewers’ Perception of Actual Reality” a compelling study by Karyn Riddle and J. J. De Simone at the University of Wisconsin, who administered a survey of reality TV viewers. They discovered that these viewers tend to believe that more women in the real world engage in bad behaviors such as “spreading rumors and verbal aggression” as a result of being regular viewers of reality TV shows which portrayed women in such a light (Jacobs). They have fallen prey to the framing and narrative tactics of the “ritual leaders” (Collins 41), which in this case are the TV directors and producers, who construct social fictions that become social truths. Reality TV is therefore a meaning-making ritual in the sense that it constitutes “a mechanism of change” (Collins 43), engineering meaning-making narratives for audience members to make sense of their own lives and take on a renewed identity of self.

 On an aggregate level, narratives of highly participatory reality TV can also serve as ideology-reinforcement rituals. The popular Chinese singing contest Super Voice Girls saw what was probably the closest thing to universal suffrage in the country. The shining beacon of the super girl can be read as a symbol of a democratically “elected” public figure, generating pseudo-political fervor among the people. However, in order to downplay the undertones of the voting process, the government mandated that the instructions be phrased in depoliticized terms. “[T]he word ‘vote’ is avoided”, notes Robert Marquand in his article in Desert News titled “400 Million Chinese Pick Super Girl - Biggest Phenomenon Ever to Hit the Nation's Media”; instead the Chinese were told to send a ‘text message of support’”. Had the word “vote” appeared in the process, the entire program would have created a dissonance in ideology. These subtle wordings constitute narratives in themselves, which help to stabilize the political ideologies that people have internalized and eliminate signs of inconsistency.

Rituals are indeed defined by “privileged groups”, which not only have the power to formulate ideology-enforcing narratives, but also “impressive symbols” to “fill their members with more emotional energy” (Collins 41). In the case of reality TV, product placement serves as the very type of emotion-inducing visual that spurs collective effervescence. As more and more shows thrive on the material wealth of their cast members, reality TV has opened itself up as an advertising space for brands and products. In Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the three Kardashian sisters Kimberly, Kourtney, and Khloé constantly fly to their co-owned upscale boutique store D-A-S-H to familiarize viewers with their haute couture and high-end accessories. While these material symbols depend and feed heavily upon the Kardashians’ narratives of opulence and glamor, they alone are capable of inducing spontaneous and intense moments of collective effervescence. In an NY Daily News article titled “Kardashians’ Dash NYC Opening Nearly Ruined by Crazed Fans’ ‘Disorderly Conduct’”, Shari Weiss discusses an example of a symbol-inspired ritual: the opening of the New York D-A-S-H store caused a frenzy among the Kardashians’ fans, leading to a police shutdown.

Product placement in reality TV embodies the broader social ritual of consumerism in America: using advertising to create new material and consumption needs that did not exist before. Shows like Kardashians encourage a fetishization of brands as extensions of their originators’ bodies and the notion that ownership of the same brand could elevate one’s social status by association. These products aim to capitalize on “feelings of membership that are attached to cognitive symbols” (Collins 42) and “the emotional energy of individual participants” (Collins 42). In other words, product placement in celebrity dramas sanctifies goods as signs, stressing their sign-exchange values over their use or exchange values. As a result, viewers collectively respond to these object-based appeals to vanity and engage in fanatical rituals of consumption, which on a macro scale solidify the functioning of capitalism.

Reality TV is not only a ritual for the viewers, but for those being filmed as well. Participants in a reality game show often have to undergo a “confessional”, a direct-into-the-camera interview filmed after the show but edited into it to pass as an on-the-spot comment. For example, the culinary game show Kitchen Inferno, which pits chefs against each other in cook-off competitions, features frequent cuts to confessional interview segments in which the chefs describe their feelings and occasionally insult their rivals. According to Stephen Vaisey’s “Motivation and Justification: A Dual-Process Model of Culture in Action”, “people go out of their way to manage appearances and coordinate face-saving rituals” (Vaisey 1682). Confessionals can be thus perceived as a ritual of impression management as the contenders attempt to present themselves in a more honorable light. On the one hand, the winners are prone to legitimize the contributive factors to their success, saying that “I always knew that I could win” or “hard work always pays off”, whereas the losers tend to come up with excuses or simply accentuate their lack of luck: “This competition is not that important to me anyway”, “the process matters more than the outcome” or “I’m having bad luck today”.

         These behaviors can be justified with Vaisey’s theory that intuition, or practical consciousness, rather than logic, or discursive consciousness, tends to be the main driving force behind reasoning. He claims that, “discursive consciousness is largely uninvolved in routine moral decision making” and that “interview respondents will either (a) tend to explain their behavior in intuitive terms without a clear substantive referent or (b) offer multiple ‘loosely coupled’ logics of justification to support their judgments” (Vaisey 1690). In the case of reality TV competitions, both the winners’ and losers’ justifications stem from the need to feel better about themselves. Maybe in reality, the winners won by a stroke of luck and the losers were just not good enough. But it would be more difficult to reconcile these beliefs with their results. It is easier to irrationally tone down the factors and emotions that are at odds with their present circumstances, in order to reduce cognitive dissonance. It is simpler to choose not to believe what confuses them. Indeed, Vaisey would confirm that the unconscious motive behind these “face-saving rituals” is what Giddens calls “ontological security” (Vaisey 1682): people always seek out the feeling that “the world is meaningful and stable” (Vaisey 1682). Confessionals are a group ritual for demonstrating a unified sense of self. The participants smooth over their internal conflicts by creating convincing narratives and endowing themselves with more explanatory power.

Vaisey refutes Bourdieu’s idea that “ritual reproduces the cultural and therefore the economic fields” (Vaisey 42) by pointing out that Bourdieu has overlooked the “transformative power of ritual mobilization” (Vaisey 42). In the ritual of reality TV, the processes of reinforcement and change operate simultaneously. In the case of Super Girl in China, the charismatic symbol of the super girl causes new emotions to erupt, yet the country’s different notion of democracy impels the show to crystallize within the framework of political ideology; in the case of Kardashians, the symbols of celebrity and their iconic brands generate new consumption needs, yet the unchanging narratives of material pursuit perpetuate the capitalist ideology of consumerism. The participants in Kitchen Inferno come up with new ways to feel about their victories and losses, yet their narratives always try to reproduce a stable sense of self. Reality TV is a transformative and stabilizing ritual, which constantly breeds fresh emotions, but also stabilizes and justifies them according to preexisting political, economic and social norms.

 

Cited Works

Collins, Randal. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Dehnart, Andy. 2013. “Reality TV Makes Viewers Introspective”. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/10/21/are-reality-shows-worse-than-other-tv/reality-tv-makes-viewers-introspective.

Jacobs, Tom. 2013. “Reality TV May Warp Viewers’ Perception of Actual Reality”. Pacific Standard Magazine. http://www.psmag.com/books-and-culture/reality-tv-warps-viewers-perception-actual-reality-66239.

Marquand, Robert. 2005. “400 Million Chinese Pick Super Girl - Biggest Phenomenon Ever to Hit the Nation's Media”. Deseret News. http://www.deseretnews.com/article/600159376/400-million-Chinese-pick-Super-Girl.html?pg=all.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1991. “Narrative Identity”. Philosophy Today; Spring 1991.

Vaisey, Stephen. 2009. “Motivation and Justification: A Dual-Process Model of Culture in Action”. The University of Chicago.

Weiss, Shari. 2010. “Kardashians’ Dash NYC Opening Nearly Ruined by Crazed Fans’ ‘Disorderly Conduct’”. The NY Daily News.

http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/gossip/kardashians-dash-nyc-opening-ruined-crazed-fans-disorderly-conduct-article-1.450310.

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