Reality TV: In Context

Here’s a syllabus for a 10-week course on reality television.

Reality TV: In Context

Course Description

This course examines the visual, cultural, economic and ethical dimensions of reality TV, situating its rapid proliferation over the past decade in the context of broader economic forces, historical developments, and social trends. Drawing from critical theories of media and culture, we will take reality TV as a case study for thinking through complex questions about representation, truth, power, citizenship, celebrity, and identity. Along the way, we will critically examine a number of popular reality formats including game docs, reality soaps, dating shows, makeovers and talent competitions. More specifically, we’ll begin our collective work by asking what’s “real” about reality TV and examining relationships between today’s popular reality programs and the documentary tradition. Next, we’ll develop a historical perspective by revisiting earlier versions of reality TV and exploring how changes in the television industry have paved the way for contemporary reality formats. The final weeks of the course will deal with issues of power, culture, and social identity. Together, we will attempt to reveal the various ways in which reality TV links up with larger forces at work in society and culture.

Course Reading Schedule

Week 1.  Defining Television ‘Reality’

Jonathan Bignell, “Television Realities”
Arild Fetveit, “Reality TV in the Digital Era: A Paradox in Visual Culture”
John Corner, “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions”
Susan Murray, “’I Think We Need a New Name for It’: The Meeting of Documentary and Reality TV”

Week 2. History and Ethics: Contextualizing Reality Entertainment

Amber Watts, “Queen for a Day: Remaking Consumer Culture, One Woman at a Time”
Derek Kompare, “Extraordinarily Ordinary: The Osbournes as ‘An American Family’”
Anna McCarthy, “’Stanley Milgram, Allen Funt, and Me:’ Postwar Social Science and the ‘First Wave’ of Reality TV”
Laura Grindstaff, “Class, Trash, and Cultural Hierarchy”

Week 3.  The Business of Reality TV

Chad Raphael, “The Political Economic Origins of Reali-TV”
Ted Magder, “The End of TV 101: Reality Programs, Formats, and the New Business of Television”
Silvio Waisbord, “McTV: Understanding the Global Popularity of Television Formats”
Henry Jenkins, “Buying Into American Idol: How We Are Being Sold on Reality Television”

Week 4. Making It Work: Self, Transformation, Labor

Gareth Palmer, “’The New You’: Class and Transformation in Lifestyle Television”
Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, “Makeover TV: Labors of Reinvention”
Alison Hearn, “’John, a 20-year Boston Native with a Great Sense of Humor’: On the Spectacularization of the ‘Self’ and the Incorporation of Identity in the Age of Reality Television”
Heather Hendershot, “Making It Work on Project Runway and The Simple Life”

Week 5. Race on Reality TV

Jon Kraszewski, “Country Hicks and Urban Cliques: Mediating Race, Reality, and Liberalism on MTV’s The Real World”
Mark Andrejevic and Dean Colby, “Racism and Reality TV: The Case of MTV’s Road Rules”
Rachel Dubrofsky, “The Bachelor: Whiteness in the Harem”

Week 6. Gender on Reality TV

Jonathan Gray, “Cinderella Burps: Gender, Performativity, and the Dating Show”
Sarah Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer, “‘I Just Want to be Me Again!’: Beauty Pageants, Reality TV, and Post-Feminism”
Toby Miller, “Metrosexuality: See the Bright Light of Commodification Shine! Watch Yanqui Masculinity Made Over”

Week 7. Celebrity in the Age of Reality TV

Nick Couldry, “Playing for Celebrity”
Graeme Turner, “The Mass Production of Celebrity: ‘Celetoids, Reality TV, and the Demotic Turn”
Alice Leppert and Julie Wilson, “Living the Hills Life: Lauren Conrad as Reality Star, Soap Heroine, and Brand”

Week 8. Reality TV and Neoliberalism

Katherine Sender, “Queens for a Day: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the Neoliberal Project”
Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, “TV Interventions: Personality Responsibility and Techniques of the Self”
Ron Becker, “Help is on the Way! Super Nanny, Nanny 911, and the Neoliberal Politics of the Family”

Week 9.  Reality TV and Cultures of Surveillance

Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, “TV and the Self-Defensive Citizen”
Mark Andrejevic, “The Discipline of Watching”
Mark Andrejevic, “Visceral Literacy: Reality TV, Savvy Views, and Auto-Spies”

Week 10.  Reality Programming or Programming Reality?

Nick Couldry, “Teaching Us to Fake It”
Alison Hearn, “Hoaxing the Real: On the Meta-Narrative of Reality Television”
Jack Bratich, “Programming Reality: Control Societies, New Subjects and the Powers of Transformation”
Barry King, “Training Camps of the Modular: Reality TV as a Form of Life”

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