The Dangerous False Self Inherent in Reality TV

The current show Vanderpump Rules, appearing now on the Bravo network, has been getting a significant amount of attention lately in the mainstream press due to one of its significant stars cheating on his long-time girlfriend with a certain younger member of the cast who ala Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, has been seemingly running after one male cast member after another. The fact that a show such as this, particularly the ones that appear on the Bravo and the E networks, is receiving such a degree of attention is a disturbing trend in our society for a number of reasons; not the least of which is how these shows greatly facilitate the sort of superficial, dumbed down culture which is now so prevalent in our society, as well as encouraging the sort of bullying behavior which, if the truth be known, is a major reason why many people become so enamored of these shows – to watch their least favorite character be subjected to other people’s animosity.

However, there is another deleterious dynamic inherent in the web of reality television, possibly one that is even more dangerous simply because it is not so obvious. This is how they regularly encourage the facilitation of a false self in those who are regular cast members. Of course, as everyone knows, the people who inhabit these shows are not playing a character similar to how one might do so if they were appearing in an edgy drama written by the likes of Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill. Yet, at the same time, as the great Italian filmmaker Frederico Fellini said years ago, whenever you turn the camera on somebody to film them, it inevitably changes their behavior.

Therefore, in a very real sense, although the people who show up on reality television shows like Vanderpump Rules are still being filmed as themselves, still it seems rather obvious that many of them will tend to change their behavior, even if only slightly, when the camera is on them. Consequently, they are in effect creating a caricature, if you will, of their true selves; something that becomes rather obvious when they appear on Bravo to discuss their role in the show when they are not actually appearing in one of its episodes. For example, situations that appear on the show to be extremely dramatic, and at times even heart wrenching, are simply laughed off when those who have been filmed as being part of them appear on Andy Cohen’s gossip-driven show Watch What Happens Live, and it becomes rather obvious to anyone watching that what they are often seeing on Vanderpump Rules are disingenuous performances of sorts.

In 1959 radical British psychotherapist R.D. Laing published his visionary book The Divided Self, in which he so brilliantly explained how people might create a false self around themselves in in order to protect themselves from a reality which was too frightening to deal if one confronted it fully exposed as the person which one actually was. However, as this process of self-protection further evolves, a person becomes eventually trapped inside the false self which he or she has created around him or herself. And as a result, one’s relations with the world and with other people grow increasingly less authentic until at last one is trapped inside a false persona in which authentic connections with others become increasingly if not entirely impossible to achieve.

The real danger of this trend in our culture relative to reality television is of course that many of the young people watching these shows on reality television might begin to believe that it is alright for them to begin adopting the same sort of false persona which they see their favorite reality show participants adopt until eventually it begins to swallows their more authentic selves. Yes, reality television shows have introduced some dangerous trends into our society (e.g. encouraging the sort of bullying behavior in a society in which the next person who has been continually bullied might pick up a gun as retribution). Yet the encouragement of the adoption of an inauthentic self is likewise one of the unhealthy trends that are part of the popular explosion of reality television into our culture.

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