The insurgence of reality television (TV) into everyday life has left us increasingly asking what is real. Utilizing Leisbet Van Zoonen’s argument that there is no such thing as a delivered presence or truth in cultural discourse, but inevitably a re-presence or representation (1995 p319),this paper will argue that we cannot define whether Reality TV programs such as ‘Big Brother’ adequately reflect reality but rather look at what is re-presented. Incorporating Theodor Adorno’s ‘power of the media’, I will look at the themes, which have been presented throughout ‘Big Brother’ and the way they have impacted on Australian society.
I will then assess the popularity of Big Brother in regards to audience participation, ratings and media reception, to argue that Big Brother reveals certain cultural and political notions present in the Australian psyche. Finally, I will use Erving Goffman and Judith Butler’s argument that there is no ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ self but rather that we are constantly performing and adapting to what is around us.
Toni Johnson Woods defines reality TV as a term encompassing a host of television programs, which can be broken into genres of lifestyle shows, talent shows, documentaries, talk shows and quiz/ game shows (2002 pp 53 – 54).
Documentary in nature (narrator, naturalistic settings and unscripted conversations), yet following the format of a soap opera, the creators categorise Big Brother as a ‘docusoap’. However, as Johnson Woods points out “Big Brother is more than a documentary with soap tendencies; closer examination reveals the influence of talk shows, game shows and even sitcoms” (2002: p58) For the purpose of these essay, I will be exploring Big Brother as a combination of all these genres.
Adorno argues that the culture consumed by the masses is imposed from above – churned out by the culture industry (1991: p86). By applying Adorno’s argument to Big Brother, we can see the ‘reality effects’ that both the themes of the program and the personal qualities of the participants have had on the Australian public. Jealousy, greed, humiliation and betrayl are fundamental themes explored throughout ‘Big Brother’. The structure of the show encourages contestants to back stab their fellow participants by voting them off, and fosters greed by using money as the final motivation.
The naturalisation of such vices has, as Andi Cook argues resulted in a break down of family values because reality television programs such as Big Brother carry the overriding messages that “its okay to do anything if the price is right” (2003 www. edailynews. info). However, as Jo Chichester argues such themes also play a valuable part in explaining the popularity of Big Brother and “reveal something deep in the Australian psyche” (2003 p11). Such themes not only produce entertainment but can also provide an addictive form of Schadenfreude.
Everyone loves to watch other people’s misfortunes and by participating in Big Brother, housemates hold themselves up for public humiliation and public defeat. As Stevie Fargher points out “each of us at some point is interested in the downfall of others, be it through corporate takeovers in the world of big business or hoping that the popular girl from school has become fat and unsuccessful before attending a high school reunion” (2003 p17). Themes explored by the housemates themselves have also played a positive role in challenging the codes and conventions of society.
Following her eviction, Sarah Marie with her larger than TV size body shape, appeared on the front of women’s magazines NW and Cosmopolitan, a place previously reserved for size 8 models or celebrities. In the process she not only challenged what is “acceptable and unacceptable in terms of female body size, but what is love able and unloveable, even by the self ” (Beth Spencer 2002). Similarly, Johnnie and Blair set an example that has taught a valuable lesson in life to many viewers.
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