Shade Grown Hollywood: Why We Love and Hate Reality TV

ColumnWhere celebrity becomes conscious.

I used to watch a ton of reality TV. If a Real Housewife was bickering in the Big Apple, I was in. If beloved Tim Gunn was nattily quipping away on Project Runway, I was sitting up straighter and considering if I could really make that pant (not plural) work. My husband once suggested getting rid of our cable, and I threw myself across the box as if it was the last cupcake being featured on Cake Boss. Or DC Cupcakes. Or Cupcake Girls. And all of this was done in the dark, shades drawn, with me hissing like a rabid cat at anyone (see: disgusted husband) who tried to take my remote away.

Then, a mere few months ago, something changed. While channel surfing, I let the TV screen play for a moment on the highlights of a New Jersey Housewife’s spray tan. I glanced at the book on my nightstand. Back at the spray tan. Then back at the book. Then I actually turned off the television. J.M. Barrie wrote in Peter Pan that “Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.” Did Paris Hilton shed a hair extension when I did this? Probably not. But it did get me thinking – how could I go from super fan to cold-turkey?

Basically, it’s because none of it seems real anymore. Much of reality TV has dissolved into scripted bad behavior, (see: Bad Girls Club), fearfully large families (see: 19 Kids and Counting, Kate Plus Eight), and bridezillas, (see: Bridezillas). Reality “characters” are now hitting plot points. What happens on these shows has become bad behavior in a bubble, not real life.

One has to wonder if producers are getting sloppy or are reality TV personalities just becoming self-aware. Experts are predicting a singularity to occur when technology becomes smarter than humans. I say it’s already hit in the brain mechanics of our reality stars – they are not only self aware, they are preening towards the camera. When reality isn’t really reality, then it doesn’t really work anymore. Doesn’t quantum theory point out that in the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality? If a Kardashian shops at The Grove, does it really happen if no one watches?

It’s no secret that some regard reality TV as the bane of all existence, the downfall of culture, the “end of times” for intellectual thought. Bloggers are pondering if reality TV in fact makes us dumber. But even, the go-to for cultural elitists, regularly covers reality TV. Most of us are watching whether we admit it or not, and the trend doesn’t seem like it is turning despite much clucking of tongues (my tongue included) at the degenerative state of reality TV.

And yet, there are glimmers of redemption on the reality-ruled horizon. TLC’s The Little Couple brings us Jen Arnold and her husband, Bill Klein, newlywed little people. The Arnold-Kleins appeal on their sheer normalcy – they work, they plan, they play, all just on a shortened eye-level. Are they contributing to society on some meta level? Maybe not, but they’re not falling drunkenly headfirst into a beach. This is a plus. Then there’s Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, a show which showcases efforts to get kids and their parents to eat better. It’s hard to argue that this isn’t a good thing.

But then, who says television is really supposed to make our world a better place? And if so, who gets to decide what’s worthy of our attention? It may be a slippery slope from The Little Couple to the Jersey Shore, but both exist within the same genre. So where the line?

Ultimately, what makes reality palatable is how the reality stars use their platform. Erin Fox blogs about television at her web site, Squee TV. I asked her how she felt about the world of Snookie and Real Housewives.

Fox told me:

Reality TV can be a very positive thing if done well, and knowing that the sole purpose is really entertainment. I feel like Bethenny Frankel has become a touchstone for women who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs.  She’s a no-filter, ball-busting babe, but she just sold a low carb margarita drink for over $100 million. I’d like to sign up for that seminar. And, look at Kathy Griffin. She’s another loud mouth, button pusher but she has done amazing work for gay rights on television.

In the end, Fox’s “ball-busting babes” perhaps explain reality TV’s popularity – people watch because they see themselves, or versions of themselves they’d like to be. Or in the case of drunken, battling reality stars, what they fear becoming.

So on that point, it seems like reality TV is nothing more that our own mirror ball sending tiny reflections of our moves into every corner of our country. And while we may be critical of it, perhaps our criticism is warranted out of our own frustrations with our fears and hopes – in the end, of our own reality.

This is the latest installment in Katherine Butler’s column, Shade Grown Hollywood, where celebrity becomes conscious. “Shade grown” refers literally to shade grown coffee, a farming method that “incorporates principles of natural ecology to promote natural ecological relationships.” Shade Grown is our sustainable twist on Hollywood.

Image: crazysphinx

Katherine Butler

Katherine Butler is the Beauty Editor of EcoSalon and currently resides in Los Angeles, California.