Is there a reason beyond mindlessness, or dumbing down, or even cheapness, that reality tv and celebrity culture in general, are so popular?
Are they meeting a need that fiction no longer is?
They offer an up-close lens that lets us examine other people and allows us to compare them, and their lives, to our own. Consider those slightly dodgy fantasies (no I’m not confessing, fill in the blank yourself), does anyone else have them? You feel like a fraud, does anyone else? We vilify the magazine-cellulite exposing, fat shaming society as shallow and fake, but is it offering the opposite of this, a glimpse into a real world, however fractured that glimpse is, a chance to be anthropologists of our own kind?
Society is a veneer of perception and ego, never more so when its crafted, sculpted and CGI-ed by an expert team months before it ever reaches us. If we are to be bombarded with perfection is it necessary for us to understand that perfection, to see the reality it attempts to obscure? And beyond that initial need to pull down the stars and see the grit amongst the diamonds, has their role shifted to become a microcosm of the wider world? A chance to really see beneath the skin of how others live? You can’t examine your best friends cellulite, she’d think you were a bit odd and anyway it’s your sworn duty to assure her you never noticed a thing. You can’t measure how often your friend and her husband sit untalking side by side at night playing Candy crush saga, he’ll swear it was hot and heavy all night long, she’ll back him up moaning about the hours of ironing she did.
We are hierarchical by nature. It’s our primary currency. We’re constantly figuring out where we fall, better than, on par with, weighing up how many assets everyone else possesses and where we stand in comparison. Despite the lofty and oft quoted opinion of Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people’, people of all minds are fascinated by people. Because the reason communism failed is people. The reason children starve is people. The reason you toss and turn each night unable to sleep is people.
We’re obsessed with the need to know are we normal? Are we desirable? We’re driven to know and once upon a time, fiction offered some means to answering that.
But fiction has become obsessed with fiction. Even at its most base root, it is asking questions, not about what drives us, makes us who we are, what will undo us, but about itself. It has become, like society itself, a veneer of ego. We’re locked into tropes, formulas and clichés and we seem unable to break free.
People do deride the quotation: Write what you know. As if it limits us, but I wonder if they are addressing it too superficially. Does write what you know simply ask you to be honest? Even if you find yourself on the battlefield yielding an orc-slaying blade, who are you truly, in that moment? What are your fears, your needs? What bleeds through that is undeniably human?
Reality tv and celebrity culture work in some ways almost opposite of fiction – or at least in terms of how fiction once worked. They too have a veneer, they’re human after all, and the ‘reality’ part is scripted some say, but the lens finds them despite their very best attempts to conceal. It unearths the puffed up lips, the stolen kiss, the backdoor shenanigans. (The paparazzi as literary novelists? It’s an interesting idea.) They’ll lie, justify, obfuscate, and in doing so reveal themselves more. But we have to do a great deal of the work ourselves, which just adds another layer. Who is the villain if David Beckham cheated? Is it David? The mistress (I forget her name), Victoria? Or is it us, the women who shame other women, the men who uphold a cheating patriarchal system?
Realism in fiction, in our entertainment, or at least the perception of it, is constantly rewarded. Game of Thrones, True Detective, Breaking Bad. From simple tics such as swearing, toilet shots, sex, adding the ordinary or seamier, the forbidden side of life can create an illusion of reality. It can be a cheap illusion. But one of the biggest things this new breed of fiction offers is a world without heroes and villains, where any can walk both lines, admittedly most tend to make them walk on the dark side but it’s still something fiction too often fails to offer. One of the things that always fascinated me about the old Greek legends was how ambiguous they were in their portrayal of heroism. How selfish, flawed and even cruel they could be, while at the same time brave, determined and passionate. Ambiguity isn’t really about uncertainty, we don’t really like that too much, it’s about connection, about that messy human reality underneath the perfection, about allowing us to understand ourselves, our actions, our world, really understand, not just accept one more opinion. One more preacher. But understand by seeing through that up close lens, what’s really going on.
We have to begin by questioning why this is happening, has it always been the case or has the internet contributed to the change?Online communities are famed (mostly amongst ourselves) for setting down rules, rules that, rather than bring honesty, create more veneers, more tropes, more fantasy escapes that refuse to deal with reality.
Computers are useless. They only give you answers ~Pablo Picasso
We have to begin with our selves, with the hard questions, to cast the fat heroine, the spotty guy who doesn’t have a genius IQ. It’s not about happy endings versus sad. We can offer hope, love, redemption, the answers don’t lie in the bigger plot arcs but the nitty gritty of world and character, relationships and dialogue. Even in our new fiction we’re already seeing degradation, the inbuilt Hollywood sickness of mimicry.
You’ll see Hollywood misunderstanding the lesson they should be learning with Deadpool. They’ll be green lighting films “like Deadpool” – but, by that, they won’t mean “good and original” but “a raunchy superhero film” or “it breaks the fourth wall.” They’ll treat you like you’re stupid, which is the one thing Deadpool didn’t do
I disagree with him, as I actually think that Deadpool is nothing but a mass of symptoms of a disease that is already too far progressed. Meaningless violence, and moral vacuum. Cheap, glib posturing that says nothing. I agree with him, in that we will likely only continue to see more mimicry.
When fiction fails to question the veneer but instead upholds it have we passed from fiction to entertainment to propaganda? Right now Hollywood is caught in a reboot loop, but it’s not the Amazing Adventures of SpiderBusters that needs rebooted, its the entire system.
Fiction exists to answer the questions we cannot ask, but also the ones we’re scared to ask. Do you recall anyone putting their hand up in sex education? It can offer answers to things so nebulous we couldn’t even put them into words. It can stand – once stood? – as a role model, not in the sense of leading us astray, despite our tendency to mimic, such tendencies in terms of slang or hairdos, are at best symbiotic and superficial, rather it allows us to find a sense of ourselves and our potential. A place, somewhere between goth and hippie, environmentalist and scientist, those tiny niches where self and world meet, that can without the reflective mirror of fiction feel alienating, and liberate us to be ourselves.