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Life is NOT a competition – but try telling that to RTV

I’ll be upfront and warn you that this a bit of a soapbox post (aren’t they all). Seriously. As a teacher and commentator in and of the media, I try and give most shows a try – good, bad, pathetic and thrilling. At least, that’s my excuse for watching far too much television.

It occurred to me lately that with the plethora of RTV (reality TV) shows soaking up screen time (and more set to come), there’s been a shift of emphasis in the overall thrust of the shows. Whereas once they were referred to as ‘fly-on-the-wall documentaries and may have been able, in their initial heyday, to wear that badge proudly (even while deploying aspects of other genres such as soap opera, drama, mockumentaries, comedy and game show characteristics), lately, they’re reduced to little more than competitions.

Now, I’m not talking about your benign Deal or No Deal, RockWiz, Einstein Factor or Too Stupid to be a Millionaire, which are what you see is what you get competitions, or even of the Surivivor, Idol, talent shows or Race Around the World mould. No, this latest batch, brewed over the last four years or so, take competition to new and scary heights.

Instead of drawing on game shows for inspiration, they draw on life and turn it into a game show apropos Death Race 2000: families, relationships, renovating, cooking, travelling, entering countries, courtship and even child-raising (nothing is too important or insignificant) have, through the genre of RTV, become competitor-based. What these programs do by using a ‘winner takes it all’ scenario, is transform the daily grind of life into something, not only far more interesting than it generally is, but also try and persuade us that it’s all right to turn every miniscule second of our realities into dramas with us at the centre or, at the least, into drastic problems that need to be solved. Don’t have the right cheese for your sauce? OMG! Tears, tantrums and abuse are appropriate responses. Mum didn’t get the dress you wanted to wear clubbing dry-cleaned for you? OMG! Tears, tanties and tons of abuse are perfectly acceptable things to hurl at your parent.

The RTV programs seduce us into believing that the minutiae of daily life, our lives, is not only interesting, but so is that of others. And, they do this in the worst possible way, by setting us against each other, as if life is a race that has to be won. You want to be a winner and not a loser, don’t you? They reduce the world into binary opposites of hot/cold, hero/villain, sexy/ugly, smart/stupid, manipulator/manipulated etc. All the time making it clear which side ‘winners’ should be on who, at the least, it’s appropriate to champion.

Of course, the ‘winner’ accrues certain rewards – fame, notoriety, presumably money and a boorish and quite horrible reputation. But many people are thinking that’s a small price to pay if you’re ‘famous.’

Take for example these shows: Firstly, Come Dine With Me, Australia and My Kitchen Rules. Ostensibly about cooking and sharing food with those who consider themselves gourmands, it pits couples or, in Come Dine With Me, Australia, single strangers (or strange singles) against each other in what is transformed into a dog-eat-dog attack fest. Invited to dine together and pull apart the thought and effort that the cook/s have gone into, it turns that all-time favourite between friends, into a competition. It encourages us all to become critics and, like some book and film reviewers, approach the experience with an ungenerous eye and with the primary goal of fault-finding.

Sharing food with friends and strangers has, across many cultures, been a traditional and significant part of the guest-host relationship and a way of breaking down barriers, forging relationships and above all offering pleasure and love through preparing, cooking and partaking in a meal together. These kinds of shows completely overturn all this and make it something superficial and tasteless… but also, and here’s the difficult thing, compulsive viewing! By turning the act of meal preparation and eating into a competition, the viewer also judges the efforts and results, critiques and awards a ‘winner’. The side effect of this is, potentially, that this kind of way of viewing food and dinner parties can be brought across into reality. Come Dine With Me and let’s have a food fight….

Then, there’s also shows that are touted as offering a glimpse into various types of relationships, whether it be The Real Housewives of Orange County, The Hills, or the new kid on the block, Dallas Divas and Daughters. What all these programs have in common is groups of women (and some men) who are shown doing little more than pitting themselves against each other in terms of material possessions, income and relationships and who spend a great deal of every show sinking their claws into each other and agonising over superficial issues. They show the worst side of women and men and in doing so tend to suggest that this is what women and men of that age, area and culture are like. While, logically, we know this to be untrue, at another level, the stereotypes these shows construct become imprinted, making it easy to become critical and dismiss all women from Dallas, for example, as being like that; or all young women or men as vapid and narcissistic. They homogenise and reduce people – diminish them in every one’s eyes – and for what? Ratings, which equal money. As viewers, we’re invited into these so-called lives to also offer judgement, the harsher the better and the more it’s likely to keep us engaged and discussing them.

That people are prepared to appear on these shows and sell their lives and souls so publicly seems extraordinary. Since Big Brother first debuted in Australia in 2001 and at different times in different parts of the world, never mind, Survivor, our knowledge about editing and cutting and the way a producers and directors can control what is finally televised and the way a personality is shaped, is growing. We can no longer, whether audience or participant, plead ignorant as we understand how there has to be a ‘villain’ or ‘bitch’, a ‘hero/ine’, a ‘bimbo’ and even an physically unattractive character so the audience can relate to the various roles and the way they are played and the people who fulfil them. There no ‘shades of grey’ in these shows. They juxtapose reductive types and limit representation in the process.

Despite possessing this knowledge, contestants queue to be on these shows, to attain ‘stardom’ even if it’s blighted by the ‘villain’ reputation – this is because it accrues those rewards I mentioned earlier. Even if they are brief and a heavy price is exacted. In this celebrity-obsessed world, it’s considered a small one. All for the sake of trying to be perceived as number one, a winner, a star, in other people’s eyes.

Rarely are anything but superficial interactions discussed on camera. Usually, the only emotions portrayed are reactions to others comments or responses to trite situations – such as a meal being cold while really important discussions like having a baby (see The Hills), are shared with girlfriends instead of the husband and cheapened dramatically by also being turned into a competition that, in this instance, pits wife against husband. It’s tragic.

I don’t know where these RTV shows are turning next, but I do know that life is not a competition, rather its a story that we all write together – with its highs and lows and ups and downs. It’s also something we share. I can’t help but think of that old adage, ‘it’s lonely at the top.’ I am sure they’ll make an RTV show about that all too soon…

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