Inherent need for superiority fuels reality TV

Poor Reality TV. Sure, you’re popular, but it seems like no one has anything good to say about you. When people confess to watching you, they use a hushed tone as if divulging a shameful secret. You have been accused of being stupid, dumb and cheesy, pandering to the lowest common denominator, and setting feminism back 30 years (I’m looking at you, The Bachelor).

Would somebody please cut Reality TV a break?

Little do detractors realize that rather than marking the end of civilization as we know it, it’s actually saving the world. No, really. Thoughtful pundits use several different theories to justify the existence of Reality TV. They claim that it is escapist entertainment, something which America desperately needs in this time of impending war. While there’s no doubt that Bush’s foreign policy partly explains Joe Millionaire’s popularity, remember that Survivor and American Idol were hit shows before September 11.

Others postulate that rather than being a new phenomenon, Reality TV borrows from classic plots. These are stories in which a hero (or heroine) must chose between two women (or men); stories which describe a struggle for power; where good must prevail over evil. These cultural archetypes resonate with viewers because they are so familiar. Compare Joe Millionaire’s presentation of blond, sophisticated gold-digger Sara and her brunette rival Zora, a substitute teacher who works with senior citizens. Also consider the show’s fairy-tale ending in which the guy gets the girl after all, and the couple is presented with a surprise one million dollar cheque.

The classical archetype argument has its points, but it seems too intelligent for such lowbrow entertainment. It must be simpler than that, and it is. Reality TV fulfils the basic human instinct to pass judgement, and allows us to do so without consequences.

Having good judgement is a necessary trait. Our ancestors profitted from being able to gauge when it was too cold to go hunting in the snow. As human beings, our cognitive abilities allow us to make decisions that ensure our continued survival. Yet this helpful attribute is also used for less honourable purposes, like insulting someone’s intelligence. The reason it feels so unaccountably good to express a strongly negative opinion about another person is that we can expose their inferiority while simultaneously implying our own superiority. Sure, it’s irrational. That’s why it’s so satisfying.

American Idol has this down to a science. The show has its own panel of judges, but the judges with the real power are the viewers who vote to determine which (un)talented, young wannabe goes or stays. Reality TV encourages viewers to judge if participants are being stupid, insensitive, oversensitive, untalented, promiscuous, moronic, superficial, etc.

The best part is, of course, that we can judge these “real” people and expect no repercussions. This is something that cannot (and should not) be done in life. In life, people are hurt by cutting remarks. While insulting a co-worker, friend or family member might feel good, it can have serious long-term repercussions. Reality TV gives us a safety valve where unfettered negativity can be vented. Rather than inappropriately lashing out at somebody we see everyday, we direct our negative energy elsewhere, thus preserving the peace. What would the world be, after all, without jesters to mock?

So thank you, Reality TV. Nobody takes you seriously, and that’s how it should be.

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