There’s a rule that most people in twelve-step programs must learn at some point. Debate what you will about these types of programs – how effective they are in treating addiction or other maladies, whether any of the steps actually apply to real life – but this piece of advice is sound. It is that ultimately, none of us can truly control other people. And the more we fret over them, the more we try to manipulate or control or push back against hurtful or offensive actions, the further we drive into despair, anxiety, heartache, even panic. Frustrating at first, it is, when taken to heart, a liberating realization.
But you try telling that to anyone who watches a certain Bravo reality show. The fracas goes like this. A cast member – let’s call them the Grand Cucumber – has been found to be cheating on their longtime partner, also a cast member, who we’ll call the Illusive Cardamom Bank, with another cast member, Your Friendly Neighborhood Ennui. Cast member 3 and cast member 2 were, previous to these revelations, very close friends. A friend group has imploded, as has the relationship between Grand Cucumber and the Illusive Cardamom Bank. Meanwhile, Grand Cucumber and Your Friendly Neighborhood Ennui claim to be in love, and remain, for the most part, unapologetic. All of this unfolds even as the current season of said reality series continues to air, with production shooting extra episodes and footage, and in some cases being sent back to the editing bays to better tease and lead up to the tastiest and most dramatic feast that we all by now know to be coming and, indeed, are salivating for.
For sure, nobody likes to be on the receiving end of infidelity, and nobody likes to be lied to by their best friends or lovers. Many will also argue that those who signed the show’s contract knew what they were in for. The reality TV rubric is by now well-known, and those involved are in no place to protest their personal lives becoming tabloid fodder. That’s a debatable point, but I’m also not here to take it up. Particularly as someone who, I admit, has watched every season of said reality TV show, including the current season. This isn’t about avoiding complicity. Like everything else under late capitalism, this is a cultural phenomenon in which all of us are complicit, quite regardless of what we think about it.
What stands out and really horrifies here is the degree to which so many people seem to be deeply interested and invested in all of this. Over the past several weeks there have been innumerable posts, tweets, tabloid stories, podcast episodes and TikTok videos dissecting the entire episode, searching for clues, asking who knew what when, slinging all manner of tawdry intrigue and vitriol at the accused cheaters, even urging boycotts of businesses in which the relevant parties might be involved. All for a series of actions that, while certainly hurtful and dishonest, are neither illegal nor particularly oppressive.
There’s a reason I used fake and absurd names when sketching all this out, and didn’t even name of the reality show. It’s because none of it matters. Switch out any of the actual humans involved in the scenario above, and it remains the same. So does the outrage provoked by it and the attendant social media snowball. That’s the nature of the parasocial relationship. Which may tell us something about how all of this righteous wailing still manages to remain so tedious and wretchedly boring. If this situation hadn’t unfolded how it did, or if it simply hadn’t sent people into such a rage, then something else would have.
It’s an odd kind of inversion, or perhaps just a next step, in what John Berger identified fifty years ago in the culture of celebrity. “Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped halfway is the ideal society for generating such an emotion.”
This isn’t envy per se. It’s not even really schadenfreude. Scrolling through the bulk of online chatter, the impulse that seems to be driving most is that of the chatterer (each and every one a self-declared “good person”) separating themselves ontologically from the cheating cast members in question (the presumed “bad persons”). And implied in turn is a barely concealed urge to widen this division, to categorize by giving the bad persons what they deserve, and lionize those who gave it to them. In other words, it’s an impulse to punish. A donut thrown to the cop in your head.
And yet, if you ask any of these people, a large portion of them would likely deny that they are raising such a hue and cry because they want to punish. Most would probably say, after a bit of gentle interrogation, that they are interested because they care. This may seem a bit of a tautology at first glance, but it’s not entirely. And insofar as it is, it’s because we simply aren’t used to asking why we feel the way we do in any situation, never mind one so entangled in the lines between fame and anonymity, righteousness and arrogance, fact and opinion, each of which seem to be regularly fraying in myriad different directions nowadays.
Really, what people are saying when they say this, is that they hate when people are mean to each other, when they are unthoughtful or when they do things they know will hurt others. This isn’t all that remarkable, or even noteworthy. Just about everyone feels this, at least in the abstract. What seems noteworthy is the idea that the resolution of conflict, of interpersonal hurt and healing, is the business of anyone in this case other than those directly involved. That any amount of energy, including one this forceful and large, be expended by any significant section of “the public” on this situation.
Particularly compared to the relatively muted reaction against some other, now almost daily, events. Puzzling as it may be to witness all this compared to, say, the lack of energy poured into opposing people who have done far worse things, committed far worse crimes, displaced and ruined the lives of far more people and in a far more meaningful way, it is interesting that these phenomena manage to co-exist in the same superstructure. And while we would be woefully remiss to suggest that anyone who “cares” about a reality TV scandal doesn’t care about climate collapse, the lack of affordable healthcare, or the thousands dying every day in an epidemic of opioid addiction, it’s the scandal that feels more real, more actionable, and therefore has more purchase.
It’s here that the confusion of care and punishment becomes salient. Because there are, in this disjointed moment we’re in, really very few instances of anyone caring about anything without also wishing for some kind of punishment to be doled out. Social media may be withering, but the individualized, performative, highly subjective standpoints it has instilled; the way it has entangled us in each other’s foibles; these remain. To care, therefore, is to blame, to believe that someone has to pay.
There’s something quite prescient about news like this dropping roughly around the same time as television and film writers are striking (though as I said earlier, if this “scandal” hadn’t seized our attention, something else would have). The last writers’ strike allowed the nascent template of reality TV to bloom and flourish, coming into its own as a major force in entertainment, making a fortune for studios without the need for pesky unionized writers or even actors. A relatively collective and collaborative process was switched out for one in which a handful of individuals can be sock-puppeted against each other for our entertainment.
Thus, the insidious belief that other people’s lives are fair game, that on some level we have a right to them, even for something as frivolous as our entertainment. What’s more, that we are better off zooming in on the flaws of others than thinking about our own lives, who we love and who we’ve hurt, what we have and what we are denied. Without some sense of social coherence, of belief that, ultimately, every single person deserves a basic amount of dignity in their lives, we are left only with the vicarious, the hope that if we can’t get ours, at least someone else can be kicked down like we’ve been. Thus the dynamic of reality TV, alongside trolling, doomscrolling and every other recent example of outsourced cultural despair, becomes integrated into the cycle of spectacle. Whether Debord ever predicted that the last phase of this society would be when we all become obsessed with each other and indifferent to ourselves I have no idea, but one does have to marvel at the insidious genius of it.
I also have no idea how we get out of this morass. But silencing that little voice of cheap satisfaction that compels us to punish more and more, quicker and quicker, isn’t merely a matter of culture. Doing what we can to ensure a victory for the writers might be a first step, though that would likely leave most of the lurid cultural edifice in place. I do know that my own viewership of this particular reality show is becoming harder to stomach, not because of the horrible things any number of cast members have done to each other, but because of the perceived permission it gives the rest of us to do the same.
This, of course, isn’t to say that those still able to watch are somehow degenerate, or even that we necessarily need to stop, though I do now find myself wondering how much repressed repulsion is required to actually enjoy this form of entertainment. There’s more than a bit of Fisher’s framework of capitalist realism here, and the imaginative cul-de-sac it has put us in. It is difficult to believe we would all be so invested in watching and tearing each other down if we were able to picture ourselves watching each other build, create, and meet each other’s needs.
More precisely, it seems that if care were seen as an end in itself, then it would likely already be decoupled from notions of punishment. What Nancy Fraser and others are referring to as the crisis of care – encompassing everything from the neglect of medical institutions to the amount of sheer bleakness we’ve learned to turn a blind eye to – is instructive here.
But ultimately, I find myself completely at a loss. Perhaps because, odd as it may sound, these kinds of fly-on-the-wall reality shows speak to the basest of our existential dreads. They do so quite by accident, but if they didn’t then they wouldn’t be able to whip people into such an exhausting outrage. It’s the dread that we won’t ever be able to defeat those who have wronged us, that we won’t find the friends and family and lovers we picture ourselves deserving. That ultimately, we’re alone in an unfair world.
Even in the most just and equitable society, life will still be a cruel farce. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t also be other wonderful things we need it to be, things it presently is not. But that basic and unavoidable truth will, it seems to me, remain intact. At least if we helped minimize the cruelty, we might be able to stand back and laugh at the farce, bemused by this irrational inevitability in an otherwise marvelous life. That, to me, sounds like as worthy and fulfilling a rebuke as we’re ever going to muster. Unfortunately, we’re all too busy laughing at each other. It’s a poor substitute.