Iraq – The Next Big Hit for Reality TV
We went into Iraq with a heroic action movie playing in our heads, but the photographs from Abu Ghraib showed us another movie. Not Independence Day but Kill Bill—and, in the deluge of new photos and videotapes, Kill Bill 2.
Yet for all that the photographs from the Iraqi prison invite comparison to big-budget depravity, this is to give the perpetrators too much creative credit. Ultimately, the better comparison is not to the imaginative chaos of a Quentin Tarentino movie but to the mundane chaos of reality TV.
To compare the kind of humiliation suffered by the prisoners in Abu Ghraid to reality TV may seem in bad taste. The shows deal with middle-class men and women who have willingly chosen, based on some twisted idea of celebrity, to subject themselves to public humiliation. The photos deal with citizens of a conquered nation whose humiliation is coerced. The prisoners are literally and figuratively a world away from the caterwauling TV contestants. What is similar about the two situations, however, is the underlying dynamic and the role the camera plays in both.
Reality TV is the enactment, for entertainment purposes, of primal drives. These are the drives that Freud identified as libido (the drive for sex) and aggression (the drive to destroy). The two archetypal shows in the reality line-up are Survivor and The Bachelor. The former favors aggression; the latter, libido. Other reality shows can be viewed as spin-offs of one or the other of these two: The Apprentice, for example, is Survivor set in the corporate board room; Extreme Make-over is The Bachelor set in a plastic surgeon’s office.
Although in most of these shows, one drive predominates, it is impossible, as Freud explained, to activate one without bringing into play the other. In The Bachelor, the harem of women who want the bachelor for his looks, money, or celebrity, engage in duplicitous wiles and backbiting in order to win him. Likewise, in Survivor, coalitions of friendship and romance allow the participants to continue in the game until it becomes practical to jettison these alliances.
At the center of these shows is the idea of humiliation. Those who do not win must suffer losing on a grand public stage. Since only one person can win, while many must lose (and do so week after week), the spectacle necessarily centers more on the losers than on the winner. This is true in a more abstract way on the makeover shows, which display the ugly duckling for the entire length of the show and the ravishing beauty only briefly at the end. The structure of the spectacle entails that we are more often placed in the position of gaping at the humiliation of losing (or being ugly) than applauding the triumph of winning (or becoming pretty). As viewers, we vicariously connect with both, but to different degrees: sharing in the glory of the winners, but enjoying, in a more sustained way, a sense of superiority over the losers. We...