Australian Story: Out of the kitchen excerpt
Reality TV has become a staple of the Australian viewer's diet, but what happens to the contestants after the cameras turn off?PT3M19S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-39egv 620 349 June 2, 2014
When Mad Men depicts sexism or ethically dubious behaviour, it's masterful storytelling. When a reality show depicts the same, the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
We see the contestants as helpless victims. We assume the audience is incapable of making sophisticated judgments about their behaviour. While we might watch a reality show through a haze of irony, we fret about viewers who take this stuff seriously.
Jules Allen on MasterChef 2013.
Such a view is both insulting to audiences and way off the mark. After all, the point of most reality shows is to make judgments about the behaviour of the contestants. And while the scheming "villain" might get ahead initially, he or she tends to get voted off. Viewers don't just blindly endorse everything they see on screen.
Still, the sheer dominance of reality programming - with the most popular such as The Block, MKR and MasterChef "stripped" across a few nights a week - demands closer scrutiny of the values they promote.
Tonight's episode of Australian Story (which I contributed to) tells the story of former MasterChef contestant Jules Allen.
"You're encouraged to sort of crack open," Allen says. "And the problem is, there's no one there to put you back together.
"It's not just MasterChef. It's whether you're on The Block or MKR orThe Biggest Loser. On all of them, the end result is a ritual humiliation on national television. And the worst thing is, we signed up for it."
As Allen explains, contestants may feel unfairly represented, underpaid and trapped by stringent contracts. I argue that the distorted "reality" of some programs also affects the experience of contestants. Subtly, it can affect the lives of viewers, too.
Consider, for instance, the disproportionate attention heaped upon the winners of these shows, while the "losers" are quietly forgotten. This is understandable: media naturally focus on those who succeed because it makes people feel good.
But this can lead to "survivorship bias", writes Rolf Dobelli in The Art of Thinking Clearly: "In daily life, because triumph is made more visible than failure, you systematically overestimate your chances of succeeding ... you mistake how minuscule the probability of success really is."
The harsh reality is that if you try to become a published author, a singing star or even launch your own business, you will probably fail. All these things are statistical truths. Yet everywhere we look, we see nothing but success. So when failure happens to us, we're stunned. We feel like losers.
This is not helped by the belief of many reality contestants that we live in a true meritocracy - often combined with the belief that if you just work hard enough, or think enough positive thoughts, success is guaranteed.
By refusing to see the social and structural barriers to equality, and by refusing to acknowledge the role of good fortune in our lives, these contestants are setting themselves up for disappointment. If they win, they feel fantastic. "I earned this 100 per cent!" they declare. If they don't, they frantically clutch at explanations for their loss. Many tend to desperately blame others, instead of shrugging their shoulders and accepting that winning was never entirely within their control.
But what about the fact you don't actually have to win - or be the best, or beat other people - to be successful?
This is not a message you often see imparted on reality programs. Partly, it's because contestants self-select: only those who are most obsessed with winning turn up to the auditions. It's also because the most dramatic moments make for the best television, so a meltdown over a lopsided cake is favoured in the editing suite. Stoic acceptance of such setbacks is boring in comparison.
But if contestants never even question the importance of winning - indeed, if they act as though their lives depend on it, as many do - it helps spread the myth that fame and money are linked to happiness.
As psychologist Oliver James explains in The Selfish Capitalist, those who have "materialistic" goals - money, fame, possessions and appearance - have higher rates of mental distress and mental illness. James presents evidence to show that this is not merely a correlation; the pursuit of these goals actually causes this distress.
A less materially competitive outlook, however - with a greater focus on satisfying personal relationships, self-awareness, and care for others - promotes contentment.
Can reality TV foster this?
The mere phrase "reality TV" brings to mind programs such as I Wanna Marry Harry, in which a dozen appallingly narcissistic women are fooled into thinking they're competing for the chance to marry Prince Harry.
But consider the ABC reality series The Choir of Hard Knocks and Jail Birds. The first featured Jonathon Welch leading a choir of homeless and disadvantaged people; the second saw him form a choir in a women's prison.
Both were superb. Neither assumed viewers had to see replicas of themselves on screen - middle-class people obsessed with renovating and nice food - to be interested. Instead of drawing us further into our own little bubbles, they showed us the worlds of the marginalised. The drama was real, not manufactured or overblown. The emotion felt genuine instead of manipulated. (Interestingly, neither series embraced the term "reality show", though it could certainly justify that description.)
Unlike the harshest critics of reality TV, I don't condemn the entire genre as brainless or morally bankrupt. I watch, and enjoy, most Australian reality shows and a lot of international programs. And I do give the audience more credit than many.
But let's take a closer look at the values these show promote. They might seem like harmless entertainment - and many are. But watching them with a critical eye is never a bad idea.
Australian Story airs Monday 8pm on ABC1.