I sometimes fear that I come across as a curmudgeon of sorts: a loveable one, but a sourpuss nonetheless, ready and willing to tear down anything I encounter which I find lacking any intrinsic cultural value. Obviously my parameters are entirely subjective and prone to a whole host of inconsistencies, but that doesn’t stop me from decreeing that things that you enjoy, hold dear or even use to define yourself are in fact complete and utter shit. You like Metallica? Let me tell you how they have completely sucked since 1992. Duck Dynasty (or Moonshiners, or The Big Bang Theory) is your favorite show? Sorry, but watching even a minute of those programs is tantamount to cell death in your central nervous system. (Yes, I know you like them and that we all have different tastes, but sometimes things are objectively true. Like my previous statement.) I would like to think that I reserve these criticisms for people with whom I share some intimate familiarity, but that would simply not be true. Even co-workers that barely know me get treated to this berating simply for bringing up a topic as harmless as Fast and The Furious 6, or more specifically, asking my opinion of it. I don’t mean to do it and I mostly can’t help it. “Hey Josh, have you heard that new Maroon 5 song” easily turns into someone walking away offended and me feeling sheepish, the worst part being that I sensed it halfway through the conversation but continued in my horribly prickish truthfulness like I was cursed with the inability to lie a la Liar Liar.
“Its not my fault really, I just see things as they truly are.” That’s what I tell myself and I’m positive that I am right. I understand that people enjoy what they enjoy and I’ll be the first to admit that I enjoy things that were pure garbage, but at least I know it’s garbage. Sometimes garbage is fun. There is no denying that. A McDonalds Quarter Pounder is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted, but to deny how horrible it is nutritionally or the fact that it barely qualifies as food would be silly. So it is with the other things we consume. The problem is that so many people fool themselves into believing that things devoid of substance or that contribute nothing positive to the ongoing projects called “Society” and Western Culture do in fact have value. It’s a hard lesson but liking something doesn’t make it good, it just means that you like it, something many members of society either choose to ignore or really don’t see.
At times I have attempted to fully reject the mass culture; first as a true rejection of something I saw as a trash heap filled with unimportant drivel and then as a way to keep myself ignorant so as to avoid offending people with my genuine opinion on popular cultural artifacts. If I don’t know what it is, then I can’t show you in words how much I hate its existence. This proved to be more difficult than you might think. So much of our society and human connection is based on shared cultural experience, the logical post modern end being the very modern live tweeting: effectively replicating the act of watching movies, television shows or live events with other people because in these times even if you are by yourself you can always be connected. If one rejects that which is popular to society at large, though, and chooses to ignore it, they effectively disengage themselves from what philosophers such as Guy Debord refer to as “The Spectacle,” which is pretty much the whole World at this point in history
Leader of the radical art/political/philosophical group, The Situationist International, Debord posited in his seminal 1967 work ,The Society Of The Spectacle, that life in modern society has become nothing more than an accumulation of what he called “Spectacles.” These Spectacles are a collection of images as well as the social relations mediated by these images. The spectacle, which he says is actually “capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images” is both the result and goal of advanced capitalism and incorporates itself into the fluid aspects of our lives. He saw how it interrelates seeming disparate phenomena in its attempt to transform images and archetypes into real beings, and itself into the dominant and incessant discourse of the ruling order. Reading his work is eerily prophetic, sounding like someone describing our current world.
Despite having this knowledge, at other times I have attempted to embrace it fully, finding myself slowly succumbing to the realization yet again. My only recourse is to accept that mass culture will always be there in my life and that if I must pay attention to it, I can at least have fun doing so, looking at its events and artifacts relative to each other in order to see how they fit into the whole of this monolith at which we stare. By stepping outside of it, you can see how it works and the role it plays in in our interactions with each other. Mesmerizing and Seductive (It IS that McDonald’s burger after all or at least it is the delicious and shiny collection of everything similar: Pepsi, Pizza Bites, E! Television, 50 Shades of Gray, Justin Beiber, Kanye West, FUN, America’s Got Talent.) it positions everything in relation to itself. There is no way I can take my eyes off of it. What it says in shouts and whispers, both explicitly and implicitly, instructs us on everything in this world which we have created with our own hands (and economically speaking, made by popular demand). Eat here. Be open-minded. Don’t eat that. Watch this tonight. Go on Vacation in California. No, Branson, MO (the fakest place that may exist besides Disneyworld). Live Healthy. Be happy, Drink. Don’t Drink. Invest in the Stock Market. Buy Gold. Look out for yourself. Take care of others. In this postmodern epoch, creating what in past times would have been considered intellectual products is less important than creating demand for products in general.
A survey of Opening weekend for Hollywood movies is a testament to this, as well as the current music market indicator iTunes sales. Films and music that would never be considered the best that our times has to offer dominate commercially and also our discourse, filling our lives with increasingly less meaningful information, somehow giving us even more to talk about. Spectacular systems like Political theatre, Sports, Celebrity, Nostalgia filtered through various mediums such as Television (especially reality television) and of course the Internet (the ultimate medium), though created by us have proliferated endless amounts of information which some postmodern philosophers have theorized would destroy meaning itself. It is at this intersection of systems that I find myself, glad that I’ve discovered a place for Mass Culture in my life, because if not I might not have seen this Celebrity Wife Swap with Ric Flair and Roddy Piper, then I wouldn’t know that the end times for meaning are truly upon us.
“In a world that really is upside down, the truest moment is the moment of the false”
“The Fetishism of the commodity-the domination of society by “intangible as well as tangible things” – attains its ultimate fulfillment in the spectacle, where the real world is replaced by a selection of images which are projected above it, yet which at the same time succeed in making themselves regarded as the epitome of reality.”- Guy Debord, Society Of The Spectacle
For anyone not familiar with the ABC program, Wife Swap, let me describe it to you briefly. Two families who don’t know each other literally “swap wives.” Obviously playing with the connotation of the phrase known throughout the free loving Sixties and Seventies, the show literally takes one wife from each of the family units and drops them into the role of the other wife. Each wife is given an overview of her new family compiled by her counterpart, where she is told who does what, what are some sources of conflict, and what the family is generally all about. For the first week she is to live as if she is assuming the role of “mother and wife” as it pertains to this specific family. The second week, she gets to implement her “rule changes” based on her observations from the past week, which are almost always filtered through her values system as well as experiences with her own family (which is obvious, but still worth stating.) By hour’s end we witness a progression in both houses from initial amusement with the foreigner and then obstinance (some more than others) as familes are forced to examine their entire ways of life. Typically both mothers and families realize that their relationships within the family are not perfect and that they could stand to learn something from this experience. After the spouses reunite and their love is reaffirmed, there is always a prologue that shows us how the family has learned from their two week experiment, maintaining their values and principles while many times internalizing (for cameras at least) the lessons taught by their visiting mom. The series works because it presents the two families as two halves of a binary structure: Messy family meet, neat and tidy mom; mom who only dresses her family in brand name clothes, meet the family who doesn’t care for one second about the origins of their attire or about status at all. It is these differences that that create the tension that drives the show, the racier episodes being the ones rife with conflict.
Anthropological in nature, Wife Swap can be fascinating, however it calls to attention the increasing lack of reality in reality TV, a genre edging closer and closer to scripted entertainment, at least subconsciously if not fully intended. It is no secret that producers will “encourage” or set up scenes to make for better television, but one thing that is often overlooked is the role casting and even the participant’s own viewing of reality TV plays in shaping how they act when under this microscope. Since the Real World debuted in 1992 and each season thereafter, reality television “actors” (a word usually reserved for those who depict reality, here describing what we are told are real people) have become more and more like the archetypical characters that have preceded them. As the numbers of these types of anthro-reality (non-celeb) shows begin to swell, the archetypes become more rigid and apparent (and yet, more obscured as we take them for granted) reinforcing the codes and societal “scripts” that viewers and future reality show actors have already internalized. Still, Wife Swap, Real World, and their ilk persist in trying to affirm their reality, insisting that documentary style cameras that show people in their “candid” moments (that word now also devoid of any meaning) is what constitutes the real. Reality has now become nothing more than a style, the focus on entertainment rather than presenting truth anymore, commitment to one incompatible with the other. If the reality of any conflict is the sum of the interactions between all parties, how can pared down footage of escalation, conflict, and aftermath provide enough context to give viewers a true representation of events? The act of editing and the decisions with which that entails transforms the capturing of reality into nothing more than interpretations. Given that the primary function of TV is to sell EVERYTHING including societal values and ideology, as well as advertising time and obviously the products within those ads, it goes without saying that it also must sell itself as “Life,” Reality Television -a representation of real life- IS now real life according to the medium itself. “This is how real humans behave,” it says. They don’t really, but the longer these “codes” of behavior are pushed as the dominant cultural attitude, eventually they will.
Celebrity Reality (or Celebreality according to Vh1) distorts these concepts even further. As Debord writes, “Stars-Spectacular representations of living human beings-project the general banality into images of permitted roles.” He refers to them as “specialists of apparent life” whose function is to “act out various lifestyles or socio-political viewpoints in a full, totally free manner.” Celebrities have the power to act as they wish because they have the money to do so and they have become so adept in managing how they appear because that image of them IS them according to the spectacle that they willfully entered in order to be identified with, revered, and paid. Since 2002 ushered in this sub-genre with The Osbournes and The Anna Nicole Smith Show, television has become a fertile ground for branding (or rebranding) oneself for the purpose of increasing one’s value as a ”celebrity” which ultimately means commanding more money for just about anything they can there is that they can get paid for. Their celeb value lends value to other products that they become associated with, resulting in endorsements deals for them and increased ratings and therefore advertising revenue for the network and producers who are typically the celebrities themselves. If it’s a Reality Show, it lends them more credibility that extends to these associations. Even if they aren’t producing themselves and their version of reality, they stand to gain from, which is why you see a lot of up and coming entertainers or people with new found fame depicting themselves this way in hopes that their exposure will turn into a place on that stage for just a little bit longer, hoping to cash in indefinitely (rarely the case).
There difference between the Real World anthropological -type of reality docu-dramedy and the Celeb Reality version seems so distinct, but when you stop to think about it while keeping all I’ve previously mentioned in mind, you can pretty much pinpoint it to a specific signifying moment: when those depicted in the former become aware of their image and its potential to make them rich and famous and then take control of how this IMAGE of them is portrayed in the spectacles. Contestants on reality shows may ACT according to their archetypical role in the unacknowledged script that directs action (in this case “reality”), but the production team consisting of producers editors, etc. control how everyone will appear and what the audience will think, the creative decisions they make crafting “life.” Producers show boorish and unseemly behavior because that stuff happens and audiences love it. When the people being shown are also in charge of choosing content that will air, you lose this and also the last semblance of authenticity. That’s what made Jersey Shore interesting versus any of the trash on Vh1 or E! and it is what makes Wife Swap at least more interesting than Celebrity Wife Swap. No celebrity wants to look foolish unless it fits within the carefully crafted narrative that THEY are releasing to the world. The Kardashians show themselves doing things that are ugly and objectionable morally, but it is presented as part of the show , typically to either make someone else look good or as an opportunity to show the character (actor? “Person?” at this point it’s questionable) redeeming them. If actually caught in the act doing something morally objectionable, publicists would attempt to downplay and counter it with their own spin and if gets too bad, they would produce a show to show that they have changed. This is why someone in Beyonce’s position would flip out over embarrassing stills of her live show spreading virally through social media: that hideous creature in that photo isn’t the glamorous, sex symbol that she and the media have been hyping her as. That picture IS what she looks like from certain angles, and that’s fine by me, but in the Spectacle, her monetary and cultural value depended on shielding everyone from seeing that she has a true self.
“This is the most absurd thing I’ve ever done in my life and I’ve done a lot of absurd things.”
The moment Celebrity Wife Swap with Roddy Piper and Ric Flair begins its easy to see what the major themes and conflicts are going to be, pretty much like every other episode of Wife Swap. The narrator tells the viewers that Ric Flair lives a life of excess and has been married four times with a child from each marriage. He is has settled down (for less than a year at the time of AIRING) living the high life with Wendy and HER kids in Charlotte. The Nature Boy lives in excess, spending money freely on cars, clothes, homes, jewels and late nights out with Wendy. He still loves the limelight it seems: partying every night, signing autographs and taking pictures with his fans.
We then meet the Piper clan, who have retreated from the world of celebrity and fandom by moving to Portland’s nearby mountains, living a mostly secluded life. Rod and his wife of 30 years, Kitty, have made a loving home for their four kids. A close family, the Pipers (I know that’s not his name, but its easier this way) save their money, only making big purchases on things for the whole family, as well as bargain shopping. They seem perfect, but we are told Kitty does the bulk of the work around the house.
Surprise, Surprise! They are complete opposites and could stand to learn from each other. And they have history, both as performers in the ring and also in their real lives. The narrator first gives us a brief description of their overall wrestling personas and then Kitty fills us in that she and Rod were in Ric’s wedding party for his first marriage. The anthropology has been tossed aside for a more contrived and planned form of drama, which was to be expected in this celebrity adaptation. As was the absurdity that followed, although not even I, one who deconstructs everything and expects the worse always, expected it to be the extent that it was. This was one of the most illustrative examples of meaning being dissolved into absurdity through its transformation from the real into “appearing to be real,” or “Real.”
Instead of the usual authentic reactions to the shock being thrust into the opposite way of life, we get transparent acting, partly due to the fact that Flair and Piper are pro wrestlers-a craft that technically exists somewhere between the stage and screen. Stage acting will always make you very aware that it is “acting.” It never becomes illusory to the point that you stop seeing the actor as anything but that. The “candid” footage, here with that extra touch of staging, rarely ever crosses over into the threshold of everyday real, despite featuring interactions and activities that look familiar. The only people whose behavior resembles that of normal humans are Kitty and Flair’s first wife. And even they had some suspect moments. Flair, Piper and Wendy just come across as either full on acting or at least really playing it up.
The absurdity at times became laughable (which was the least bit intentional), but the best laughs came from seeing how absurd the entire show was, something I never noticed or said about the original Wife Swap. When Piper dramatically states “That’s not good” when finding out that Kitty is with Flair, I couldn’t help but ask “why?” In place of concern we are given the appearance of “concern,” though it is referred to as the real deal. The same goes with the idea of “incognito.” In what might actually be one of the most absurd moments ever, Kitty “demands” that as part of her rule change, Flair must shop for his own food at the grocery store, all in an effort to save money? In order to do so without being recognized as Ric Flair the celebrity, he dons a disguise: A baseball cap, a fake mustache, and a pair of sunglasses. As he walks around the store, his masquerade seemingly working, all I can think is “There are fucking cameramen taping this.” This isn’t incognito, this is “incognito:” a concept of just appearing to be undercover. Similarly, when Wendy is walking through the Piper homestead for the first time, she refers to it as a pit (an allusion to the “Piper’s Pit” sign on the wall) which it isn’t. It is a nice spacious house, but for purposes of maintaining the binary and the producer’s (through the actors and editing) need to convince us that the two families are the opposite, even if that means asserting a falsity as truth right before our eyes.
Even human emotion dissipates into what late 20th century philosopher Jean Baudrillard calls “simulations.” These simulations are what happen when societal signs and the representations of life come to dominate the social sphere-as well as commerce- and the distinction between the model and the real becomes hazy. Real life and “real life” start to become interchangeable and eventually the model replaces the real, a phenomenon coined Hyperreality. In this way, feigned human emotion such as Piper saying “Where is my wife?”” is, by the assertion of the show as well as genre and medium, actual longing for one’s love, even though the actual taped footage could not have been his true experience of that longing. How could it be? It looked more plastic than one of the women on Real Housewives, indistinguishable from some of the acting roles that I have seen him in. Flair’s tearful moments of “self awareness” both in a perfectly framed simulated conversation with Kitty and the man on man lovefest with Piper don’t look believable even if I’m expected to take them on face value.
Seeing this episode makes me feel that this genre of celebrity reality shows is inching closer and closer to shows like HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, the scripted but improvised saga of real life Seinfeld co –creator Larry David and many of his real life friends and acquaintances-all playing fictionalize versions of themselves. When taken side by side, the two start to blend. Neither are real in that both are representation, but at least in Curb, the viewer witnesses full conversations as opposed to edited down soundbite after soundbite. Many events on Curb could be or have been based on experiences in Larry David’s life, whereas the events that unfold on Celebrity Wife Swap are simulated from the get go. Brief footage of Flair and Piper laughing like Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz on Saturday Night Live during their requisite end meeting (reunion) is not very far removed from Larry David and Jeff Garlin looking amused by each other’s improvised line. Except of course that Celebrity Wife Swap by its own premise presumes to be something it isn’t, even the field of anthropology now a ghostly apparition of itself as well.
“I suppose this is about, waking up I guess,”
When watching Wife Swap or anything similar, it boils down to the question: What is it really saying? After all the blurry “reality” is illuminated for what it is, what are the messages that viewers walk away with either consciously or subconsciously. The answer is found in the cultural codes that the show promotes. These are ways that the Spectacle wants us to live and see the world. Most of the time Wife Swap extolls two opposite virtues simultaneously, validating both families’ ways of life, and the celebrity version doesn’t change the formula. Instead, after an hour of falsities, images of representation becoming real, and the transformation of real into hyperreal, we are left learning one thing: Shopping makes you happy. Spending money is good. Family is important, but you should really spend your wealth to be TRULY happy.
When Roddy Piper came to this realization while taking the whole family out as part of the rule change I was floored. Here was not just a television show or even just a Reality show BUT a Celebrity Reality show coming right out and saying the one code whose endorsement legitimizes all the other codes that make up Spectacular reality. Piper called it “waking up” which makes sense because waking up in the Spectacle is the opposite of that in what has now become the hyperrealistic realm of Life. Waking up in the formerly real world is seeing the Spectacle as it is (like taking the pill in The Matrix) or at least acknowledging its existence. Whether you decide to applaud or deride it is up to you. Here, in The Spectacle, the opposite is true. Waking up is realizing that you should spend $8,000 on one trip to a clothing store. Flair was awake the entire time and he was right to scoff at the absurdity of bargain hunting when you could simply get with the program and spend money. In the Spectacle, his tears might be that of one struggling with being told to act unnaturally, because that is what Kitty and Rod were attempting to do: stopping him from living according to the truest tenet in the world into which he entered into in order to become something bigger than life outside of that world. Coming from a simulation of a man now real, the aptly named Nature Boy, complete with synthetically blonde hair, I suppose these tears are real and I can relate.
It’s frustrating when people don’t get it.