The real appeal of reality stars

Lots of people have guilty joys, and for some of us it’s reality TV. While shows like American Idol feature talented singers, others (like Big Brother) draw viewers in by featuring regular contestants or outrageous celebrities (Keeping Up With the Kardashians).

Many people on these latter shows have no breakthrough talent other than getting involved in fights and spending big bucks. TikTokers Charli and Dixie D’Amelio’s The D’Amelio Show on Streaming Hulu is the latest to join this group of escapist entertainment productions.

You can act like your over-the-top family member or someone you know from high school.

As researched in an article by sociologist Laura Grindstaff, the reason we love to see these shows is because of the ordinaryness of these people, or “characters.” You can act like your over-the-top family member or someone you know from high school.

But these ordinary people are still special. They fall into the realm of celebrity but are still reasonably relatable. “The expanding opportunities to play yourself compete with the more established discourses about celebrities that are circulating, but do not supplant them: they offer new places of identity construction that combine the sacred and the everyday,” writes Grindstaff. As with the social media that made the D’Amelio sisters famous, reality TV can turn ordinary people into stars. Observing their experiences can help people see what life might be like if we were in their place. “Self-service television offers the possibility of appropriating yourself in the style of a celebrity cafeteria: It enables ordinary people to come in and help themselves to celebrity status without extensive training,” writes Grindstaff. Think Real World or Jersey Shore, or even talk shows like Jerry Springer. They offer us an insight into an alternative reality, partly out of morbid curiosity.

It doesn’t seem to matter that the authenticity of this form of entertainment is being questioned. As the confessions of the cast of The Hills and America’s Next Top Model show, reality TV isn’t just reality. Storylines are created. Producers can get reality show attendees to say certain things about their competitors to create drama. Scenes can be edited to change the tenor of a conversation. In the end, that doesn’t make them any less entertaining.

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From: Laura Grindstaff

Berkeley Journal of Sociology, Vol. 56, The Popular (2012), pp. 22-40 (19 pages)

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