From Kid Nation to Caste Nation:
That which most vividly stirs the human heart is certainly not the quiet possession of something precious but rather the imperfectly satisfied desire to have it and the continual fear of losing it again.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
On the set of Kid Nation, a group of forty kids, all between the ages of eight and fifteen, wait to be assigned jobs. Host Jonathan Karsh declares the Blue Team the new upper class of the town, and ten kids in blue jerseys, still panting from the task they just completed, jump up and down excitedly (Episode 107). Last week, having lost a key physical challenge, these kids were designated the town’s “laborer class.” As laborers on an old western movie set rehabilitated and renamed “Bonanza,” the kids' duties include carrying water, doing laundry, and (quite literally) cleaning the latrine - an outhouse that all forty kids use. Now, as the designated upper class of Bonanza, they know they will be living the high life - no assigned duties, yet higher pay - at least for a few days.
As this scene suggests, the program Kid Nation - a reality television show that leaves kids in charge of running an abandoned town in the conditions of the old west for forty days - emphasizes a severely stratified, but constantly changing, class system through careful editing and production design. Like Kid Nation, a growing number of contemporary reality television programs highlight a social class system that entails mobility - the ability to change social positions rapidly with ease - and exclusivity - the perception of having obtained privileges available to a select few. Such a contradictory paradox feeds the desire of a changing American public and offers vicarious access to a social system that privileges consumption over labor.
In September of 2007, Kid Nation premiered amid controversy and curiosity. While some parents questioned their children’s safety and an apparent lack of supervision, media critics wondered “what specific measures were taken to ensure that, for example, Roger doesn’t smash in Piggy’s head with a boulder” (Masters). As the critic’s quip suggests, the show seemed to have a Lord of the Flies air about it: forty kids tribalized into competing factions without adults or clear rules governing their behavior in an abandoned town in the middle of the New Mexico desert. CBS advertised the show as an opportunity for the kids to “build a new world…in a ghost town that died in the 19th Century” and “have the vision to build a better world than the pioneers who came before them” (CBS.com). The opening show, however, quelled any speculations of abuse, violence, or pioneering vision, featuring an environment controlled almost entirely by adults. Indeed, charges of possible abuse perhaps fell flat when, within five minutes of the opening episode, children were packed in a candy store, cramming as many sweets into their mouths and pockets as they could manage.
To be sure, Kid Nation, along with shows like My Sweet Sixteen, Laguna Beach, The Hills, and Gossip Girls, highlights an American public that appears to be obsessed not only with youth culture but also with a financially elite social class. In that sense, Kid Nation’s presentation of class - where power as a consumer marks social status, and where social positions constantly change hands - mirrors many current reality shows, including The Real Housewives of Orange County, My Super Sweet 16, Platinum Weddings, and Millionaire Matchmaker. Even shows like The Apprentice and American Idol subtly represent America as a utopian class system accessible to all. Thirty years after Robin Leach made Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous a hit, the concept of displaying caste systems via television has allowed millions of Americans to express a yearning for a privileged lifestyle vicariously through the vague, artificial promises reality television seems to offer: luxury, privilege, and mobility.
Like the reality television program I will focus on in this essay, a number of similar programs have arisen that present a class system that caters to the viewing public’s obsession with the upper class and longing for a more inclusive social system - one that offers a life of luxury and ease while retaining a sense of exclusivity, providing the illusion that all can be part of the select, privileged few. In that sense, contemporary Americans want a vicarious membership in a social club that includes everyone, but also excludes everyone - a paradox that television corporations appear happy to oblige. While much reality television entails individual competition that alludes to a level playing field (such as Survivor, where even personal possessions are stripped away so that everyone similarly begins with nothing), reality television has evolved into a medium that promotes clear division of upper and lower classes, winners and losers (such as Kid Nation, where winning and losing directly correspond to social status). Recognizing that such a presentation of class contradicts real, lived experience is important, but not fundamental to my study. In addition, the focus of this essay is not the way in which the participants of these reality shows - the kids on the show Kid Nation or the housewives on The Real Housewives of Orange County - assimilate class; rather, my argument centers on how the editing and production values of these reality shows present or portray class to a viewing public in a deceptive, paradoxical, postmodern way. What emerges from this analysis is a realization that a transformation has occurred in the way viewers of these shows think about social class. These shows don’t mirror a class system in America so much as they isolate an American culture’s obsession with what Zygmunt Bauman calls a “liquid life,” a loose social sphere free from strictly guarded borders. Increasingly, reality television caters to an American public who embraces a class system that subtly rejects them while simultaneously offering vicarious access to the status of the elite.
For the purposes of this essay, I presume a definition of “reality television” put forth by Robin Nabi, who defines the genre as any program that incorporates the following elements:
The show I most emphasize in this analysis, Kid Nation, fits such a definition. It should be noted, however, that my study is not limited to one type of reality television program in part because issues of social class are not confined in such a manner, but rather cross genre boundaries. Since Kid Nation and The Real Housewives of Orange County, for example, are such different shows, we should recognize that the class issues they deal with are presented in different ways. To argue that these shows portray class in an analogous fashion is not to say the two shows are necessarily parallel. While I do not intend to equate the actions of twelve-year-old children and forty-year-old housewives, I do believe that both shows entail plot structures that encourage viewers to assimilate class in similar ways. While I do not claim the analysis I offer in this article to be all-encompassing, I do believe that I have isolated a growing trend in reality television programming - a trend that presents a paradox of elitism, combing concepts of mobility and fluidity, emphasizing the unlimited power of the consumer. Space limitations limit the extensiveness of my study; however, the analysis I provide could quickly and fairly easily apply to a growing handful of other shows such as The Simple Life, The Anna Nicole Show, The Surreal Life, and The Swan.
According to Zygmunt Bauman, "What sets liquids apart from solids is the looseness and frailty of their bonds, not their specific gravity. One attribute that liquids possess and solids do not, an attribute that makes liquids an apt metaphor for our times, is the intrinsic inability of fluids to hold their shape for long on their own. The ‘flow,’ the defining characteristic of all liquids, means a continuous and irreversible change of mutual position of parts that (due to the faintness of intermolecular bonds) can be triggered by even the weakest of stresses" (qtd. in Gane 19).
Although Zygmunt Bauman’s metaphorical application of the physical properties of liquids to the cultural world offers an intriguing lens into the breakdown of social structures in the postmodern world, a number of contemporary theorists would dispute his theory. In his work, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (1983), for example, Baudrillard suggests that “there has never been anything but simulation of the social and the social relation” (qtd. in Gane 5). In a postmodern world, that is, class structures dissipate into second order simulacra (simulations that no longer have a referent), remaining behind only as artificial representations, the hollow artifice of a bygone era. Baudrillard’s assertion engenders significant questions regarding the ability of social theories to illuminate the social structures that define contemporary society. A similar question overshadows my project: can social theory be useful in mining the effects of reality television on the evolving American perceptions of class?
At the outset, the answer may appear to be a dubious skepticism, and linking the content of reality television shows to social theory, indeed, seems problematic at best. As a number of critics have pointed out, reality television, as a medium, tends to portray life in an extremely deceptive and misleading manner, undermining its relevance to social theory. New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley, for example, wisely points out that American reality television paints an incomplete picture: “Half the nation is blond, beautiful and driving sports cars through Beverly Hills, while the other half is blond, sleazily oversexed and prone to hair pulling and name calling.” Hollywood does not hold a mirror onto life, but rather shapes the real, often shaping it in a manner patently false.
The notion that Hollywood influences or shapes public perception, of course, is not a new concept. Mary Anne Schofield, in “Marketing Iron Pigs, Patriotism and Peace” points out that during World War Two, Bing Crosby used various media to sell a particular sense of the American dream, “a sense of community . . . and a David-and-Goliath version of America versus the Fascist Evil” (871).
Nevertheless, as Tarleton Gillespie points out, “In pursuing narrative resolution, television cannot help but represent real social tensions that demand resolution” (37). In that respect, reality television too cannot help but present social issues that are real. In Survivor, Jennifer Dislisle points out that “in the process of simulating being marooned, they produce the real symptoms of hunger, fatigue, and anxiety” (44). An authenticity does exist here, if not entirely in the subject, in an arguably more genuine state in the audience, whose (sometimes flawed) perceptions drive the reality television industry forward. In order to succeed, reality television programs must feed the desires of that viewing public. Television corporations must present issues that strike at the hearts of those who would watch. In the fluid world of television, financial success only comes from ratings success; change in television programming signals a corresponding change in the American public. The significance, then, of the principal argument of this essay - that representations of class systems on television have changed fairly dramatically since the advent of reality television - points to evolving American perceptions.
Therefore, if the American viewing public has transformed its understanding of the formation and relevance of social class in contemporary life, the question of when this transformation occurred and what caused it remains. Since the causes are likely to be numerous and complex, undoubtedly having taken place over the span of decades, a more in-depth study able to devote more space to such an issue certainly needs to be undertaken. Nevertheless, while the central argument in this article is not attempting to delineate an overarching social change in America, it seems clear that an era of cell phones, wireless technology, blogging and MySpace has altered many American’s perception of their relationship to a larger social mechanism. While blogging habits create social networks that exist anonymously and serve to increase the individual’s sense of autonomy, networking sites like MySpace and Facebook foster a culture of rapidly changing social relationships and group identifications that more easily cross traditional class boundaries. In addition, a number of dramatic political and economic changes have occurred over the past decades that appear to have fundamentally changed the way Americans perceive their place in the world: 9/11 has displaced the moon landing as the central moment of a generation, suburban sprawl has increased at an exponential rate, and roughly 25% of Americans now have never lived in a world with a unified Soviet Union, to name a few. If, in 1957, Americans looked up at Sputnik, the world's first man-made satellite to orbit the earth, and saw their place in the universe shrink to an disconcertingly small size, the current age of constant internet access and 24 hour news broadcasts have appeared to provide individuals with the impression that every aspect of that world is accessible to them - even, it seems, previously elusive social classes.
It would be foolish to deny that Hollywood has played a part in this transformation. Indeed, media participates in the construction of culture even as it simultaneously serves as a response to cultural change. My analysis thus operates on an assumption that a fairly complex relationship does, in fact, exist between reality television and real issues of class and elitism and that there are meaningful ways to use reality television as a window into American fears, desires, and needs. In particular, my analysis of reality television aims to make more visible the paradigmatic changes of contemporary Americans, where concepts of elitism and affluence have merged to such an extent that words like class and wealth have become nearly synonymous in contemporary society.
Zygmunt Bauman’s theory of “liquid modernity,” and his understanding of the fluid, mobile nature of the modern world, can help unearth these evolving perceptions of social class in America. In his book of the same name, Zygmunt Bauman uses the term to describe contemporary life. Bauman argues that the properties of “liquid” or “fluid” - its looseness, malleability, and constant states of transformation - provides the best “metaphor for the present-day state of modernity” (qtd. in Gane 19). To further explain, Bauman uses the traditional, and most basic, social experiment of rats in a maze “in search of a piece of lard,” a situation seemingly analogous to a human social world, with its hard-and-fast, firmly fixed division of labor, career tracks, class distinctions, power hierarchies, marriages bound to last ‘till death do us part, etc. . . What, however, if the maze were made of partitions on castors, if the walls changed their position as fast, perhaps faster yet than the rats could scurry in search of food, and if the tasty rewards were moved as well, and quickly, and if the targets of the search tended to lose their attraction well before the rats could reach them, while other, similarly short-lived allurements diverted their attention and drew away their desire? (21).
Bauman’s metaphor of “liquid” or “fluid” as representative of contemporary life, thus has far-reaching consequences in the social sphere: a rise in individualism and a freedom from social “bonds,” but also an increased inability to connect meaningfully with others and a need to constantly adapt or transform according to environment. This last feature - the ability to become socially malleable and fit into multiple social situations - becomes perhaps the most valued commodity in a state of “liquidity.” In a dramatic restructuring of traditional class boundaries, Bauman also posits that we no longer operate within a hierarchical game, where we continually seek to move up a social ladder, but rather within a series of lateral movements in a maze with moving walls in a constantly changing social system. “Bonds are easily entered,” Bauman explains, “but even easier to abandon” (qtd. in Gane 20). In addition, Bauman refers to human bonds as containing an “ad hoc modality” (19, emphasis in Gane), stressing the impromptu and temporary nature of social relationships in the modern era.
What my analysis shows is not necessarily that social class in America is in a state of liquidity, as Bauman suggests. Rather, reality television visibly demonstrates an American public who not only perceives contemporary class structures as having fluidic qualities, but who also yearns, whether consciously or subconsciously, for such a state.
The hierarchical aspect of Kid Nation was emphasized as early as the premiere episode, when host Jonathan Karsh quickly divided the kids into four teams (represented by jerseys colored green, blue, red, and yellow) that would compete in order to see who would become the town’s elite - the “upper class” - while the remaining groups would be assigned one of three other designations: the “merchant class,” the “cooks' class,” and the “laborer class” (Episode 101).
The gambit of division in reality television - an old one by now made famous perhaps by Survivor’s original choice to pit two “tribes” against each other - has become routine, now featured in shows like The Apprentice and Top Chef in order to exacerbate competition. Kid Nation departs from prior use of this device in using a caste system as the primary criteria for division. The children are in charge of running the town, and each child is given a “job” - assigned a task deemed necessary to ensure the town’s survival. The quality of the job assigned and the “pay” received (kids are paid with wooden “nickels” that allow them to buy items from the town’s various stores) directly correspond to class status. The losers are given worse jobs and receive little to no payment, while the winners are not required to perform any tasks and receive ten times the salary.
Boston Globe critic Ellen Goodman observed this classism from the outset, noting that the producers created a show focusing on “competition, class, and consumerism,” calling it “a scenario Karl Marx couldn't have made up,” and slyly adding that “the producers did everything but deny the lower-income children their health coverage.” The Marxist conception of class, which uses a criterion of labor and wealth to differentiate between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, is certainly present here, as is a notion of labor as a commodity that can be bought and sold. It should be noted, however, that, rather than critiquing it, Kid Nation largely champions a capitalist mode of production. Class designations directly connect to a sports-like rhetoric of success and failure. A “laborer” in the town of Bonanza has failed and, thereby, is provided a group association fundamentally marked as “losers” - a designation rendered both economic (via wooden nickels) and social (via jobs and social groupings), quickly identifiable by a uniquely colored jersey. In contrast, to produce nothing, to do no job, and contribute nothing to the community constitutes success and characterizes a cultural winner on the show. In America, a show like Kid Nation seems to suggest, the ultimate winners in society offer no other contribution to the economy than that of the consumer or purchaser.
This is the cultural system that reality television presents the American public - one in which power resides solely in the potency of consumption. Indeed, while the post-Survivor era of reality television often featured shows guided by physical challenges, a great many reality television programs today revolve instead around the consumption and leisure privileges of the upper class. Shows like The Real Housewives of Orange County, Platinum Weddings, My Sweet Sixteen, and Extreme Makeover are all organized around plot structures that highlight extraordinary consumption choices: weddings that none but the most extravagant can afford, elaborate parties with famous guests, and decisions to pay thousands of dollars for breast augmentation. On these shows, like on Kid Nation, viewers are taught that social success equates not to production but to consumption, and social privilege appears to depend on winning an economic game often mysteriously absent from the programs. In The Apprentice, like Kid Nation, winners of the challenge get a reward - invariably one that allows the participants (and television viewers) a glimpse of the social result of economic winning, the extreme consumer-driven privileges it affords: a tour of Trump’s extravagant apartment or dinner at the most expensive restaurant in town. The reason to work, then, is to gain access to this consumer elite and thus have unlimited purchasing power.
In part, the fairly extreme form of classism in shows like Kid Nation is a consequence of the use of a divisive rhetoric, as well as the language of the old West. Social structures on the show become a game of winners and losers, entailing a semi-permanent conquest for power, partially because the show is framed as such through physical challenges, as well as the kids’ neverending quest to get one of the $25,000 gold stars awarded at the end of each episode. Mark Andrejevic points out that reality television shows modernize old or ancient myths in order to exacerbate power relationships within the show: “rather than freedom from the domination of power/knowledge, in the post-metaphysical era we are subjected to/by the return of pre-modern forms of domination and their associated mythologies.” In the case of Survivor, Andrejevic argues that this entails “new age versions of paganism and tribalism.” In Kid Nation, a similar implied argument within the show seems to suggest that participants and viewers alike should accept the hierarchical caste system in the program because the paradigm has always operated this way. Instead of the tribalism of Survivior, Kid Nation uses the rhetoric of the old West to imply a return to a more utopian values system. In her analysis of the colonialist tendencies of Survivor, Jennifer Delisle similarly argues that the show simulates a “narrative of alternative travel” that reconstructs the space of the other - a space where “colonial moment is figured not as one of violence and conquest, but of adventure, excitement, and a communion with nature” (45).
Kid Nation similarly offers a simulacrum of the old West that romanticizes a historical moment, and it is tempting to read Kid Nation in a manner similar to that of Delisle or Andrejevic. The set on which CBS producers re-created the American West was, after all, defined as a summer camp and renamed Bonanza after the popular, long running, adventure series. To be sure, Kid Nation reinforces a perception of the American West driven not only by fun-loving television serials like Bonanza and Gunsmoke, but also westerns like the John Wayne films of the 1950s and the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s. The movie set-turned-old-western-town setting of Kid Nation offers a visual image clearly designed to evoke nostalgia. In addition, episodes are marked by references to the fictional town’s past; the kids read from a Pioneer Journal that tells of the adventures, trials, and tribulations of the “original inhabitants,” stories marked with advice and directions for the children. Concepts of manifest destiny are similarly reinforced in a show with episodes that feature tranquil visits to Indian pueblos and treasure hunts.
Ultimately, however, Kid Nation offers much more than a romanticized notion of western values as a foil for contemporary America. The show additionally reconfigures this romanticized past within a postmodern American values system, complete with a class system based not on more traditional notions of nobility and gentility, but instead on contemporary ideas of economic competition and social mobility. Kids on Kid Nation, after all, get a chance to improve their station in the town’s hierarchy every three days, when a new physical challenge occurs. In this way, every episode features a re-shuffling of the social deck. Instead of rats negotiating a social maze, these kids find themselves riding a social merry-go-round often appearing to enable them to get on and off at their whim.
This concept of social mobility is also featured in the town’s electoral system. The pinnacle of Bonanza’s social pyramid is, arguably, the council, whose members (one for each of the four teams) are allowed total freedom, given the ability to go anywhere and help in any task, provided the power to command all citizens through rules, allowances and prohibitions. Most favored privileges of the town (decision making, rewards, prohibitions) lie here, in the sought after council seats. While these seats do not change as rapidly as the class designation, the tenuous nature of these coveted positions is emphasized early in the series, when, in episode three, Karsh informs the citizens of Bonanza that the council elections will take place. Three of four seats change hands, and the most heated occurs when a kid says, “Maybe it's time for someone else to have a turn.” In a moment that smacks of artificiality, the new council member of the yellow team, a ten-year-old named Zach, stands on the stage, pumps his fist into the air at the end of episode three, and shouts, “Viva La Revolucion!” (Episode 103).
This ultimate lesson in childhood - the idea that everyone should share and everyone should get a turn - becomes a core aspect of social systems as portrayed on reality television. As revolutions in miniature begin to arise regularly and occur rapidly, reality television displays a caste system that pairs a sense of exclusivity with the impression of fluidity; an upper class that appears to change regularly provides the illusion that the individual has a better chance to achieve upper class status (you, too, can have a turn). In perhaps the most interesting example of this tendency for reality television to imply that social structures in contemporary America offer exclusivity as well as mobility, Taddeo and Dvorak’s analysis of the PBS House series revealed that participants were largely unable to participate in class systems that did not allow for such mobility. For example, in Manor House, set in Edwardian era Scotland, younger members were unable to accept what seemed a shockingly rigid hierarchy. Taddeo and Dvorak note that the staff lost several members after a few days and had to relax the social rules of the house.
Taddeo and Dvorak’s analysis aptly demonstrates the way in which individual participants in reality television shows “cannot leave behind their 21st century mindset” (18). I would argue that the rigidity of Manor House conflicted with the participant’s social paradigm - one in which class hierarchies appear to be more mobile and fluid, rather than a system in which, as was the case on Manor House, servants and members of the bourgeoisie are physically separated as well as psychologically. Other members of Manor House, those who enjoyed the privileges of the Edwardian era aristocracy, dreaded returning to a twenty-first century life, where the rewards and exclusivity were not as apparent. Anna, a doctor in real life, acknowledge that, on the show, her duty was “to be a dressed up like a doll” and admitted that “[i]t was an extremely pleasing experience” (20). While not everyone on the show exhibited the same response as Anna, the way contestants react to twentieth and twenty-first century social class systems reflects, I believe, a continued yearning for a class system that is both mobile and exclusive.
Key to the social system these reality shows offer, then, is its sense of mobility - the idea that these extravagant consumer privileges can be bestowed on any of the contestants, and are, therefore, achievable by the viewer. The contestant, or participant, on the reality show is, after all, a representative of the viewing public: “It is real, meaning it happened in your world, in places not unlike those you frequent” (Gillespie 40). Indeed, on The Apprentice, the winner of the first series seemingly gained access to Trump’s lifestyle and was even seen as a member of Trump’s entourage (as a judge) on subsequent series. Just as in Kid Nation, everyone gets a turn at being “upper class,” so too do privileges of the elite change hands rapidly on many current reality television shows. On The Real Housewives of Orange County, new housewives appear regularly; as certain characters disappear, others quickly take their place. Similarly, Andrejevic cites an MTV series that “invites viewers to re-enact their favorite video” and “undergo make-overs to make them look like celebrities.” Andrejevic goes on to say that the show highlights the power of the symbolic order. The gap between the individual who occupies the place of celebrity and the symbolic network that creates the place itself is foregrounded: everyday people can be transformed into real celebrities thanks to the power of this network. This is certainly true in the case of Survivor, which turned several contestants into household names and eventually into celebrities in their own right.
Randall Rose and Stacy Wood, in “Paradox and the Consumption of Authenticity through Reality Television,” point out that “reality television programming has recently materialized in the national consciousness” (1). Perhaps some critics would say, rather, that reality television constitutes a metastasized cancer eating the host-body alive. Certainly, reality television has its critics. Alessandra Stanley, for example, refers to Housewives of Orange County as “silly and excruciating to watch, a menopausal minstrel show” featuring “self-indulgent middle-aged women’s race against the ravages of time and cellulite” (20). Indeed, Kid Nation is no exception to such verdicts. The financial troubles of the show were bad enough early on that Brian Steinberg, in Advertising Age, declared it an “advertiser ghost town,” noting that “[h]alf of CBS's top 10 advertisers surveyed” indicated they will not be advertising on the show. On top of such economic problems, critics gave the reality series a thrashing. USA Today said “it was like watching some other family's incredibly dull home movies,” while the Boston Globe called it “as much fun as baby-sitting overtired tots who've had one too many Sweet Tart” (Gilbert)
Meanwhile, other reality television shows showcasing caste systems have been wildly successful. The substantial viewership of Housewives of Orange County, for example, has already spawned Housewives of New York, while shows like Platinum Weddings and My Sweet 16 have also been running strong, joined by similar newcomers each season. The granddaddy of them all, however, is perhaps American Idol, in which each season millions of Americans feverishly watch a select few gain access to the American utopia of fame, wealth, and recognition - now the ultimate trifecta of the elite class.
Reasons for the proliferation of reality television vary, but it seems clear that, in mass marketing wealthy consumerist lifestyles, the genre has struck a chord with the American public. Rose and Wood’s study of reality television programming and authenticity illustrates the way in which viewing preferences often link to ideology. The study, which had participants watch various reality television shows and then gauged their responses through interviews, showed that viewers tended to merge the ideological positions of the show with their own belief systems: “Calvin’s preference for The Mole over Survivor can be explained in part by the ability of the program to facilitate, reinforce, and signify his important life goals and experiences” (1-8). In the study, Rose and Wood notice that another participant “begins a process of defining herself through social comparison” and “begins to identify with some players . . . and to contrast herself with others” (10).
If, then, reality television succeeds, at least in part, by exhibiting a paradigmatic framework that viewers can readily identify with and/or embrace in some way, then the current trend in reality programming says much about America’s need for an elitism that manages to include them. To some extent, merely watching the show regularly can be seen as vicarious participation in the system. Sociology calls this concept “internalization.” Seidman defines it as a process in which “cultural meanings become part of the self” (75), incorporating perceived social values into one’s self-identification. Andrejevic argues a similar point, saying, “An acceptance of [Survivor’s] view of human nature” entails an acceptance of the symbolic order. Even more so, I would argue, rather than mere acceptance of the paradigmatic class system, programs like The Real Housewives of Orange County encourage viewers to desire or yearn for the hierarchy. Partially because the system seems to potentially include them, it encourages participation.
Just as the marker for class status in contemporary society is one’s power as a consumer, reality television shows like The Real Housewives of Orange County encourage viewers to embrace this paradigm by exhibiting their own power to consume. Zygmunt Bauman takes this fact into account in his social theory, pointing out the way in which a liquid world necessitates consumption. Seidman summarizes Bauman’s point nicely:
In addition, television corporations reinforce this internalization by systematically encouraging viewers to become part of the show. On the webpage for The Real Housewives of Orange County, featured links invite visitors to identify with the rich cast. The “Which Housewife Are You?” reader quiz begins by asking, “Think you would fit in with the ladies of luxury?” and then asks a series of questions to help them “find out which O.C. mom you’re most like” (cbs.com). Similarly, a “Dress Like the Housewives” link invites fans of the show to “get the O.C. look . . . anywhere” (cbs.com). There, viewers are able to buy clothing, jewelry, purses, and other items they saw their favorite housewife wearing. Even Kid Nation created a special website - shopkidnation.com - for fans who want to wear a “Bonanza City” t-shirt, fittingly bearing the same colors as the competing teams (blue, green, red, and yellow). Just as Survivor encouraged viewers to identify with the participants and take part in the culture of the program by buying bandanas, these new reality television shows use consumption to encourage a similar association with the consumerist lifestyles the shows promote.
In this sense, consumer behavior and concepts of elitism coexist as a neat reciprocration, providing the viewer with the illusion that they are included. Our clothing and our consumption choices constitute a core part of our identity, a realization that reality television can use to influence viewers and participants alike. Katie Egging points out, for example, that the reality show Brat Camp - a show in which troubled teens are taught lessons to curb their delinquent tendencies - utilizes this very concept. Participants of the show are “stripped of their individual clothing, makeup, and jewelry, and all are forced to wear the same red jumpsuits, stocking hats, boots, and heavy coats” (60). Egging notes that the teenagers’ clothes “signal their personalities” - without them, their identities are likewise stripped away: “nothing distinguishes one camper from another, and no one has a specific rank or status” (60). What’s important to note here is the way contemporary society uses methods of consumption (in this case, purchasing and wearing the right clothes) to signify not only identity, but also community. Whether it is a t-shirt from an individual’s favorite sports team or leather jacket worn by a favorite television housewife, consumption implies membership and represents an attempt to redefine the self by identifying with the group.
In the case of reality television shows like The Real Housewives of Orange County, these vicarious attempts to connect personal identity to communal identity via consumption - by watching a television show, purchasing a signifying object, or both - entails a movement through preconceived class boundaries. Hence, the merry-go-round of social class in a postmodern era comes full circle.
A 1978 essay, titled “Television Viewing and the Perception of Affluence,” suggests that “[t]he perception of affluence may heighten a sense of relative deprivation and diminish identification with and loyalty to the existing order” (Fox and Philliber 104). To be sure, the landscape of class and affluence on television has changed dramatically, so much so that the opposite now seems more accurate: rather than diminishing loyalty and identification, rather than heighten a sense of deprivation, current reality television programming appears to heighten desires for communal identification, and encourages participation and (vicarious) membership in the wealthy class through consumption.
This sense of participation and identification through active viewing/gazing becomes further proliferated through the vast popularization of web technology. Brooke Knight’s examination of webcams (2000) makes this point well, arguing that, “[a]s the media move from paparazzi and the stalking of celebrities to ‘reality’ television, such as Big Brother and Survivor, the Web allows us the most secret of viewing experiences - ordinary people sleeping, taking baths, making love” (23).
And it is not just reality television. This obsession with class carries over into television drama, where a number of shows, The O.C., Gossip Girl, Laguna Beach, and The Hills, for example, similarly highlight the consumption power, exclusivity, and mobility of the postmodern upper class. Like The Real Housewives of Orange County, some of these shows use consumer opportunities to “sell” (literally and figuratively) the lifestyle of the elite to viewers. Others, like The O.C., create plots that revolve around diamond-in-the-rough lower class kids gaining access to the elite class. Allessandra Stanley points out that “[t]here is no fresh prince shaking up Bel Air,” arguing that “the classes don’t collide on reality television” and pointing to The Hills, where “there is no other side of the track,” as evidence. Ultimately, the representation of class that reality television offers is not only deceptive, artificial, and inherently false, but it is a representation that ultimately may be very dangerous.
Andrejevic, Mark. “The Uncanny Fetish: Reality TV, Ideology, and the Savvy Audience.” 2003 Philosophy Communication Division Conference.
CBS. “40 children, 40 days, no adults. Can they do it? Can they build a better world than grown-ups?” 12 April 2008.
Delisle, Jennifer Bowering. “Surviving American Cultural Imperialism: Survivor and Traditions of Nineteenth-Century Colonial Fiction.” The Journal of American Culture 26.1 (2003): 42-54.
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"Episode 101: Welcome to Bonanza City, New Mexico." Kid Nation. CBS. 20 September 2007.
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