Refreshingly, sociologist Danielle J. Lindemann, author of True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us isn’t interested in asking whether or not reality TV is “really real.” This question, she says, misses the point. The genre demonstrates that “all reality is socially constructed.” Unscripted programming plays a role in shaping the narratives we hold about our world, and reveals the mechanisms behind them.
Although reality television composes nearly half of current US shows, the genre is often flattened into the category of guilty pleasures: which is to say, for a lot of people, the genre is too trivial to merit real analysis, and too embarrassing to enjoy without self-deprecation. To call reality television a guilty pleasure is to enable the behavior associated with other sources of guilt—to stuff it in a shoebox under the bed, and hope nobody finds what lies inside. Its contents, according to Lindemann, are exaggerated caricatures of ourselves, a “fun-house mirror… that powerfully reflects the contours of our social world.” Lindemann quotes scholars who assert that “we learn about the core features of society by looking at the extremes.” If this is true, then reality television, which sustains itself on people willing to eat bugs and propose to strangers, shows us where our social boundaries lie by reversing them.
Lindemann opens True Story with an exercise that she assigns her undergraduates: list as many current U.S. Supreme Court justices as you can from memory in one column, and then list as many Kardashians as you can in the next. This is a game you are meant to fail. The exercise effectively asks: how can we, as a culture, dismiss reality television as inconsequential bottom-tier entertainment, when the genre permeates our consciousness to a degree that Justice Brayer can only aspire to?
Throughout the book, it’s hard to abandon this image of Lindemann: she’s a professor at the front of the class, and you are one of her students. As a reader, I was happy to follow along with the thought experiments, to feel surprised when she asked me to, and to trust her expertise. It’s a class that I’d have discussed with friends afterwards, one that lives in the same section of my mind as the Hidden Brain podcast.
This is a sociology book for a general audience. Lindemann breaks down concepts deftly and lightly. The research never prevents the book from being enjoyable to me as a lay reader, although I also don’t have the credentials to evaluate or respond to it. Lindemann combines foundational sociology texts with pop-culture references, and there’s a visceral delight to seeing Émile Durkheim paired with My Strange Addiction.
When Lindemann responds to the claim that reality performers don’t have any true skills to offer, she adds, in a parenthetical: “Even the concepts of “skill” and’ ”talent,” though, are social constructions, presuming excellence at tasks that are socially valued. I can wiggle each ear independently, which I think is pretty special, but I’ve never earned a cent for it.” I find it impossible not to imagine every semester that Lindemann might have performed this ear-wiggling joke before. It offers the type of personal insight that will keep an audience both engaged and at a reasonable distance.
The book is divided into 10 chapters, each analyzing the way reality television interacts with a broader social construct. The titles are formatted like this: “Here for the right reasons” (Couples); “Kim is always late” (Families); “Sparkle, Baby!” (Childhood). Again, there’s a joy to this. The chapter titles read like they were written by someone who was having fun. This is one of the draws of True Story: how thoroughly and genuinely Lindemann (a self-professed reality TV fan) seems to enjoy her subject.
Most of the chapters provide perspectives from scholars discussing why the boundaries of these social constructs are less clear-cut than they seem, as well as Lindemann’s analysis of how they exist within reality television. In some moments, unscripted programming is used simply as a pool of commonly-shared anecdotes and characters, which Lindemann can pull from to describe sociological principles. She narrows in on the racial identity of Snooki to illustrate the ways in which race defies easy classification. In this instance, the fact that Snooki is a reality star, rather than a politician or musician or anything else, seems incidental to the point. Still, Lindemann might argue that reality television also serves this function for its broad, mainstream audience—a pool of anecdotes about categories of people, which we collectively watch to help explain the world to each other.
Largely, the way reality TV explains the world is by casting people and manufacturing storylines that reinforce pre-existing ideas. Lindemann argues that when we watch Honey Boo Boo’s family “speaking unintelligently and behaving impulsively, it suggests that they’re responsible for… their own social position.” The show “obscures the large-scale social dynamics” at play and bolsters a narrative that pins socioeconomic outcomes on moral failings. Reality television is both a reflection of our social narratives, which Lindemann believes are more conservative than many people like to believe, as well as a gear in the machine that perpetuates them.
This is not to say that Lindemann condemns the genre—she doesn’t. She praises reality TV’s ability to “scribble wildly outside the lines,” to challenge and play with norms, and to serve a role in the formation of new narratives. Since the shows are relegated as “guilty pleasures,” the creators had more freedom to experiment with ideas surrounding gender and sexuality years before many of their mainstream scripted counterparts. Lindemann generally refrains from making value judgements or calls-to-action, beyond the action of viewing reality television through a critical and sociologically-imaginative eye.
The book is most compelling when it addresses the forces that draw audiences to reality television and simultaneously repulse them. Many viewers watch reality TV to discuss the shows with others. This act contributes to social cohesion, as viewers “draw and redraw the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable and place ourselves on the correct side,” by watching and debating the stories that play out on screen.
So, why is reality TV seen with disgust? An obvious answer would be that it offers viewers little that’s useful or functional, but then again, Lindemann notes, neither do sports, which are spared from this disdain. Another potential aspect of reality TV’s stigma is the gender breakdown of its viewership, which Lindemann mentions briefly (personally, I would have been interested in a longer discussion of this factor). Primarily, Lindemann posits that negative attitudes towards unscripted programming rise from a discomfort with “the types of people who populate these worlds,” who, as Lindemann puts it, “are versions of ourselves that go too far.” People are attracted to characters they identify with, but often disappointed by what they find. While sports show athletes, who hold socially laudable characteristics, reality television mirrors back the qualities within ourselves that we find most embarrassing and retrograde. Lindemann speculates, “Maybe we’re reticent to admit we watch these shows because we think their participants’ behavior reflects on us.”
The book ends the only way it possibly could: with a conclusion that examines the meeting on prison reform and sentencing between Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian. It was an inevitable move for the book—demonstrating how reality television stepped out from the shoebox and into the White House. Still, there was something so jarring about this moment, when the idea that reality TV impacts life moved beyond the realm of intellectual play and into tangible space, as real as anything.