“Re:ality (Regarding Reality)”

It must be exhausting to clarify the distinction between reality and “reality” on television.  Levels of ambiguous manipulation  course through media, confusing reporting with partiality, compounding the difficulties of understanding representation.  Specifically, there is something uniquely convincing about witnessing something on television, that source of foreign images and sounds that we habitually accept as true and unbiased.  Television is capable of earning the trust of even the most skeptical viewer; even though we know that television is a medium for consumers, it is much more difficult to spot any superficial bias on television than other forms of media.  Taking advantage of the gaps in public awareness of operation, television producers have presented us with an assortment of “realities” from which we can follow.  Reality programming and talk shows now make up the majority of television broadcasts, though they are anything but realistic.

Television has been an imperfect tool of communication from its inception, not least because it lends itself perfectly to an overwhelmingly authoritative style of delivery.  This imbalance naturally favors producers, not their audience of media consumers.  On a most basic level, we understand that the television is just another piece of equipment, a box with wires.  However, technology cannot explain the hypnotic pull the TV has on even the most casual viewer once the screen is illuminated.  We are more willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of television than for any other medium.  Our hypnotic state in front of the television has proven to be a golden opportunity for both commercial exposure, selling to a captive audience, as well as widespread media manipulation, which we have seen since its inception.

Since the beginning of widespread television acceptance in the home in the 1960s, every aspect of the television viewing experience has been set up to imply authority into the right hands.  Informative without any didactic burdens, the television has been the confident voice of authority without having to worry about being right.  News broadcasts have, until recently, always been anchored by male journalists, lending any story an air of gravitas by simply being announced in a deeper voice.  Soon after, documentaries followed the same formula.  Following this pattern served to simultaneously reinforce the dominance of the ubiquitous authoritative voice as well as the unquestionable level of intimidation of the viewer.  The news is only to be heard, not to be discussed.  This one way formula quickly disintegrated by the end of the 1960s, when the media coverage of the Vietnam War was discovered to be part of a larger hoax on the American viewer.  Although the news industry quickly regained its composure, it never fully regained the blind trust with which its audience accepted their coverage.  Even so, the authoritative style persists, and after all of the lessons that we have learned the hard way, the enormous divide between technological and analytical comprehension of the television makes it even more likely, not less likely, that we will accept television as truth.

This blend of authority and a captive audience has created a vast network of viewing possibilities, but has reserved a special place for the routine antics generally classified as daytime television.  Soap operas and talk shows have come to define daytime television, and its viewers’ fierce protectivity and ownership of these programs can explain their perseverance for decades.  With an especially captive audience, namely stay at home parents (almost exclusively mothers), college students, and those who simply do not get out much, this genre has a particularly loyal viewership.

Re:ality (Regarding Reality) is a scenario with which we are all familiar.  It is a daily exercise in stretching the limits of “realistic” portrayals of social stereotypes routinely exploited every afternoon, a steady parade of social misfits and failures.  They are carefully delivered in a manner which is familiar enough to remain relatable to our own experiences and relationships, while isolating these caricatures enough to feel righteous of our superiority at a safe distance in our living rooms.  Sensational yet banal, we can always turn to Jenny Jones and her cohorts to feel sated with the relative level of drama in our own lives.

Daytime talk shows have a particularly cultish appeal because they serve to reinforce familiar stereotypes.  Re:ality (Regarding Reality) has all of the conventional daytime TV characters: the promiscuous teenage daughter, too young to dress and act the way she does; the mother, an easy villain because she fails to control or discipline her daughter, the brother who is embarrassed to see his sister objectified.  Every guest is identified as a caricature recognizable in society, or at least the part of society that is routinely exposed on the talk show circuit.  They are safe to observe and criticize because they are complete strangers, but are living out habitual tales as social outcasts and failures.  It is this inherent acceptance of the “reality” show as truthful and documentary that has made Todd Wahnish’s Re:ality (Regarding Reality) so plausible.  As actors seamlessly intertwined with the other guests of the show, their performances as troubled family members facing their troubled teenage daughter’s rebellious behavior are indistinguishable.  It is difficult to decide what is more troublesome;  the ease with which this family of actors blended in with the Jenny Jones panel, or the immediate harsh judgement from the studio audience (and no doubt the viewers at home, as well).  How many of these people supposedly plucked from real- life situations are actors?  How can the audience for this type of programming be able to sort through the values and responsibilities for these people so quickly, and so assuredly, especially now that some of these guests have been exposed as actors, essentially as frauds?  Daytime programming must at least be understood with a skeptical eye, as they do not share the burden of reporting the truth, as, say, the news, even though they share many of the same production values and visual characteristics.  The same quality that lends the evening news a patina of sobriety and esteem also glosses over the lesser hours of programming, such as Jenny Jones.

Soap operas and talk shows have always been taken less seriously than other genres because they are viewed as “women’s” shows, exploring “feminine” themes such as emotional and personal relationships.  Created with oversimplified characters, these shows allow the audience member to take a firm stand on the judgement of those trotted out on the TV screen.  Artists like Kalup Linzy have used these expectations to challenge the stereotypes created by daytime television.  His popular series, “Conversations wit de Churren”, modeled after the popular daytime soap, “All My Children”, features Mr. Linzy playing an entire cast of characters, each exaggerated to the point of incredulity.  Shot on video with very low production values, he uses these clearly staged scenarios to dress up as different characters, exploring different social roles.  In Part II, he is dressed as a young woman, at home watching daytime television.  He receives a phone call letting him/ her that her boyfriend has just been murdered.  She is shocked, but quickly recovers, ready to abandon her children and resume partying with her friends.  In Part III, Kalup Linzy is dressed as an old woman, a grandmother giving advice to her granddaughter on the phone, another screen of Linzy dressed as  Taiwan, a young woman caught up in the melodrama of a relationship.  Her boyfriend has proposed marriage to her, but she is unsure whether she should accept because others in her community have expressed that he is only proposing because he is covering up the fact that he is gay.  Unsure of what to do, Taiwan calls her grandmother, who just wants to get back to “watching her stories”: the drama unfolding on soap operas.

Kalup Linzy follows a long tradition of exploring facets of  one’s identity through video and television.   Once video equipment became more accessible, the power of broadcasting and television became democratized rather quickly, without really compromising its authority.  This new access to broadcasting led to the creation of identity video, a branch of video art devoted to a distant kind of subject, one uniformly flattened by the television screen to make anyone just as impenetrable.  Video artists have long used the so- called neutrality of the TV screen to take advantage of viewing themselves objectively, as the screen is one of the few outlets for viewing oneself exactly the same way as they are viewed by others.  Todd Wahnish struggles with the same difficulties of building identity through television as do the producers of shows such as Jenny Jones: both are carving characters out of flat expectations, filling in the background stories with predictable layers of fiction.

Mr. Linzy’s version of daytime television is an outsider’s exploration of the familiar format; Mr. Wahnish’s construction is unique- it is an insider’s investigation.  At first, it appears that no one is in on the joke here.  Everyone plays their parts straight, and, in the process, the mechanics of these productions are nakedly exposed.  This circumstance is pushed further when we, as a new audience in a new venue view the studio audience’s reaction to what has been presented to them as fact. Removed from the actual taping and unexposed to the necessary suspension of disbelief that what we are being presented is fact, we realize that the tables have been turned. The joke is now on the studio audience and those watching at home. We laugh and poke fun at the sideshow that these poor misfit guests present, only to have judgement reflected back in our direction. We have been made the circus act, the sideshow misfits have become the ringleader. Perhaps this exposé is enough to crystallize the diffusions of doubt we’ve had about television all along?

Watching the screen is the basis for social and personal perception, redefining the normal and the ideal, dismissing anything less than aspirational invisible.  Television can help but keep reigniting the old flames of unattainable standards of female beauty and youth, aspirational, yet casual, wealth, and spotless socioeconomic backgrounds.  Anything or anyone less simply must not exist, as these characters and situations are not represented in television’s reality.  Viewers are presented with these narrow stereotypes as options.  Such a firm grip on the attention of TV viewers leaves those in charge of programming a monopoly on the production and management of acceptable social options for all of those consumers out there watching.  All other forms of media follow suit, but no other source of news or culture has nearly the significance of the television.  This exclusion from the polished format of primetime television has proven the key to success with traditional daytime television.  Watching adults behave irresponsibly on elaborately staged “reality” shows and daytime talk shows and soap operas can make anyone feel better about themselves, reminding us of the old adage that if given the option, we would always choose to keep our own problems instead of anyone else’s, rejecting any option to trade situations with anyone else, no matter how bad we’ve got it.

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