Get a Grip on Reality!

When I was twelve years old, I used my babysitting money to buy a subscription to People Magazine. That was the best day of the week – the day my new People would arrive. I’d read it cover to cover over the next few days, consuming it in small chunks to make it last longer. However, no matter who was on the cover, the first section I always flipped to was the Letters.

Even at that age, I was fascinated that someone would take the time to sit down, get out a piece of paper (yes, it was pre-email), write or type a letter, put it in an envelope, stamp it, take it to the mailbox and wait for it to appear in print, just to say something like, “I’m glad Vanessa Williams was forced to resign. I don’t want some stripper to represent me as Miss America,” or, “I think Demi Moore and Emilio Estevez are perfect together, and will probably be with each other for a lifetime.”

It just amazed me that people would put so much effort into expressing their opinions about celebrities who (a) didn’t give a fat rat’s butt about what they thought, and (b) they didn’t know at all. Not even in the slightest. Never met them, never would.

Flash forward 30 years and the landscape has changed drastically. Now, it takes virtually no effort to express an ill-informed opinion, on literally millions of outlets, and it’s much easier to become a celebrity, subject to the shrill outcries of the cackling horde.

My friend, Megumi Hosogai, was recently the subject of a makeover on What Not To Wear, and got a center stage view of the modern Colisseum. For those of us who know Megumi (which does not include you if your only exposure to her is 44 minutes of television), we know she is smart, quirky, outspoken and has a razor-sharp wit.

What she is not is a withering petunia, so after hours upon hours of host Clinton Kelly making nasty comments about her appearance, clearly for the purpose of provoking a reaction, including telling her she “looked like the woman from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” she finally retorted that he could use a little botox himself.

Cut. Print. We have the money shot! Put that one in all the promos.

Huzzah! Now the show has its controversy. Now it has its villain. Now there’s a reason for fans to go on Facebook and Twitter and dozens of blogs to post about what a horrible person Megumi is. And why would the show portray her in such a terrible light? Well, the Facebook post about her episode yielded more than 700 comments. The next closest contestant up to that point had slightly over 400. The animal rescuer had 55. Bad people make good TV, and more importantly, enraged (I mean…engaged) fans make networks and sponsors feel their money has been well spent.

Who cares if that’s a human being you’re showing? Who cares if she’s not at all the person you depict, but rather a budding fashion designer with her own line of sunglasses, something that you talked about repeatedly during the taping days (giving her good reason to consent to be on the show in the first place), but then conveniently left out any mention of, so that she could just be an over-the-hill real estate agent that you get to make fun of?

Megumi agreed to be on the show, and she’s not a dummy, so she was prepared for them to edit it any way they saw fit. What she was not prepared for was the torrent of spew that came from the show’s fans once it aired, defending “poor Clinton and Stacey” and referring to her as, “indulgent, self centered, flaky, on her own planet, a waste, psycho, craptastic, not deserving of the opportunity” and on and on. She was not prepared for people to sleuth into her personal life and post horrible things directly on her business’ Facebook Page and other places unrelated to the show. Honestly, who does that? You must be a pretty miserable person if that’s how you choose to use your free time. Jeez, try spreading a little kindness next time. Also, it might help if you knew what you were talking about.

Reality TV has been around for decades. Some would argue ever since Candid Camera, but it’s really been in the modern era of TV since Survivor premiered in 2000, and as early as 2001, audiences got an inkling that it wasn’t as real as it might proclaim, after contestant Stacey Stillman sued Mark Burnett for orchestrating her departure from the island. [And before any Internet gumshoe proclaims some giant “Aha!” in the comments section, let me reveal that at the time Survivor was filmed, Stillman was an attorney at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, LLP, where I had practiced law prior. We did not work there at the same time and have never met. So there.]

Let’s just cut to the chase – Reality TV is not real. What you’re seeing when you watch it is 100% manufactured. It’s created with a storyline and writers (who producers call “story editors” to avoid giving them health insurance under the WGA contract), and the “characters” you see when you watch the show are whatever characters the producers choose to create. If you watch a show, then go on the Internet and spew hatred at the people who are on it (as opposed to the hosts or the producers, who do have control over how everyone is portrayed), you’re kind of an idiot.

I watch two reality shows, Top Chef and Project Runway, and have, at times, been inspired to go on their websites and make a comment, but my comments are always aimed at the judges or the producers. In fact, this year, on the Project Runway blog, I suggested they change the name of the show to “Project Bully,” since the producers were clearly eliminating talented contestants in order to keep the less mentally-stable around.

That said, I would never think of attacking the contestants who came across as bullies on the show, because I know that they are being pushed to limits that most of us cannot comprehend, in a remarkably stressful environment, with extremely high stakes, on very little sleep, and that if someone followed me around with a camera for four days and then cut all of the footage into an 8-minute segment, they could create whatever person they wanted.

Still don’t buy it, or think it must be real on some level? Watch Reality TV producing in action.

Here’s the reality of my very boring Saturday:

Over lunch with my husband, we discussed the government shutdown and Congress and I said, “They’re all worthless, and you can’t trust any of them.” Later, the tree pruners came to cut the top of our orange tree, and after my husband spoke with them, I asked, “Did you tell them they could keep the oranges?” There were hundreds of ripe oranges and we very much wanted the crew to take them. My husband assumed they would know that, so didn’t think it needed to be said.

When I looked out and saw the men struggling to carry oranges to their truck, I grabbed a couple of grocery bags for them and ran out the front door. I said, “Excuse me!” and the looks on their faces when they turned around made it clear that they were terrified that they weren’t supposed to take the oranges. I felt awful, so quickly gave them the bags.

As I turned to go back in the house, my 90-pound German Shepherd came out through the back gate (the men hadn’t latched it all the way, thus giving Houdini-hound the opening she needed), and started to bark at them, scaring them further. She’s fully trained, so with one command she stopped barking and went back into the yard, and I apologized to the crew, feeling even worse. They left happy.

Later that night, we went out to dinner with friends and somehow the topic of The Dream Act came up (something I strongly support), and I started a sentence with the phrase, “If you come to this country…”

So here’s what the segment might look like on The Real Housewives of Happinessville:

Husband and Wife discuss tree pruners. Angle on: Wife as she asks Husband if he told them they could keep the oranges from the tree. Angle on: Husband (so you can’t see her face) and splice in her audio from conversation two days ago about giving his business partner their theater tickets. Wife says, “Why would you do that? Those are for us.” Cut to: Pruners taking the oranges. Cut to: Wife running out front door, saying, “Excuse me!” Angle on: Pruners. Splice in audio from Wife’s conversation with a friend last week about the friend not paying her rent. Wife squawks, “You’re stealing!” Cut to: Dog charging out of yard and barking at Pruners. Cut to: Pruners in truck pulling out and driving down street. Add sound effect to make it seem like they sped off, running for their lives. Cut to: Wife, at lunch, telling husband, “They’re all worthless, and you can’t trust any of them.” Montage: a bunch of random shots of Husband and Wife getting ready for dinner. Make them look self-centered and aloof. Cut to: Wife at dinner starting a sentence with, “If you come to this country…” Angel on: Friends as she finishes the sentence with something wildly offensive about immigrants being lazy, shiftless, do-nothings. Use audio from her comments about Congress.

And…scene. To the viewing public, I am now a privileged, selfish racist, with the exact opposite views of the ones I hold. Thanks, editing!

Just because they call it Reality doesn’t make it real. The “contestants,” or “guests,” or “prank victims” are real human beings, probably a lot like you, being edited to become caricatures that will keep you watching from one commercial break to the next. Going online to spout about how much they disgust you does not make you better than them, nor does it make the world a better place, nor will it make that person change, since they probably aren’t anything like who you saw on TV in the first place. If you hate the person you’re watching on your favorite show, attack the producers. They’re the ones who cast, filmed, edited and built that monster.

And if you want to spew anger on the Internet, because that will make you happy, may I suggest any of the myriad websites devoted to talking about Congress? Those people have complete control over how they’re being portrayed.

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2 thoughts on “Get a Grip on Reality!

  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    People think 1) they come off as well as they think of themselves on reality shows, and 2) if they’ve seen what the show does, that they will be the one to beat the show’s system.

    Both of these beliefs are dangerous: the shows are really ways to show one set of people (the viewers) how idiotic other people are. Mean-spirited in basic concept. And it’s always a lot of them against one of you.

    Everyone has bad moments – the shows pounce on these.

    My only experience with something similar was when my daughter was at an international science competition, and one of our foreign entrants had brought measels with her by accident.

    The TV crews wanted a sensational story about how everyone was panicked. They left it a bit too late – contestants were streaming away by the time they caught a live one: me. They kept trying to get me to say something exciting. I kept telling them calmly that an outbreak was extremely unlikely, as American children are vaccinated, and that we should hope for the quick recovery of the young lady and anyone in her family who might have been also infected.

    This went on a good 5 minutes. It was fun. People who later watched the TV report told me that they had to spin it my way – they apparently had no other footage. So instead of ‘panic’ what got broadcast was ‘noble and hopeful.’ I still chuckle.

    What I expected was that they would find someone else to say what they wanted to hear. But it wasn’t going to come from me.