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    August 22, 2003    PAGE SEVEN      
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          You Call This Reality?  by Aaron Gillum
                                                             "In the province of the mind,
                                what one believes to be true either is true or becomes true."
                                                                      John Lilly

As I mindlessly sat flipping through my television channels this week, nothing out of the ordinary caught my eye. As it happens, I'm a sucker for "Reality Television." I freely admit it. And as the remote flitted through the usual fare of trashy talk shows and less than graceful extreme sport fanatics bending limbs in wrong directions, I searched for something else...

A few clicks later, I happened upon MTV and its seemingly endless packs of screaming teenagers. Ah... MTV — the creator and spoiler of all popular youth culture.

Most don't consider MTV to be reality television, but I now believe I do.

The network portrays itself as a mirror reflecting the 14 to 23 year old demographic. But is that accurate? Are they showing us what we truly are? Or are they merely creating extreme caricatures… exaggerations of self… yet playing them off as the social norm?

They did, after all, create the "Woo!" girl. You know.... that girl that keeps a close eye on the camera and when it pans her direction, lets out a high pitched scream that rattles your fillings and sends your dog scurrying under the bed sheets. Hands above the head, mouth wide open, dreaming of that magical spring break just 2 years away when she can finally combine the "Woo!" with the symbolic lifting of her top.

Not to be outdone of course, there is the male equivalent. I wish I had a catchy name for him, but he's just as predictable and tired as the "Woo!" girl. He's some sort of "stooge" character. He'll toss in the occasional "Woo!" himself, but "Yeeeeaaaah!!" tends to be the grunt of choice. Mr. Stooge, like his female counterpart, is hypersexual but he can't get by on that alone. In order to raise his stock, our hero must participate in as much random stupidity as possible. He will eat something disgusting. He will run around naked. Basically, anything that can be viewed as degrading and/or mindlessly dangerous can be worn as a badge of honor.

Are we to understand that in order to prove one's worth and desirability, one must show they have absolutely no shame?

MTV holds these people up and says, "This is America's youth. This is you."

Now let's not bash solely on the youth...

The adult oriented reality programs are doing largely the same thing. As much as most of us adults like to exude self assuredness, we suffer from the same insecurities and the same desire to fit into our peer group as the aforementioned teens.

Survivor, The Family, Paradise Hotel, etc… Shows such as these have started their own "drama" feedback loops. While I can admit to taking a bit of hedonistic pleasure in watching idiots get naked and break things, I find the false sincerity these more adult focused shows breed to be more than I can take. In fact, if I have to see one more tearful speech about why one person was or was not picked over another, I may just be sick.

Back to reality here, please.

Three weeks ago, these individuals were perfect strangers. Yet now, through the trials and tribulations of daily room service and grueling challenges of coconut piling, we are asked to believe they've developed a bond not seen since the combat of World War Two! (Though in all fairness, they were blindfolded during the coconut piling, and I've heard that can be quite harrowing…)

A few years ago, we didn't have this type of entertainment. My generation had The Cosby Show, Mork & Mindy, and Three's Company. Going back a bit further it was Happy Days, Mary Tyler Moore, Leave it to Beaver and even Ozzie and Harriette. Each of those shows had something in common — outrageous exaggerations of behavior. And while not presented as a true slice of life, I'm sure there were those who tried to mimic them.

Yet there was always a palpable distance between we the viewers, and they, the characters. The truth that labeled them as fictional. As much as any impressionable viewer might try to ape a bit of their behavior, they were not real. No one ever claimed they were real. And viewers knew they'd never actually be like them.

At age 12, I wanted to be "Face" from the A-Team. But I was intelligent enough to understand that the actor behind the role was not desired by every woman he passed. And he most certainly did not have a suave comeback to every line he heard. I would have loved to be a quirky lady's man like Jack Tripper, but I wasn't practicing my pratfalls over the living room couch as an instructional aid to meeting girls.

Today, that's all changed. Television continues to offer us fictional characters with outlandish behavior. But now they're wrapped in a neat package dubbed "Reality TV," and are labeled as "real."

There's a generation of awkward adolescents (like every generation of teenagers) searching for a way to fit in. And they now have a roadmap telling them, "Be like this. This is what people do. Everyone but you lifts their shirt and rubs against strangers on the beach. Everyone but you is an exhibitionist. Everyone but you lives in a world of extravagant parties. Everyone but you dives right into the mosh pit. Everyone but you will sleep with any partner they can. Do what they do, and we'll let you into their world. This is what your life should be."

Adults on the other hand, are taught to over-dramatize every event in their lives. Blowing things out of proportion creates an illusion of importance.

It's a frightening feedback loop served up to America. A social feedback loop as jarring as the whine of a microphone set too close to a P.A. system. And like that annoying screech, its feedback grows exponentially. Every "Woo!" girl and every Stooge must ramp up their behavior in order to top the previous act if they expect to turn heads. After all, if everybody else is flashing viewers with peeks at body parts, simply smashing beer cans over your head leaves you lost in the crowd. Every adult must find a way to escalate the level of drama in their personal and work relationships in order to be heard over the roar.

And with each new show… and each new season, the stakes are raised. The level grows. It takes more and more. Nothing is too much. More is always called for. Right?

In a word, wrong. It's absolute rubbish. Every disagreement does not have to end with tears, hatred, and vengeful plotting. We definitely do not live in Melrose Place and exaggerating your political office struggles into soap opera plot lines neither makes you more interesting, nor your plight more valiant.

When forced to sit down and really think about it, can we all agree that what we are being sold as real, is anything but?

Regardless… this behavior has found a way to seep into our every day lives, hasn't it?

Slowly but surely the media's funhouse mirror reflection becomes our measuring stick for normalcy, and that's unfortunate.

When we can stop judging ourselves against what we see as the societal norm, the loop can be broken. Be happy with yourself and know that anyone that would judge you unfavorably because of your clothes, your car, your station in life, your job, or your physical appearance does not possess an opinion of any value whatsoever.

The paradox of reality is that no image is as compelling as the one which exists only in the mind's eye.

Copyright © August 2003  Aaron Gillum and Low Carb Luxury





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