Reality TV seems like innocent fun, mindless entertainment for the evenings. Married at First Sight, The Bachelor/ Bachelorette, meeting a potential partner in the dark – or in the nude. More dating shows. Cooking shows. Weight loss shows. House renovation shows. Talent shows. Singing shows. Spelling bees. Big Brother. Most of these programs occur under the guise of ‘social experiments’ and harmless competitions and are presented as being both raw and candid.
The Making Of ‘Look At Me’ Photo Gallery
The appeal, psychologically, is that they allow us to clarify, reinforce or affirm our own sense of identity and values through our psychological response to the characters and situations portrayed – think ‘Yes, that’s what I would have done’ or ‘I would have never done that’. There is the voyeuristic appeal and tantalising suggestion that an ordinary person (‘even me’) can become a star. Where that becomes problematic is that, in reality, these shows are engineered with sophistication. Producers carefully curate what we see, selecting the characters who will play the victims, villains and heroes in an on-screen melodrama. They are effectively designed to elicit a real emotional response to an unreal situation.
And the covert nature of the trickery makes it more powerful than overt fiction genres. It may be prudent to ask ourselves whether the experimental subjects really are the contestants, or whether we are unwitting lab rats and accomplices. This fishbowl effect, which shares elements with the 18th century Panopticon building design that enabled inmates to be watched without knowing whether they were, is paralleled in social media, where we become the producers in our own lives and curate whatever life narrative we want others to believe. In the Panopticon example, written about by philosopher Michel Foucault, inmates then by default acted as though they were being watched incessantly. In the case of social media, the possibility of being watched creates a cultural bias towards impression management for self-enhancement, or what psychologists refer to as ‘faking good’, ironically leaving us all feeling bad because ‘everyone else has a more interesting/ happier/ successful life then me’.
The common thread is comparison or viewing yourself within a context discrepant from your everyday experience of yourself. Aside from the potential discomfort of presenting in a way that doesn’t feel authentic, over time a more subtle and sinister shift occurs in our motivation. We begin to do things to be seen. Our decision-making criteria concentrate on how it looks for us to be doing something – not how it feels or whether we actually want to do that thing at all. It is reminiscent of the story of the woman wheeling her baby through a park and responding to a doting passerby (‘What a gorgeous baby!’) with ‘Oh, that’s nothing…you should see their photo.’ The dangers of living such a constructed reality are not necessarily obvious until we step back and reflect on what it means. There is a slippery slope from innocently sharing (or, often, over-sharing) information about ourselves on social media and actually engaging in self-surveilling, policing our own lives, often at the expense of our mental health and body image and, ultimately, our freedom. None of us should be or need to be continually self-governing our behaviour (or appearance) for the voyeuristic interests of others. Thankfully, we don’t need to. But to avoid inadvertently entering a tyranny, we need to ask ourselves what being the star of our own life actually means – is it about the here and now and living life on our terms irrespective of who might be watching? Or is it about evoking envy or admiration, or other external validation? If it’s the latter, it may pay to step back and reassess what’s really important. How do we want to feel? What is our place and purpose in this world? What legacy do we hope to leave?