Posts Tagged ‘reality TV’

The GC: is this what we’ve come to admire?

datePosted on 10:59, May 4th, 2012 by Lew

After some consideration of my sanity, I watched the first episode of The GC. It was more or less as I expected. I’ll probably never watch another minute of it, but it’s not a show for me. Nor is it a show for all those other high- and middlebrow honkeys (including Mike Hosking, TV reviewers, and 10,000 Facebookers) who are wringing hands and clutching pearls about how it’s empty trash that glorifies superficial extravagance and shallow excess at the expense of what is “real” or “authentic”, how it’s exploitative and demeaning to Māori, or whatever.

There’s some merit in these critiques, and in the complaints about NZ On Air funding, which it seems to have been allocated to a slightly different show than what ended up actually getting made. But ultimately I don’t think it matters. The GC tells us important things, not only about the beaches, bods and booze society it portrays, but the society from which its participants originated. The most legitimate object of critique is not the show, or its cast, but the system that makes such a bizarre phenomenon not only viable, but compelling.

Always bound to be something. Don’t matter if it’s good or not. Mama always said, “finish your kai. Don’t be fussy!”

Tame (pronounced “Tommy”) was talking about aunties, but the statement expresses the main reason many young Māori leave school and go to The GC and places like it in the first place: because they’re places where there always is bound to be something that’s better than nothing; you take your opportunities as they come up, and eventually you’ll be ka pai. Aotearoa, for many young Māori, is not such a place: the release of employment data showing that Māori unemployment is twice the national average will be no news to anyone who’s been paying attention, and the trans-Tasman wage disparity for those who are employed remains broad. If a kid like Tame can roll like a wideboy property investor on a scaffolder’s coin in The GC, and the counterfactual is minimum wage, gangs and prison back home in Timberlea, why not? As Annabelle Lee-Harris, a producer for Māori Television’s Native Affairs, said on Twitter:

Stay in NZ with the other 83 k unemployed youth or go to the GC where everyone has $ and lives in bikinis? Seems like a no brainer #TheGC … You can’t deny Maori have a far better quality of life on #TheGC. It may seem shallow but actually their kids aint gonna get glue ear etc.

Returning to the question: is this what we, as a society, have come to admire? The answer is yes; this is the neoliberal reality in which we all live. The truth is we always did admire it; it’s only the nouveau-riche cosmetics we cringe at. When our hereditary nobles and “real” celebrities live their extravagant, idiotic lives in public we celebrate them. When a bunch of brown kids do it, all of a sudden they’re an embarrassment; they’re abandoning their heritage, dishonouring their ancestors, should get real jobs and get back in their place.

But it’s all very well for snooty middle-class (and, I suspect, largely middle-aged) white folks to peer down their noses and mutter about how much of a shame it is. It’s easy to do when you’ve got options, mobility and capital (both financial and social). It’s easy to do when you’re not forced to choose between keeping your ahi kā burning, staying with your people and trying to preserve (or find) your place in society on the one hand, and earning a decent wage and staying out of prison on the other. It’s all very well to mythologise and romanticise Māori as a noble people, beyond wealth, if you don’t have to live their reality. And the Māori reality is not static. NZ On Air funding was sought and granted to examine aspects of the contemporary Māori reality. If you look beyond the caricature, the phenomenon examined by The GC is an aspect of the contemporary Māori reality. This goes some way to mitigating the criticism. Former TVNZ CEO Rick Ellis was completely serious (if wrong) when he cited Police Ten-7 as a legitimate portrayal of Māori on TV; there are few outside the niche market occupied by Maori Television, and like the shows on that underrated network The GC at least has the benefit of being made by, for and starring Māori. You don’t have to be very cynical to conclude that there’s a racial motive, however unconscious, behind calls for The GC to be cancelled and its funding redirected to saving TVNZ7, which Paul Casserly recently called “Pākehā TV“.

Maybe the “I’ve got mine” flight to material wealth is simply neoliberalism dragging people away from their values and further into its clutches, but at some point it stops mattering. Māori have had enough generations of being told to be patient, to make do, to play nice and they’ll get what’s good for them. Those who do the telling are are far from impartial. How long are Māori supposed to wait for the Pākehā justice system to make things right, to repair the alienation and dysfunction and reverse the discrimination that still affects them? And even when the system does finally deliver, it’s no sure thing: emerging Māori business leaders are mocked as fools when their ventures fail and abused as fat-cat tribal oligarchs when they succeed. As far as Pākehā society is concerned, Māori can do very little right, so the only surprise about the Mozzie phenomenon is that there are still so many young Māori who haven’t given up waiting for the NZ system to work, and set about making the Australian one work for them. We expect them to act in their own self-interest, and we construct economic and political mechanisms to that end. This is our system, not theirs: if you don’t like their rational responses, don’t blame them: blame yourself, and your part in making it so.

L

A reality TV window on the US.

datePosted on 08:01, September 20th, 2011 by Pablo

Some say that reality TV is a stained-glass window on society. In the US the concept began with the show “Cops,” now in its gadzillionth year. It gave rise to the Survivor and Amazing Race series, singing and dancing shows, celebrity this and that, cooking  disasters of various sorts, adventure and survival programs,  motorcycle and automobile customizers, the antics of sexual deviants, cheaters and lumpenproletiarians of various ethnicities (e.g. “Jersey Shore”), Bridezillas and vapid Housewives from various places, dumb and dumber idiots doing an assortment of Darwin Award misadventures, animal attacks, plus a variety other examinations of the detritus of US life. However, the recent turn in reality programming offers a dark reflection of the economic malaise gripping the country.

In recent months the reality concept has focused on the impact of economic misery, albeit from a tangental angle. The most popular shows, led by those on a channel called “True TV–not reality, but actuality”–are those that cover the flow-on effects of econonic hardship. These are led by several shows about vehicle repossession agents, but also include shows dedicated to pawn shops, gun dealers, auctioneers, hoarders and down on their luck gold prospectors. The television angle is not on the economic condition of the participants but on the behavioural effects produced by the consequences of personal economic misfortune: fights, tears, breakdowns and other human drama. Like watching train wrecks, these shows cater to morbid interest and pervese delight in other’s misfortune, which may say something about the state of US social cohesion. I confess to finding some of those involved strangely fascinating, and there is some dark humor involved, but my overall sense is that these shows are a bit too close to the truth to be entirely easy to watch. 

I am not sure what to make of all this, but it could do conservative US policy makers some good to watch these shows, simply for them to see, should they wish to, the human face of the negative impact of the feral economic policies of the last decade.

NB: I am winding up my tour in the US this week, and other than one mention of the US-Russia game have seen and heard zero in the US media  about the RWC. What I did read is thatWayne Mapp said that the SAS was “sort of” involved in the latest terrorism incident in Kabul. Note to “Dr.” Mapp: that is  like being “sort of” pregnant.

Otherwise, and in spite of the RWC, it will be great to be home.

‘Ethnographic’ TV: compare & contrast

datePosted on 11:30, September 28th, 2010 by Lew

At the risk of courting Pablo’s disappointment, I’m descending briefly from lofty theoretical heights to make a few rather rambly observations about two new examples of ‘ethnographic’ reality television in New Zealand: How the Other Half Lives and Are You My Tribe? (both of which screen on TV One, Monday nights).

First, the similarities: Both shows follow a pretty well-established format popularised most thoroughly by Louis Theroux: ‘gonzo anthropology’ for the television audience. Both are journeys of discovery undertaken by middle-aged celebrities who have made their names and reputations by being all-round Kiwi blokes — former All Black Marc Ellis and broadcaster Mikey Havoc. Both have enthusiastically embraced their ignorance of those aspects of life in New Zealand which form their shows’ subject matter. Both possess the superficial characteristic required for such an endeavour: the ability to establish and maintain rapport with people whilst simultaneously objectifying them; or, put another way, the ability to make the objectification not seem quite so objectionable.

In HTOHL Ellis is explicitly using his status as a cultural elite to investigate defined sub- or counter-cultures within New Zealand society. In AYMT Havoc uses the same cultural elite status to gain entry to te Ao Māori in an attempt to make up for 38 years of having (as one Ngāi Tūhoe kaumatua put it) not bothered. Both Havoc and Ellis speak to — and for — ordinary Pākehā middle-class New Zealand; that swathe of folk who are, by any objective definition, in charge of the country economically, politically and culturally; and who yet harbour considerable uncertainty about whether they are or not. There’s an unselfconscious normative aspect to this; HTOHL’s blurb declares that Ellis “reckons he’s pretty normal” but in the show “he jumps the fence of normality”; the word ‘other’ is even in the show’s title. AYMT pointedly started with the most ‘scary’ iwi for its first show, which went to some lengths to emphasise Tūhoetanga as a distinguishing characteristic. So the clear subtext of both shows is to firm up that shaky sense of cultural identity by emphasising the fact that the cultural objects of his investigation — those, by definition, with a strong and distinctly-articulated identity — are on the margins, outside society’s norms and not really wholly accountable to them. The screening of the two shows back-to-back is a bit troublesome here; I’m vaguely disturbed by the equation of Māori with the sort of fringe subcultural ‘others’ which are the objects of Ellis’ investigations — Neo-Nazi survivalists, witches, born-again Buddhists and so on.* One of the key things the last few decades should have taught Aotearoeans of all hues is that Māori aren’t just another fringe group.

So much for the similarities. There are some pretty fundamental differences between these two shows, which are also emphasised by their consecutive timeslots. The first and most obvious of these is the specific objects and the host’s relationship to them. Ellis is lighthearted and superficial; he’s more interested in the gonzo than in cultural engagement, and the choice of fringe subcultures as his objects permits him to be flippant and dismissive when it suits. Havoc, playing for much higher stakes, doesn’t have this luxury: he can’t treat his objects as cultural curiosities or as a freakshow. He has to take his objects seriously, and this requires him to engage more deeply and more honestly with them than Ellis does, to put more of himself on the line, drawing more out from the objects of his investigation.

That difference gives rise to the second major difference: the presence and extent of judgement as to life according to ‘other’ norms. The heart of programming like this — and of comparative ethnography in general — is in the carefully-contained judgement of the investigator. The point is to examine the cultural fronts, where norms butt up against each other; and the key attribute of a host isn’t so much to be a jovial wise-cracking ‘good bloke’, it’s to do so whilst gaining genuine insight into where the cultural fronts lie, how they might be negotiated, and indeed whether it’s possible to negotiate them. This is a pretty rare quality; one which Louis Theroux has in spades and which permits him to make such eye-opening television: the objects of his investigation don’t feel like they’re being objectified. As a rule they are disarmingly frank, and sometimes frighteningly so. Theroux achieves this sort of dynamic by carefully constraining his judgement, but not abandoning it altogether. Theroux asks the question which needs to be asked and holds his own cultural ground, but does so in a way which does not threaten or attack his objects. Theroux refuses to become complicit in admiring whatever edifices of self-delusion his objects erect, but also does not make it his business to tear them down.

For all that Havoc exhibits maudlin and faintly embarrassing envy for the strong and rooted sense of identity possessed by Ngāi Tūhoe (honestly, how many generations will it take for people to realise that being Pākehā is not the absence of culture; it is a culture in and of itself!), he enters into the discourse in good and robust faith to find out what that identity is, and what it tells him about his own. His aim is not to disabuse them of their stranger notions, but nor is it just to impassively observe. Havoc puts himself in uncomfortable situations (such as powhiri and a raucous kitchen-table drinking session) but does not relinquish his own cultural ground, finding ways to ask the question — like addressing the fact that one in four young Māori end up in prison, and asking “how is ‘exclusive’ different from ‘racist’?” — and expecting good answers, without alienating those who must provide them.

Ellis, on the other hand, is not required to do anything more than the superficial, so he doesn’t. He exhibits a much stronger sense of his own identity than than Havoc does, but there’s almost nothing of it in the programme. His own reality is never challenged: the cultural front never emerges because instead of engaging and standing firm on his own ground, he withdraws into jocular trivialities, avoiding the conflict which is necessary for this sort of exercise. Discomfort is limited to banalities like sitting through three-hour chanting ceremonies and sleeping rough in the bush. He gets through the entire first episode of this season with Kyle Chapman, former leader of the National Front and probably New Zealand’s best-known neo-Nazi, without once initiating discussion about the ideological and racist foundations of Chapman’s Survive Club. What’s more, when one of the club members talks about how the ‘maaris’ — and Ngāi Tūhoe in particular — are the leading threat to New Zealand’s civil society, he fails to ask the question (in fact, judging by a posting on Survive Club’s website it seems that not being a “media hate monger” was part of the deal.) It takes a special sort of obliviousness to not remark on the irony of a group of racial-supremacist armed wannabe commandos training for the coming apocalypse in a remote part of the Southern Alps who think some other group are the real threat.

You don’t get to be Louis Theroux without asking that question.

L

* I can certainly see the counter here: Tūhoe training camps; rongoa Māori and modern religions like Hauhau and Ratana.

Resisting the decline

datePosted on 17:19, March 3rd, 2010 by Lew

This is art, can you believe it?After some reflection and consideration of the pretty well-made arguments against my last post on Sensing Murder, I now have a bit more understanding of and sympathy for the position of those who are so infuriated and offended (thanks, Tony, Keir, Andrew and others). While I still think the difference between psychics and other sorts of entertainers is one of degree rather than kind, I accept that it’s a pretty big difference of degree, and that matters.

I wonder if there’s a correlation between those who object most strenuously to shows like Sensing Murder and those who generally bemoan the falling standards of entertainment and current affairs, and particularly the rise and proliferation of reality TV formats, and the consequent “realitisation”, if I may coin the term, of other genres. I’m thinking, here, of shows like Lost, which started out basically as a fictional version of Survivor; and 24, which is basically a video game in serialised form; the talking-head rent-a-quote instant-experts which predominate in news and current affairs programming; and the reality-esque coverage of media heroes and antiheroes like Clayton Weatherston and David Bain.

I reckon there would be, and I reckon that no small portion of the reason people hate on Sensing Murder so much is because it represents the most egregious example of this trend toward manufactured verité — in entertainment, in real life, and in how real life is presented to us. In this, it’s just another example of “resisting the decline” of society, which happens to an extent every generation.

I should hasten to add that I think it’s important that the decline be resisted — but by the same token I think it’s important that the reasons for resisting it be clearly stated and understood. But here’s another thing: while there is undeniably a great deal of dreck in the reality TV ouvre, and a significant amount of bland mediocrity, has the move genuinely brought nothing of value? The most venerated examples of the reality genre — Survivor for one; Idol and so on for another — have given zillions of people a great deal of pleasure, and now form a pretty central part of our* culture. I have a particularly soft spot for Survivor since it’s essentially just a big ball o’ political, social and psychological theory implemented in a handy ritualised narrative form.

In case you think I’m a trendy hipster libertine, I do personally disdain a huge amount of pop-culture — but not to the extent that I wish its absence on others who are into that sort of thing. That’s where I draw the line with Sensing Murder: let those who have been duped of money or faith complain to the small claims tribunal, or Fair Go, or the Advertising Standards Board, or the Commerce Commission. Let those who dislike the programme turn it off, and voice their disapproval to TVNZ and the show’s producers. Let those who object to public money being spent on it, and to the Police becoming involved in it make their objections known strongly, but let it all be done in the knowledge that some folk want it anyway and are willing to pay for it, even if it is all faked (and, deep down, they know it).

Last generation’s trash is this generation’s treasure; and vice versa. So it has ever been. This is part of what it is to live in a liberal society. Is it not?

L

* Permit me this generalisation, since I don’t want to write, nor (I am sure) do you want to read, yet another awkward definition of the “self” in this context.

Psychic’s Advocate

datePosted on 14:32, February 28th, 2010 by Lew

Poneke has another post up about Sensing Murder. Just for the record, I agree with the core argument of the post, and its somewhat famous predecessor. It should come as no shock to most of you that I also agree that the worst bit is that some journalists and current affairs directors treat them as newsworthy — but that’s the newsmakers’ failure, not the psychics’.

But here’s a comment from Falafulu Fisi I think could use a little unpacking:

People earn money for a living by being honest and hard work.
Business men are successful by being brilliant in running their businesses.
Paranormal practitioners (psychics etc,…) earn money via people’s stupidities and gullibility’s. They can become rich of course. Put them into the real world to try and earn an honest living they would be the laziest and incompetent wherever they are.

And in response, this from Klytemnestra:

I would have to disagree somewhat with Falafu Fisi. Excluding those cranks who actually believe they can talk to the dead, these ‘psychics’ are really quite successful business people. Getting rich by exploiting niche markets with false services no one really needs; this is a feat worthy of a degree of respect, even if they are repugnant in every other way.

Contra both of them, I’d argue that their “honest living” isn’t as psychics, or necessarily as providers of false services; it’s as entertainers. After all, those who actually use those “services” are a tiny fraction of those who consume the televised or stage-managed product which results. I also don’t accept Poneke’s suggestion that these consumers necessarily believe they have psychic powers — after all, it doesn’t follow that people who watch vampire movies actually believe in vampires. But even if they did, it ultimately doesn’t matter: taking advantage of peoples’ credulity isn’t wrong in and of itself, and for doing it these folk don’t deserve any more — and in general considerably less — criticism than financial advisers, real estate agents and talk radio hosts. They give a great many people who want such things something to watch of an evening, and something to believe in and make them feel all warm and fuzzy inside. In this regard it’s little different from — say — soap operas or romantic comedies. There’s a fair argument that it’s ghoulish, and perhaps hurtful to the real people involved, but in this regard it’s little different from — say — the cheesier end of TV current affairs or other reality programming.

Even if you don’t personally see any value in it, that’s an honest living, wouldn’t you agree?

L