Judges of characters

by Amanda Ann Klein
August 3, 2005

What gave a live studio audience the right to drive Jerry Manthey to tears during the May 2004 Survivor: All-Stars' live reunion special? How can we indulge in guilt-free laugher at William Hung's earnest Ricky Martin impressions? And why has the name "Omarosa" become synonymous with "bitch"? Because, quite simply, Jerri, William, Omarosa and their reality TV ilk aren't people, they're characters.

The main selling point of reality TV, since it first gained widespread popularity in 1992 with the debut of MTV's The Real World, is that it provides viewers with access to "real" people rather than actors playing the roles of real people. Mark Andrejevic, author of Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, has argued that "One of the promises of the genre is that you don't have to be a professional actor or entertaineróbeing on a reality show is work that anyone can do..."

In fact, one of the major reasons people cite for watching reality TV is that they can relate to the people on the screen. The gap between the audience and the television celebrity, between passive viewing and active participation, between real life and entertainment, is somehow closed when we watch reality TV.

This desire to see people just like us competing for money, marriage proposals, recording contracts or walk-on roles in WB dramas, is also linked with the desire to evaluate, label and revel in the (mis)behavior of the shows' participants. What's more, reality TV producers actively support viewer policing of this behavior through the promotion of interactive websites where fans may voice their opinions twenty-four hours a day.

The fervent participation of reality TV viewers in constructing and judging participant behavior should not, however, be seen as an indication of their wholesale belief in the "reality" of reality TV. Rather, the avid reality TV viewer prides him/herself precisely on not being duped by the spectacle of "reality" espoused by these programs.

Indeed, because the fan understands that reality TV is not real and that all of its participants are edited to be extreme versions of themselves, it becomes even easier (and more pleasurable) to see the shows' participants as characters. If they didn't want to be judged, the savvy viewer reasons, then they shouldn't have agreed to be on a reality show.

I first became aware of my own tendency to construct and judge reality TV characters when I fell in love with Fox's 2003 low budget, "surprise" summer hit, Paradise Hotel. Paradise Hotel follows the activities of eleven single men and women living together in "the most exclusive resort ever created" and competing for an unknown reward which the show's host, Amanda Byram, cryptically calls "the ultimate prize" (i.e., $500,000 split two ways). Each week one contestant is voted out of the hotel to make room for a new contestant, who is pulled from the studio audience.

What sets Paradise Hotel apart from previous entries into the "gamedoc," or competition, subgenre of reality TV, is that there are no rules for how to play the game, no structure to the daily activities of the contestants and no fixed endpoint. In other words, while we know the winner of Survivor will be declared after thirty-nine days and the winner of The Bachelor is the last woman standing, Paradise Hotel offers no such deadline.

To make things more confusing, several weeks into the show, when the contestants finally begin to devise strategies for gaining an edge in the game, the show's producers change what the contestants (and the viewing audience) assume to be the show's "rules."

For example, one of the program's oft-repeated lines is that when a guest "checks out" of Paradise Hotel, s/he checks out "forever," a rule the contestants learn to bank on. And yet, in the final episodes of the show, angry contestants who were forced to "check out" earlier in the season are allowed to return and torment those who facilitated their ousting.

Thus, despite its "gamedoc" format, Paradise Hotel is more like a social experiment for examining what happens when eleven "sexy" singles are given nothing to do but drink, sunbathe and develop strategies for winning an ever-changing game with no discernible structure, end-point or prize. Each new or revised rule forces contestants to reshuffle alliances, turn on one another or, in the case of one contestant, become catatonic.

This "experiment-like" atmosphere is even discussed by the contestants, many of whom, by the close of the show, begin to despair about the situation into which they have knowingly placed themselves. When a depressed Charla, a member of the successful, highly attractive four person alliance known as "the Barbies," confides "I hate my life right now," Dave (also a member of the "Barbies") comforts her by saying, "This has never been your life or my life. It's been a weird experiment."

Such self reflexive segments prove that as much as reality TV claims that we are being given "unmediated access" to the real lives of real people doing real things, what we are seeing is more like a social experiment involving a group of carefully selected characters. Furthermore, our understanding of these characters is constantly shaped by both narrative framing and visual and aural cues.

Of course, every example of reality programming is by nature selective, and thus biased, in its editing of raw footage, something most viewers understand; however, as Debora Halbert, author of "'Who Owns Your Personality?': Reality Television and Publicity Rights" notes, in reality TV "[c]ontext is no longer important, and if one says something that becomes immortalized by television, then it must be an accurate assessment of the 'real' person, regardless of editorial control."

It is this spectacle of personality which the reality TV viewer has come to see as real, thus making visibility or being viewed a condition of "reality." But what remains invisible in this process is the contract between the individual and the television studio, which assumes the responsibility, even after the season is over, of mediating that individual's newly constructed reality. For example, even a full year after Paradise Hotel finished airing, fans were regularly posting comments about the show's contestants, further adding to the construction of each character's new identity.

One way in which Paradise Hotel constructs characters and encourages viewer policing is by drawing on the conventions of documentary film. Although Paradise Hotel is filmed and broadcast in color, pivotal images from the "past" are frequently rebroadcast in black and white to confirm or deny a character's present actions. Black and white footage, because of its links with the documentary tradition, has become a convention of realism and unmediated truth, and so the switch from color to black and white footage serves to mark these images as being a piece of the unchanging past.

Viewers can then use this "factual" footage to determine the reliability of an individual contestant's testimony in the present, a power we cannot access in real life. For instance, during one episode, Toni, a member of the "Originals" alliance, discusses the sexual promiscuity of another contestant, Tara, a member of the "Barbies," in an attempt to discredit her. Since Toni was herself negatively portrayed as a loudmouth and "pot stirrer," viewers might see her criticism of Tara as biased, exaggerated or petty.

But by intercutting Toni's accusations with "proof" of Tara's liaisons in the past, rebroadcast in black and white, the viewer cannot deny the truth of Toni's claims. Here the show creates the impression that past events, once invoked by the contestants, may be instantly recalled and replayed. In other words, no one can get away with lying in Paradise Hotel because the hotel cameras are all-knowing.

This tactic, which has itself become a convention of reality TV, also implies that viewing public's memory is not to be trusted and therefore must be constantly constructed for them by the show's editing strategies.

Paradise Hotel also makes copious use of the night-vision cameras' grainy, black and white images, to imply an even higher form of reality. These grainy images recall the imperfect images of direct cinema, suggesting that some hidden truth--such as a between the sheets tryst--has been surreptitiously captured, with the poverty of the image serving as proof of its veracity. These moments, filmed from the fixed perspective of a hidden camera, emphasize that the camera of reality TV is both omniscient and omnipresent; we may judge or police these characters at any moment (and if they try to deny it, we have documented proof).

Thus, this imperfect night vision footage gives us the impression that we are seeing images that are even "realer than real" because characters are more likely to reveal their true selves behind closed doors with the lights off. Towards the end of the season, for example, we are shown night-vision footage of Charla, who is hiding from the rest of the guests, intercut with color footage of the "Originals" enjoying an elaborate dinner. This color footage is meant to be read as "public" behavior, what everyone staying at the hotel has an opportunity to see and hear, while the night vision footage is "private" behavior, witnessed by only the viewing audience and Charla.

As the "Originals" make cruel jokes about Charla's absence from the dinner table the viewers get to see what the guests cannotóthat she is suffering from what appears to be a serious mental breakdown. We are given the truth behind Charla's absence and a sense of knowing the full story, which allows us to judge the comments of the guests at dinner as unnecessarily cruel.

Here we can see how Paradise Hotel mimics the perspective of an omniscient, omnipresent, and therefore godlike, witness to the events taking place onscreen. In the aforementioned scene the viewer is able to see and hear everything taking place at the hotel, though it is not possible in reality to be privy to the thoughts and actions of people in two different spaces at once, especially when the tensions between contestants would never allow for such easy mobility between warring groups.

This impossible omniscient perspective is part of what empowers the viewer to make judgments about reality TV characters. The viewer is aware that he or she is in a privileged position of knowing every point of view, while the show's participants are limited to their own. Therefore, only the viewer is entitled to judge the behavior of the contestants.

This sense of viewer omniscience and entitlement is most apparent on both Fox's official Paradise Hotel message boards and on independent message boards like Reality TV World and FansofRealityTV.com. As the show's run was drawing to a close in September of 2003, one fan posted an "open letter to the guests of Paradise Hotel" for the purposes of letting the guests know just what their fans thought of them. This particular thread received an enthusiastic response, with many posters commenting that they hoped the show's participants would read their posts and thus know what the public really thinks of them.

With few exceptions, almost all of the posters were in agreement over whom they liked and did not like on the show. While much of this agreement can be attributed to the fact that the most disliked contestants, the self dubbed "Originals," did indeed bully the less abrasive "Barbies," this impression was further encouraged through the show's editing, particularly in the lengthy and repetitive teasers which open each show and introduce each commercial break.

The opening teaser for the episode in which formerly ousted guests return to the hotel includes a voice over describing these individuals as "hungry for revenge." Through both the narrator's language and the images used, the "Originals" appear angry, aggressive and out of control, especially in contrast with the images we see of the victimized Dave and Charla, sitting calmly on their beds.

The bizarre, almost terrifying images of the "Originals" screaming and jumping up and down with vengeful glee (later dubbed the "we're back" scene) was played over and over again, in advertisements, teasers, and as black and white "flashbacks" throughout the remaining episodes of the series. Not surprisingly, it was at this point in the season when fans of the show became especially vocal about their support for the "Barbies" and their dislike for the "Originals."

After the aforementioned episode aired, viewer perception of the socially and physically awkward Dave, whom many posters did not initially like, changed. One fan wrote, "OK I know Dave appeared like a dork from the very beginning ...But what a demonstration of how to react when you are being bullied. Wow he displayed dignity, pride and lots of class just like he said. I was soooo impressed by that."

Likewise, perceptions of the "Originals" became even more negative: "I watched in disgust last night. These people must have been watching reruns of Melrose Place because all the losers did last night was lie and try to stir crap up" while another poster wrote "The whole 'Were's back' party scene in the bedroom was lame. Give it up you bunch of losers..." Of course, it is important to keep in mind that viewer perceptions are not entirely controlled by the show's editing strategies.

Despite attempts to "prove" the truth of Tara's sexual promiscuity via black and white flashbacks in the scene I mentioned earlier, the general opinion of viewers who posted on the show's message boards after that episode indicate that Tara was merely the victim of "bad editing." One fan wrote: "Tara! Tara! Tara! You have been a great friend to Charla. You've made a few bad bedroom moves...but you still stood by your friends. You're awesome!"

This is a case where viewers sided so heavily with the "Barbies" alliance that the producer's attempts to depict Tara as promiscuous became visible as a device and was not accepted as truth.

One of the more significant outcomes of the reality TV craze is the access viewers are given to the lives of real people, even if that access is accompanied by the knowledge that the lives depicted are highly constructed. Indeed, the savvy reality TV viewer is actually pulled into a more intimate relationship with the show as a result of this knowledge.

Mark Andrejevic writes that "Reality TV, to the extent that it demonstrates the artificial character of mediated reality, highlights the reality of artifice in the mass media." I would add that part of reality TV's appeal is precisely this artifice.

It is difficult to judge a person when the reasons for his/her (mis)behavior are multifaceted and ambiguous, but reality TV reduces real, complex people into simplified characters, who, as a result of this simplification, are that much easier to judge and scorn.

And yet, even the savviest reality TV viewer knows, deep down, that these "characters" are attached to a real person, thus supplying us with undeniable Schadenfreude. As one satisfied Paradise Hotel fan put it after watching Toni make a fool of herself again: "Did anyone else notice the wonderful new bug-eyed Toni moment?...This is, of course, all I watch the show for..."