“You’re Fired!”: Reality Television and the Trump Phenomenon

When I first moved here in 2011, I was planning to write a book on reality television — particularly The Real Housewives franchise and other shows featuring women.

bethenny-frankel-showing-her-assI wrote a preliminary blog post on the subject for Tikkun Daily and then an article for Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture. 

The book project finally started coming together, however, when I was asked to contribute an essay to a festschrift in honor of Benjamin R. Barber, my dissertation advisor and mentor. The volume just got published and here is the editor’s summary of my contribution:

In chapter 11 “The Mean Girls of McWorld: Reality Television and the Attack on Strong Democracy,” Claire Snyder-Hall examines the role that corporate-generated popular culture plays in encourageing anti-civic attitudes. She argues that the glorification of narcissism and aggression on reality TV undermines public-spiritedness, empathy, mutual respect and ultimately democracy itself. This kind of television might seem just frivolous entertainment far removed from democratic concerns. But Snyder-Hall argues that popular culture is not simply a passive distraction but an active determinant of political dispositions and values, shaping our self-understanding and orientation to others. Its impact is widespread: Those who don’t even watch such shows are invariable impacted by their impact on politics. We can ask: what kind of a reality is this? Perhaps the greatest causality of reality TV is our common political sense of the real that might unify a body politic. This celebration of hyper-competitiveness and aggression undermines civic values and promotes toxic relationships by celebrating contempt and disdain for others: “when people hold a negative view of other people’s trustworthiness or merit, it becomes hard to imagine them wanting to pull together for the good of all.” What kind of democratic self-governance can emerge from such relationships? The aim of political discourse is to resolve conflict rather than enflame it, to cultivate the common good rather than narcissistic self-preoccupation. Snyder-Hall argues that “The huge volume of shows glamorizing competitive consumerism helps create the belief that most people are just out for themselves and they will do anything for money…. The message is clear: Get what you can for yourself, no matter who you hurt or rip-off.” What is the fate of democratic participation and reasoned deliberation in the face of such trends? Snyder-Hall contrasts this with Barber’s argument in Strong Democracy that democracy requires a civic culture and participatory citizenship. A commercially-oriented culture that elevates consumption above participation, and infantilism over reasoned discourse, presents new and unique threat to Strong Democracy. When the public is captured by such images there is little room for reasoned political discourse, pointing to the deep tensions between consumer values and democratic engagement, between commercial messages and political discourse, and ultimately between the consumer and the citizen.

mama juneThe chapter also discusses the ways in which shows that make fun of people — like Honey Boo Boo — situate the viewer as the mean girl, gaining pleasure from denigrating others.

Reading this summary of my argument four years later, I can’t help but think about Trump, the perfect spawn of reality television culture. Perhaps I should revive my book project and focus on the rise of Trump…

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