Reality TV got a little too real recently when a contestant on two shows, Ryan Lee Jenkins, was suspected in killing his ex-wife and mutilating her body and then committed suicide while on the lam from the law. And that was followed by the news that Brian Lee Randone, who the Associated Press reported as appearing on the 2000 show The Sexiest Bachelor in America, has been charged with killing his model and adult film actress girlfriend.
Given the plethora of these shows, such news may in fact be not even statistically significant. But I do feel that these cases are red flags that bring to attention how reality TV is symptomatic of serious issues in American culture.
Andy Warhol quite perceptively noted how, in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. But he didnt quite get it right. The future is now, and everyone wants to be famous. Well, almost everyone. I have no desire to be famous.
Id already come to that conclusion before it was sealed by an incident in the late 1980s. Having spent time as both an entertainment journalist as well as publicist, Id deduced from my observations that fame was, first, a big hassle, and second, a very dangerous and highly delusional and addictive drug. The only advantages I can see to fame are being able to get a table quickly at crowded restaurants and increasing ones potential sex partners (because it seems that the next best thing to being famous is sleeping with someone famous; maybe people believe it rubs off).
Then in my publicist days I was at a hotel in the Midwest on my way to dinner with three rather minor rock stars. Also at the hotel was the Miss Teen Ohio Pageant. As we got off the elevator at the lobby, the rock stars were mobbed by teenage girls with their autograph books. As I stood aside, a girl approached me asking for my autograph. I demurred, explaining that I wasnt famous, just a publicist for one of the rockers. She still wanted my autograph, and kept asking so sweetly that I finally agreed. The moment pen hit paper, I too was mobbed by a gaggle of some 20 girls who had to have my autograph. Famished, all I wanted was to go eat dinner, but I couldnt do so until Id signed all their books. To me, such a hassle has no upside.
Ill admit Im hardly your average American. And too many of them seem to think that fame is some kind of worthy goal. Perhaps its the attention they seek. Another time in my publicity career, I crossed the stage at a packed rock show at Madison Square Garden in costume and peeked out at the crowd. Yeah, its a thrill to be up there in front of thousands. But is it worth the price?
The tabloids and celebrity magazines are filled every week with what one would sensibly think is cautionary tales about the lives of the famous. Yet that information doesnt seem to even register with readers but in fact appears to feed the lust for fame.
The advent of reality TV was Warhols maxim made real: Now everyone could possibly have their 15 minutes of fame. Popular entertainment in theory should offer the masses a break from the everyday drudgery of life. But somehow the equation got scrambled and too many people bought into the notion of becoming famous as the object of entertainment.
Why? I believe its an emptiness in the lives of too many people that they feel will be solved by fame. Never mind that the lives of the famous too often demonstrate that its hardly a solution.
The recent murders apparently committed by reality TV stars seem indicative of that to the extreme. The people attracted to this phenomenon seem desperate for something that fame can never bring them if not disturbed. And at its worst, reality TV may be attracting violent psychopaths.
Hence reality TV, even if what it portrays onscreen is almost always unreal, does show us a reality about modern America. But its one that is hardly entertainment and instead is bad news about modern existence.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2009
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