A few decades ago, painter Andy Warhol stated that in the future everyone would get their fifteen minutes of fame. This led the group Sugar Ray to entitle their second album 14:59, even though for that particular band they remained popular at least through their third album before the popularity faded and singer Mark McGrath sought attention as a host with the most in Hollywood, but it seems that Ryan Seacrest took all of those jobs for himself. Nowadays anyone who wants fifteen minutes of fame gets a reality tv show for themselves. As someone who watches my fair share of reality television, I have mixed feelings about this, as I am torn between my shadenfreude and my nagging sense of discomfort and complicity in enabling such terrible shows in the first place.
Life is full of ambivalence. I would consider myself a fairly lawful person, within certain boundaries (like my deliberate hostility towards unjust laws, especially those laws that are hostile to my own self-expression), but at the same time I am immensely fascinated by shows about police officers, jail, and scaring juvenile offenders straight. I also love boxing and mixed martial arts (among many other sports) despite not being particularly athletic by nature. I don’t gamble but I love watching poker (especially Texas Hold ‘Em) as well. I like music, so my interest in musical reality tv shows is probably not a surprise at all, but most of the other reality tv show I appreciate is particularly ambivalent.
I suspect I am not alone in this. Some people like watching the early episodes of American Idol, for example, merely to laugh at the horrible attempts at a capella singing by people who are delusional about their abilities to carry a tune. Some people like watching Toddlers and Tiaras, or its spin-off about that horribly bratty baby. Today I found out that some kid from a wife swapping reality tv show who really loves his bacon is getting his own reality tv show. I’ve even seen reality tv shows about Coastguardsmen, besides the ones about pickers and pawn shop owners and tow tuck drivers and people who buy storage units in Texas and California and ice truck drivers. We are full of ambivalence, an increasingly collectivist urban society that is fascinated by tv shows about rugged individualists, a society that has little interest in history and tradition that is fascinated by the worth of antiques and hidden treasures in garages and storage units, a society that abhors conflict but loves fighting sports, and a society that makes shows about moonshiners, doomsday preppers, people looking for sasquatches, seemingly to make fun of them while profiting from them at the same time. Talk about ambivalence–profiting from the ridicule of others.
Perhaps that is why people like me don’t really have reality tv shows yet. I suppose if someone wants attention, this is the sort of world where people can easily get attention for the wrong reasons. People might see themselves on TMZ or on the cover of a magazine or as the star of a reality tv show, and might think that this validates their behavior. Others might think that they are smugly superior to their fellow citizens by the sort of people that they see on television, not recognizing the debasement that comes from taking the time to mock and look down on others, nor realizing that greatness and civilization are not merely graded on the curve, but against a standard of nobility that all of us fall short of in some way or another. When we look down on others, we are not looking at ways we need to improve ourselves, but we are feeling smugly superior to the most attention-seeking and most debased of our culture, not realizing we ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard.
But where is the culture that is going to inspire us to greater heights of nobility? When we look to historical fiction, we may feel pleased about our history, or may borrow their laurels for we ourselves, but where do we find the contemporary heroes whose character we ourselves can emulate? We cannot find these in our sports heroes, who provide us with mere entertainment, nor in our celebrities who merely play pretend, playing roles for our amusement. We cannot find them in our corrupt leaders, or in our soldiers fighting in dubious causes. We cannot find them in our churches, or in our schools, or in our families. After all, the sort of nobility we seek is not merely making the best of a bad situation, but being wise enough to avoid disaster in a time that seems increasingly tragic and constrained, and we have no model of heroism that glories in doing the little and difficult things, in suffering now so that we may enjoy later. Perhaps we will have to become such heroes ourselves.