June 2001: Reality-TV
I’ve managed to miss out on reality-TV until now. In spite of all the talk in Britain about nasty Nick and flighty Mel, or, in America, about the fat, naked bastard Richard manipulating his way to desert-island victory, I have somehow preserved my purity. I wouldn’t recognize Nick or Mel if I passed them in the street, or Richard if he were standing in front of me unclothed.
Ask me where the Big Brother house is, or how to reach Temptation Island, and I have no answer. I do remember the American Survivor contestant who managed to fry his own hand so that the skin peeled away until his fingers looked like burst sausages, but that’s because he got on the main evening news. Otherwise, search me. Who won? Who lost? Who cares?
The subject of reality-TV shows, however, has been impossible to avoid. Their success is the media story of the (new) century, along with the ratings triumph of the big-money game shows like Millionaire. Success on this scale insists on being examined, because it tells us things about ourselves; or ought to.
And what tawdry narcissism is here revealed! The television set, once so idealistic thought of as our window on the world, has become a dime-store mirror instead. Who needs images of the world’s rich otherness, when you can watch these half-familiar avatars of yourself – these half-attractive half-persons – enacting ordinary life under weird conditions? Who needs talent, when the unashamed self-display of the talentless is constantly on offer?
‘Famous’ and ‘rich’ are now the two most important concepts in Western society, and ethical questions are simply obliterated by the potency of their appeal. To be famous and rich, it’s ok – it’s actually ‘good’ – to be devious. It’s ‘good’ to be exhibitionistic. It’s ‘good’ to be bad. And what dulls the moral edge is boredom. It’s impossible to maintain a sense of outrage about people being so trivially self-serving for so long.
Oh, the dullness! Here are people becoming famous for being asleep, for keeping a fire alight, for letting a fire go out, for videotaping their clichéd thoughts, for flashing their breasts, for lounging around, for quarrelling, for bitching, for being unpopular, and (this is too interesting to happen often) for kissing! Here, in short, are people becoming famous for doing nothing much at all, but doing it where everyone can see.
Add the contestants’ exhibitionism to the viewers’ voyeurism and you get a picture of a society sickly thrall to what Saul Bellow called ‘event glamour’. Such is the glamour of these banal but brilliantly spotlit events that anything resembling a real value – modesty, decency, intelligence, humour, selflessness, you can write your own list – is rendered redundant. In this inverted ethical universe, worse is better. The show presents ‘reality’ as a prize fight, and suggests that in life, as on TV, anything goes, and the more deliciously contemptible it is, the more we’ll like it. Winning isn’t everything, as Charlie Brown once said, but losing isn’t anything.
By the end of Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith has been brainwashed. ‘He loved Big Brother’. As, now, do we.
Salman Rushdie (2003). Step Across this Line: Collected Non-Fiction 1992-2002. London: Vintage. pp. 378-380.