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The symbolic violence of reality television

Published on London Progressive Journal (here) 24/03/12

Prior to the encroachment of neo-liberal policy into the economic and cultural landscape of Britain, television programmes we would typify as ‘entertainment shows’ were built around the dominant working-class lifestyle and values.

Shows like ‘Steptoe and Son’ and ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’ were seen as the populist breakaway from the flat-toned intelligentsia that were main place in the post-War era, and these (albeit tongue-in-cheek) representations of working-class life helped define this culture as integral to the culture of the country itself.

Following her self-proclaimed destruction of the trade unions (and consequently the shattering of the backbone of working-class life), Margaret Thatcher made a declaration that has come to define the cultural objectives of modern television programming; “there’s tons of room at the top.” No longer may you be content with your humble job and your modest wardrobe; you must strive to meet the expectations of a middle-class that has become the universal norm. And such expectations are not broadcasted lightly.

The French cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term ‘symbolic violence’ to describe how the ideas and values of a ruling cultural class are purposefully imposed (often through subconscious means) onto a dominated social group. This symbolic violence is evident in reality TV shows, where working-class values and styles are demonised and sterilised in the name of ‘aspiration’.

Take for example ‘What Not To Wear’, broadcast on the BBC for nearly seven years. The resident demagogues Trinny and Susannah ambushed women and made them parade, semi-naked, as the duo gawked and sneered from behind hidden cameras at apparent defects in the woman’s appearance or style.

The show progressed on to rectify these infractions; the symbolic castration of the woman’s individuality as she was transformed into a ‘sleek and sophisticated modern woman’ was seen as a triumph in the eyes of the hosts. The ritual humiliation they subjected the participant to serve as a threat to the show’s audience; obey or be ostracized. ‘What Not To Wear’ was class-warfare through the lens of post-feminism, a top-down spectator sport by which the privileged and successful middle-classes may applaud themselves and tisk at the less fortunate, all under the guise of ‘a superior sense of fashion’.

These subversive attacks on styles defiant of the middle-class ideology can be seen across nearly all reality TV formats. Property shows from ‘Homes Under the Hammer’ to ‘Location Location Location’ (and all of its many siblings) proliferate the myth of home ownership, treating small flats and terraced houses as nothing more than commodities to be bought and sold amongst amateur tycoons.

Condescending hand-out shows like ‘Secret Millionaire’ perpetuate the ethics of trickle-down economics, where no matter how hard you try, it is only from the graces of your betters that you may ever succeed. In almost every episode the incognito philanthropist turns to the camera to make some loaded comment like ‘I couldn’t do this job for more than a few hours’ or ‘I don’t know how they manage it’. We as the audience are expected to adopt these feelings too and, in almost pantomimic obedience, eagerly await the climax of the show when ‘those poor souls’ are hoisted by the hand of their betters out from their loathsome existence.

In an age of obsession with aspiration and drama, reality television programmes provide television producers a cheap and simple means of both. Through these shows, ordinary people are guided away from their deplorable habits and become champions of the middle-class dream. Coupled with a subliminal war of attrition in tabloid papers which attempt to stamp out traits that are associated with being working-class, reality television conducts a mass practise of some cultural Ludovico technique. We are shown a lifestyle and taught to fear and loathe it. Particularly in make-over programmes, the over-riding message is clear; any woman which does not possess the traits of an aspirational middle-class female (as dictated by a handful of so-called experts) is commanded to either improve, or face partitioning from respectable society.

Individuals that defy the idealised image of neo-liberal society, who are often victims to this system, are brought out and humiliated; their personalities insulted, their styles and habits criticised and their lives apparently improved through the symbolic violence of being made over, re-educated and transformed into an archetype of middle-class society.


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