Raunchy reality TV as a social norm has become wildly acceptable in recent years. If one was to judge the context of our reality TV, it could be safe to assume that America is full of idiotic individuals with no regard for real world issues that booze, fist pump and cat fight their ways through everyday life. This new acceptable culture has been embraced open armed and currently reflects the negative side of America’s taste culture. “A comparative analysis of high and popular culture must begin not with personal judgments about their quality but with a perspective that sees each of them as existing because they satisfy the needs and wishes of some people even if they dissatisfy those of other people” (Gans, 1999). I believe that while shows such as MTV’s Jersey Shore, and Oxygen’s Bad Girls Club will never be considered high culture or part of a proper taste culture, the percentage of individuals that embrace these shows dictate that they have made their mark in popular culture and are existent because of popular demand.
LETS DEFINE CULTURE, HIGH CULTURE AND POP CULTURE….
Despite the advanced sociological thinking that has been developed over time, there is still a struggle to agree upon a definition of culture. Gans (1999) states that his definition encompasses only the practices, goods, and ideas classified broadly under the arts, whether used for education and aesthetic and spiritual enlightenment or for entertainment and diversion. In addition culture includes symbolic products used mainly for leisure or nonsubsistence consumption, for example furnishings, clothes, appliances, automobiles and boats. Information defines culture as well, as does the values-be it may political, social, or aesthetic.
Many different things can define high culture. Gans (1999) claims the people who participate in high culture are usually extremely educated people of the upper and upper-middle class status who are mainly in academic and professional occupations. They also include “serious” writers, artists, and the like. Its people are interested in art, and society and prides itself that their culture’s products are not intended for distribution to the mass media. They attend theater shows and read materials such as Time, Newsweek and Psychology Today.
In contrast pop culture is defined by the complete opposite variables. It is widely associated with the middle and lower middle working class whose inhabitants are in professions such as teaching and accountancy. The older generation of this class usually only have high school diploma’s while the younger generation has attended and graduated from college. It reads magazines such as Reader’s Digest and Cosmopolitan. Gans claims that “the lower-middle public reads novels and views films and television dramas that deal with fictional versions of recent world events and fictionalized biographies of important public figures and celebrities.” (Gans, 1999, pg 112) This class is less interested in how society works and is heavily influenced by the mass media which permeates the everyday life of many people.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO THEIR VIEWS ON TV WATCHING
These two cultures have had very different views on television in the past that currently reflects their views on television-watching now. Geiger & Sokol conducted a study in 1956 showing the relationship between enthusiasm for television watching and social class. Results indicated “that 54% of the respondents in homes where rent was less than $50 a month watched more than 4 hours or more where only 23% watch that much when the rent is $110 and more” (Geiger & Sokol, 1959). In other words, the lower your class, the more TV you watched. Many other conclusions came about from this research. Geiger & Sokol concluded that the higher the education, the more you were likely to have an active and creative recreational life. In addition, when participants were asked, “What kinds of people would you say like TV most?” the responses were all similar. Many responded the ‘poor class’, or the ‘average working person’. The middle class went as far to say that television watching was considered a taboo in their culture.
It can be assumed that “television watching at this time period is defined as a matter of taste rather than morals” (Geiger & Sokol, 1959, pg 177). Although it’s hard to assume that the individuals that responded to this research were in the higher culture spectrum, it is safe to say that TV from a historical standpoint has always been immensely associated with a pop culture crowd.
A QUICK TIMELINE ON REALITY TV
Before I can proceed to say how much reality TV has shaped America’s society currently, I must give a little background knowledge of this media frenzy. Not to long ago, reality TV was an obscure idea. By obscure, I mean it was existent, but not as vulgar or uncensored as it is today. Alan Funt, with his 1948 TV series Candid Camera is often credited as reality TV’s first practitioner. Perhaps ahead of its time was An American Family on PBS in 1973. It was unusual in its focus on a seemingly mundane family named the Louds, who harbored sensational secrets. This series pushed the documentary genre beyond its traditional bounds (cite website here). The first recognizable wave of reality-based series soon emerged. Unsolved Mysteries premiered in 1987, America’s Most Wanted in 1988, and both Rescue 911 and Cops in 1989. America’s Funniest Home Videos added a homemade variation in 1990. In just four years, with four distinct variations on the reality theme, the genre had become a staple of the broadcast schedules. Skip to 1992 when MTV’ The Real World emerged and reality TV would never be considered the same ever again. The Real World staged an environment in which “reality” could occur. By reality, it meant that the lives of 7 young individuals were to filmed while all living together, doing exactly what people their ages did. The Real World married all the forms of its precedential reality TV that paved a way for them to create reality TV, as we know it now. Along with that, it created an audience that felt it’s content was relatable to their everyday lives.
HOW DOES THE REALITY TELEVISION REFLECT AMERICA’S TASTE CULTURE?
Herbert Gans has defined some criteria for what a good or desirable taste culture is. Gans guidelines are as follows:
“First off, it must respond to and express demands of its users, offering cultural content that provides the aesthetic satisfaction, information, entertainment, and so forth, which they want or this is good” (Gans, 1999, pg 164). In my opinion, reality TV shows do exactly this. Lately, there is a topic for everything. From teen pregnancies, the lives of mob wives and daughters, and to how to party like a Guido. The truth is, people enjoy watching this sort of thing. They thrive off of the drama that the show stirs, and they thrive off of feeling as if they can relate to the main characters. Spin-off reality TV shows have responded to the demands that regular reality TV shows have created. People enjoy following storylines that they have seen from when it was first born. As for information, reality TV can provide a certain amount of informative content. Moreover, it brings to life the content and personalizes it.
“Second, a desirable taste culture must offer material and other rewards to creators; they must have incentive to contribute to a culture, the feeling that their contribution meets their own needs as creators, and the knowledge that their users will want, or will at least accept, their creative work” (Gans, 1999, pg 164). With this criteria in mind, I don’t believe that reality TV caters to this aspect of taste culture whatsoever. Other than contributing entertainment, it offers very little other than that. It does offer a feeling of jealousy to know that regular individuals can get famous and pretty wealthy for being talentless and doing ridiculous things such as having unprotected sex, getting alcohol poisoning, and getting punched in the face.
“Third, a good taste culture must not be so socially or psychologically harmful; it should not hurt its users, creators, or the rest of society” (Gans, 1999, pg 165). Reality TV does hurt society if you happen to be that type of individual who is influenced by unrealistic situations such as the ones portrayed on reality TV. The content of reality TV is realistic meaning the topics: such as teen pregnancies and people loosing large amounts of weight. However, the actions that some of the characters engage in in these reality TV shows are extremely unrealistic. A perfect example would be Oxygen’s Bad Girls Club. Weekly vicious catfights at clubs and bars are commonplace within this series. Members of society are being physically hurt. Perhaps, even more daunting is the acceptance that aggression and violence are a solution to every problem. Instead of promoting this within a society as an answer to an issue, reality TV should portray the aftermath.
MY OWN PERSONAL RESEARCH OF THE AFFECTS OF REALITY TV ON CULTURE AND TASTE.
To prove my point that raunchy reality TV has shaped America’s society and culture, I conducted my own personal survey on St Joseph’s College students to see their opinions of reality TV. The greater majority admitted to watching reality TV. The shows included: any of the Kardashian installments, The Biggest Loser, The Real Housewives of NY and Atlanta, Extreme Home Makeover, Jersey Shore, American Idol and The Real World. When asked questions such as “what draws you to watch these shows?” people responded with answers such a they found reality TV shows to be entertaining, realistic and having interesting content. In addition, many felt as if it offers solutions to common problems because of relatable story lines. A great majority mentioned they watched reality TV for the drama that was in the scenes.
I concluded the survey with the question asking, “Do you believe that America’s youth is being shaped by characters on reality TV shows and do you consider it to be acceptable?” Every single person who took the survey believes that yes, America’s youth is being shaped by characters on reality TV. Some specific examples that were given were the language and terminology that is being used or how much more violent they seem. Another survey stated that they have heard children say they aspire to be like reality TV characters such as Snooki and The Situation.
From conducting this short survey, it seems as if reality TV is not considered a good taste culture even though it is pop culture. There were more negative implications than positive and most agreed that it was more harmful to society than beneficial.
SO WHY IS ACCEPTABLE?
As Gans stated when analyzing high and pop culture and how it reflects America’s taste culture, you must not personally judge it. Clearly, I did the opposite of the latter, however one must see it with a perspective that it exists because it satisfies the needs and wishes of some people even if it dissatisfies those of other people. For all that one can say, reality TV does provide a source of entertainment for many individuals. Just as the Geiger & Sokol study indicated, watching reality TV is cheap, and has other benefits such as it is relatable. Many believe that reality TV is harmful to our youth thus harmful to society. According to what Gans considers an acceptable taste culture, this implication is correct. However, it satisfies a great majority of individuals and is popular enough for America’s individuals to embrace and it become a cultural phenomenon. Reality TV is here to stay, and that make it, by definition, make it a part of pop culture.
Gans, H. (1999) Popular culture and high culture: An analysis and evaluation of taste.
New York, NY: Basic Books
Geiger, K., Sokol, R. (1959) Social norms in television watching. The American Journal
of Sociology, 65 (2) pp. 174-181
Top 10 Highest Paid Reality TV Stars. (Video file) Retrieved from
The real history of reality TV or, how Alan Funt won the Cold War.
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