Many people have guilty pleasures, and for some of us, it’s reality television. While shows like American Idol feature talented singers, others (like Big Brother) draw viewers by featuring ordinary contestants or outrageous socialites (Keeping Up With the Kardashians).
Many people on these latter shows have no groundbreaking talent, except getting into fights and spending a lot of money. TikTokers Charli and Dixie D’Amelio’s The D’Amelio Show on streaming Hulu is the latest to join this group of escapist entertainment productions.
As explored in a paper by sociologist Laura Grindstaff, the reason why we like watching these shows is because of the ordinariness of these people, or “characters.” They may act like your over-the-top family member or someone that you knew from high school.
But, these ordinary people are still special. They fall into the realm of celebrity, but they are still somewhat relatable. “The proliferating opportunities for playing oneself compete with but do not displace the more established discourses of celebrity in circulation: they offer new sites for identity construction that combine the sacred and the mundane,” Grindstaff writes. As with social media, which brought the D’Amelio sisters to fame, reality television can turn ordinary people into stars. Watching their experiences can help people see what life could be like if we were in their shoes. “Self-service television affords the opportunity for acquiring celebrity cafeteria-style: it enables ordinary people to walk in and serve themselves to celebrity status without the bother of extensive training,” Grindstaff writes. Think of Real World or Jersey Shore, or even talk shows like Jerry Springer. They offer us a glimpse into an alternate reality, in part due to morbid curiosity.
It doesn’t seem to matter that the authenticity of this form of entertainment is called into question. As the confessions of cast members of The Hills and America’s Next Top Model reveal, reality television is not just reality. Storylines are created. Producers may prod reality show contestants to say certain things about fellow contestants to create drama. Scenes may be edited to change the tenor of a conversation. Ultimately, though, that doesn’t make them any less entertaining.