Tuesday, March 24, 2009

why we need trash tv

Robin Givhan over at the Washington Post recently mused about the decline of quality reality TV. To qoute her words:

"The difference is in the amount of sugar, the quality of the cheese. There is reality TV in which degradation is not only assured -- see "Girls Gone Wild" -- it is expected. But on shows such as "The Amazing Race," "American Idol" and "America's Next Top Model," one can safely assume there will be no paternity testing, no toothless protagonists and no scenes during which more than 50 percent of the dialogue has to be censored. "

While some distinctions are clear obviously the caliber of conversation on Top Chef is superior to the caliber ( well hell can't even say there is conversation) on Rock of Love Bus. However, I think the shows serve to different social purposes, I think shows like Top Chef, Project Runway, and even America's Next Top Model are aspirational in the traditional sense. In these shows, we find ourselves in awe of people's talents, it appeals to a higher order of human experience and classic ideals of beauty and good taste.

Givhan's is right not all escapism is made equal, but I think both kinds are necessary. Obviously, no one aspires to be the girls of rock of love ( well hopefully not.) So why do we enjoy watching these people so much. Trash TV must serve a necessary social function. Yes, they make us feel better about themselves, but they are also an in your face celebration of classlessness. Perhaps, part of us relates to the characters we revile for the rebelling in ways we can't. Maybe, trash T.V. allows us to safely see our worst nature lived out and then flip the channel.

This maybe overthinking it, but I was a sociology major so I like to overthink everything. Often in our theory classes, we would come upon the work Bakhtin particularly his writing on the carnivalesque and the grotesque. Bakhtin found that most societies had in one form or another, a brief period of Carnival, during which political social barriers and all manners of etiquette disappeared, and celebration of the human body and it's most primal needs took over. The carnivalesque appeared throughout literature, always to the fascination of readers.

"In the carnival, as we have seen, social hierarchies of everyday life—their solemnities and pieties and etiquettes, as well as all ready-made truths—are profaned and overturned by normally suppressed voices and energies. Thus, fools become wise, kings become beggars; opposites are mingled (fact and fantasy, heaven and hell)."

"All were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age”.The carnival atmosphere holds the lower strata of life most important, as opposed to higher functions (thought, speech, soul) which were usually held dear in the signifying order. At carnival time, the unique sense of time and space causes individuals to feel they are a part of the collectivity, at which point they cease to be themselves. It is at this point that, through costume and mask, an individual exchanges bodies and is renewed. At the same time there arises a heightened awareness of one’s sensual, material, bodily unity and community."

So the Lusty and Busty babes of Rock of Love and gangsters of G's to Gents are in a sense our modern day queens and kings of Carnival. And their bodies become central to the spectacle. Bahktin often spoke of the grotesque body, a body driven by primal needs, the antithesis to the classic ideals of beauty and propriety. The plastically crafted body of the reality star is perfectly grotesque, from the lips, to the breasts, to the butts, each girl is an interchangeable display of sexual organs.

So the reality show contestants, enter a world where their bodily and sexual functions are central to the festivities. They spit, they defecate, they drink, and mostly they attempt to mate with the star of the shows.

The participants in these shows, for the most part, are taken from the lowest income groups of society. Everything from their speech to their clothing reflects their social status, in fact they will often dress in an almost costumed state to emphasize these distinctions. They are the modern underclass, the social underbelly, strippers, ex porn stars, gangsters etc. But, in the world of Rock of Love or Flavor of Love, there is no class, these women can vie for the heart of someone from the upper strata, if not in class, at least in terms of wealth. In fact, in the great equalizer of reality television, the rich are in no way distinct in class, tastes, and interests then the poor.

For the brief time of Carnival, all eyes are on the contestants, and in a way we are rooting for them. The trash reality show is the i.d. on display and often we find ourselves drawn to the rudest and crudest of the bunch, we love to hate them, but we also admire them for not staying in the proper place. But as with the case of carnival, the show comes to an end and the contestants return to the real world, the social order is restored, and the rock of love girl is serving you at Petco.

So is Trash TV a symptom of the degradation of modern society? I think not, I think it's just the modern day carnival, in it's latest manifestation.


  1. Hahahah I love this!

    Check 4th paragraph down. you got comma-happy. it makes it hard to read. And your fonts are all over teh place. just saying, in case someone important (like Bret Michaels) reads this.

  2. Yeah I don't what's going on with the type I kept trying to format it the same but it wasn't working today.