How 'reality' shapes reality

Posted: Jul 13, 2005 12:00 AM

This September, the Sundance Channel will air a "groundbreaking" new "reality" show entitled "TransGeneration." The show follows "four unique individuals, two male-to-females and two female-to-males as they struggle to transition from one gender to the other in the midst of a grueling school year. From working-class campuses to private colleges steeped in tradition, we follow these four students as they juggle the pressures of college life, academia and family expectations with their own life-changing transitions. Idealistic and empassioned [sic], these four young adults embark on a journey of self-discovery and in the process re-define gender for their generation."
Sundance execs can't wait to put this gender propaganda out on the air, enhancing tolerance for those who can't decide whether they're boys or girls. "This series is a moving portrait of four fascinating people at a dramatic time in their lives," effuses Laura Michalchyshyn, executive vice president for programming and marketing at the Sundance Channel. "'TransGeneration' also offers an engaging first-hand look at the current trend on college campuses of confronting gender issues and politics head-on."

 "TransGeneration" provides a textbook example of television executives legitimizing deviancy for all of us in the name of a "live and let live" society where anything goes. As I explain in my new book, "Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism Is Corrupting Our Future," Hollywood's focus on pushing the envelope leads to greater societal tolerance for higher levels of deviancy. According to the TV execs, we should all embrace the deviant -- after all, these transgendered students are "idealistic and impassioned," going through "life changes" just like the rest of us. Who are we to condemn them?

 And we can't just shrug off all of this deviancy as science fiction -- it's reality! These are real people, in real situations. After all, aren't we watching reality TV? That's the gimmick of "reality" television: We can't turn it off, because it's real . As long as we're going to live in the real world, we might as well watch "Reality's Greatest Hits" on Sundance instead of sitting through a lifetime of real world experience and possibly missing some of what real life has to offer.

 The irony of the situation is that reality television is a hoax. It's no more real than "The O.C." or "Law and Order," and it's considerably more deceptive. It's also much more profitable. I recently spoke with Dave Bell, president of Dave Bell Associates; Bell is a veteran documentary filmmaker and a pioneer in reality television. His company produced the first "Unsolved Mysteries" specials, among other reality projects. He describes reality TV programming as "the most unreal situation for something called 'reality' that anyone could imagine." According to Bell, "most reality TV is for the most part scripted but not under the jurisdiction of the Writer's Guild, and acted, though not under the jurisdiction of Screen Actor's Guild, and directed, though not under the jurisdiction of the Director's Guild of America. A lot of the people who appear in reality TV shows are actors or wannabe actors or wannabe celebrities at least."

 Bell also acknowledges the continual TV drive to push the envelope: "I think it's the nature of television to push the envelope, whether that's reality TV or scripted TV. And pushing the envelope for the most part has always been good for the ratings, despite the outcry from the right-wing, Bible-thumping fruitcakes out there. Pushing the envelope is basically good for business."

 In sum, reality TV is a delicious scam. Producers provide an entertaining, voyeuristic Hollywood freak show nouveau, slap the label "reality" on it and tell us that they are unmasking truths of human existence before our very eyes. In the late 19th century, John Merrick was exploited by others because of his physical deformities; voyeurs spent their money to stare at him out of perverse curiosity. Today, contrived John Merricks are beamed into our living rooms via satellite, and millions of us continue to stare. And the stations that push the envelope most -- the ones that present the most extreme visions of "reality" -- will get the ratings.

  "TransGeneration" may be the latest and most extreme freak show to hit the airwaves, but it shapes social values nonetheless. Despite the fact that, according to Bell, nobody "with a triple-digit IQ is going to think that reality television is real," millions do. As "reality" continues to blur the line between reality and fantasy, it is the "reality" purveyors who will gain more and more influence over our culture.