The Hierarchy of Contempt, Reality TV Edition

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housewivesny-small.jpgSince April is our wacky month, I decided to venture far afield, basically into the scariest minefield of cultural contempt that I can think of: reality TV.


Why might this be scary? I guess it’s because it reveals something about me, a dirty little secret that festers, not-so-secretly really, in a lot of genre and/or geeky realms of enthusiasm: I get upset when someone disses my own special area of the cultural gutter (see some examples below), but I’m happy to pass along the diss to the things I think of as not worthy of consideration.

A few links to set the tone of the piece:

I’m borrowing the title of this piece from Peter Watts, who uses it to
try to figure out how Margaret Atwood could write science fiction but
deny that she is doing so
. Watts comes to the conclusion that SF is the only way to engage with and survive the future rushing towards us, that Atwood wants to be in on that conversation, but doesn’t want to lose her literary cred. I think Watts is fighting a side battle on behalf of his own fiction, which is a worthy goal (and I’m a huge fan). I’m aiming for a slightly different angle – namely, the notion that there’s an intersection between criticism and fandom that is an impossible tangle.

The next link to point to: this fascinating New York Times review (maybe “review”?) of the new HBO Game of Thrones series. See also the lame followup, Martin’s judicious response, and a representative post from a fan (saying as politely as possible, if I may paraphrase: “I feel your review is a direct attack on every hard-won personal and cultural advance I’ve made in my life!”). In a bizarre parallel, the same thing happened at Slate, with a remarkably inept initial review, and a followup that digs the hole deeper. The comments are worth reading as well, to get a sense of the issues that fans are wrestling with, and here’s a Slate article that actually grapples with the material (with spoilers).

With that excessive amount of context, here are my steps into the cultural gutter of reality TV.

Step 1: I don’t watch TV

This is a few years ago now, but I didn’t have a TV at all. Who watches TV anyway? Only people who haven’t read Harlan Ellison’s The Glass Teat, that’s who. In other words, idiots without the barest sort of media literacy. In addition to the literary name-dropping/ego-boosting, this phase was also convenient for handling telemarketers. No, I’m not interested in satellite TV, because – wait for it, let me blow your mind – I don’t even own a television!

Step 2: I don’t watch reality TV

Ok, so I now have a TV, but I only watch awesome shows, like Lost or The Wire. Any other shows, like old-school non-serialized SF, are crap. Especially reality TV. Who watches that garbage? Clearly they’re idiots without a life of their own. Why can’t they realize that the golden age of TV (scroll down to the end) is upon us, but only if you’re watching the right stuff!

From this phase, see my 3-part look at Lost over at Strange Horizons: Seasons 1-4, 5 and 6.

housewivesny-big.jpgStep 3: I don’t watch the crappy reality TV shows

Ok, so I watch some reality TV, but only the good shows. I’m a fan of Til Debt Do Us Part, Newlywed, Nearly Dead?, and At the End of My Leash, but I would be horrified to watch even a few minutes of Bulging Brides, X-Weighted, or, most deadly of all, any of the Real Housewives (whether that’s OC, Atlanta, Beverly Hills, DC, Miami, New Jersey, or New York!).

A few issues arise from all this:

To write about, say the Real Housewives series, what is the appropriate level of knowledge and/or personal commitment? Clearly a review like the initial Slate piece on Game of Thrones is worthless, since so much time is wasted on basic dislike for the genre under discussion. Part of the pleasure of genre is seeking out and savouring the
variations on familiar tropes, i.e. seeing what developments a new and
exciting writer will make, set against the relevant history. A good reviewer will see this, and be able to point out some fairly interesting material, with or without stepping outside of the genre box itself.

But as turnabout is fair play, can I still say that Real Housewives and its ilk are garbage of the lowest order? In fact, probably symptoms of social and psychosexual derangement, and additionally commit body, mind, and soul to the consumeristic shallowness as described in Douglas Rushkoff’s Life Inc.? I guess those aren’t really questions, are they? And I’m basing this purely on exposure to commercials/previews and about half a full episode of one show in the series.

I guess the corner I’ve argued myself into looks like this: if something is called a “review”, and you title it  “Prepare thyself for quasi-medieval dragon-ridden fantasy crap” (see Slate piece above), you might want to prepare yourself instead for some backlash. But the urge to draw a line in the sand, an urge driven by the strange and compulsive human trait known as taste, is too strong, and really, why should anyone hold back? I know that I really should just say, “I’m not the ideal and/or target audience for Real Housewives, and it has struck enough of a chord with viewers to engender seven separate shows, so good on them.” But I can’t! I happened to be reading Life Inc. at the same time as I saw the horrifying half an episode, and I found the show to be dangerous and late-decadent and an attack on every feminist and humanist ideal of how to become a fulfilled person that I know of.

I’m fully aware that I’m sounding like those cranks who talk about the dangers of fantasy (this is something that happens in SF circles, oddly enough). Man, does my brain ever fade out quickly when I run into one of those rants. That’s the thing though – those rants don’t pretend to be reviews. I can just skip over it, and I don’t need to be offended that my personal favourite bit of geekdom has been done a mortal wrong.

So: reviewers, step up your game (I will now shut up about Real Housewives!); everybody else, just let the contempt slide away when someone is blathering on about a matter of taste. They probably can’t help it!

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