Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Aspirational vs. Intellectual Viewing

The characters on The Hills are not real to me.

You have probably read that sentence as a criticism of the show, as meaning that the characters don't seem sufficiently life-like to capture my attention. And further, as an accusation of hypocrisy, since the show advertises itself as a reality show. But I don't mean either of those. I just mean that the characters on the show are constructed in pretty much the same way that characters are constructed in fictional shows. And they come into my living room the same way any sitcom character does. The knowledge that there are real people in Los Angeles whose lives are the raw material for the show enters my mind exactly as much as the knowledge that the steak on my dinner plate was once a cow. This may seem cold. It is. What's even colder is that, unlike that steak, I don't actually LIKE any of these characters.

This is probably largely a function of demographics: the show is most popular with tweenage girls, whereas I'm male and in my early 30's. The minimalist characterization that the show uses--long pauses on the nearly expressionless faces of the characters as they interact with each other--serves a different purpose for me than for more aspirational viewers. For young girls it offers an abundance of time to empathize with the character; the inscrutability is also a chance to practice reading the subtle verbal and facial clues that are key to complex social interaction. These are not things I'm interested in. For me these pauses are more awkward and noticeable--the fact that the conversations don't look natural mostly serves to defamiliarize classical continuity editing. So for most young girls the pleasure is in placing themselves in the melodramatic (and therefore meaningful) life of Lauren Conrad, while for me the pleasure is in feeling myself aware of (and therefore superior to) the constructed nature of the show.

I've been accused of intellectualism and elitism, and not for the last time. My writing is formal and exact. I know this turns some people off, even when I try to be accessible. But my point is that both of these ways of viewing the show involve complex cognitive processes. If you sat me and a tweenage girl in front of the The Hills and did brain scans on both of us, they would show equal amounts of mental activity. Her brain might show more empathic activity (brain scans can show that, right?) because of her identification with the characters, but that doesn't mean she's thinking about what she's seeing any less than I am. She's registering the social clues, and puzzling through the social strategy of the characters; I'm registering the framing choices and the cuts. But neither of us are more or less involved in the show. Whether she likes it more than me--well, I don't really see the point of that question.

Hills Reading List

Mona Lisa Overdrive, William Gibson. Science Fiction, features a character who is the star of a reality show but feels herself increasingly trapped. How can she escape?

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers. For the MTV Real World audition chapter, and for the reality vs. fiction problem.

Watching Dallas, Ien Ang. Exactly what kind of pleasure do people get out of TV melodrama? What sociological conclusions can we draw from these shows. Nothing on reality TV here, but a good introduction to media studies.

Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia. An overblown and infuriating book, with absolutely no credibility, but it's fascinating in its depiction of the complex ways in which people use art and myth to create their personalities.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman. A game theoretical approach to the minutest types of everyday interactions. How we present ourselves, and how we examine other people's presentations of themselves for information.