Review: Belabored Reality: Making It Work on The Simple Life and Project Runway

It’s fairly clear from Heather Hendershot’s choice of language that she does not care for the image of femininity that is portrayed by the Simple Life, or, in fact, for Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, as much as one can dislike them given how little the viewers of these shows can really know about them.  Hendershot shows us how little reality this show actually protrays; that it is quite likely the impetus that shakes the fictitious reality paradigm from its self-sustaining orbit.

Hendershot’s focus throughout is on the contrasting paradigms of work ethic as portrayed by The Simple Life (where sloth is apparently rewarded) and Project: Runway, where the neoliberal “illusion of meritocracy” is perpetuated by the promise of professional advancement, and ultimately social advancement, through proof of ones worthiness over other contestants (246).  While many reality shows cling to a “gamedoc” to justify the situations and narratives presented and edited into creation by producers, to suggest within the framework of Project Runway that one is “playing a game” is to play it poorly – the difference between “contest” and “game” seems to be the line the show wishes to draw.  Though they may be competing against one another, it is a *real* competition as one experiences in the neoliberal market place, and, indeed, the rewards for this work are neoliberal prestige and power through the marketable commodities of fame, talent, and work experience.

And this work experience is free labor for the producers of the show.  Project Runway is a branded product, despite its relative credibility as an academic board of design review, and as such, the bottom line within the neoliberal framework of reality television is to make it as cheap a product to produce as possible. By getting around the need for scripts and actors, the producers get around the need for unionized labor, and yet still manage to produce a dramatic, quasi-fictional narrative due to the machinations of manipulative story design producers (who are not “writers” in the strictest sense, even though their finished product is largely fictional).

In the end, it is the quasi-fictional narrative that wins the game, as in the “homonormative” environment of Project Runway; the true underdog is the middle class heterosexual white male hoping to break free of his working class environs.  His family voices their hope that he can “escape” this life into the world of High Fashion – simultaneously glorifying the admittedly socially positive cultural environment of the show while pandering to existing stereotypes and reinforcing the dramatic roles imposed upon the show’s contestants.  Only one will benefit from their nigh thankless labor at the end of the series – the one who has played the non-game to the producer’s highest liking.

At the other end of the spectrum, The Simple Life, for which Hendershot displays unmasked disdain, seems to espouse the antithesis of this paradigm.  Producers encourage viewers to engage, with distance and ironic eyes, a paradigm that negates the possibility of social mobility despite its glamorization of the trappings of neoliberal excess.  Perhaps theirs is a comforting message, promoting a lack of social mobility offers the viewers a chance to justify their sour grapes ethos – they wouldn’t want to raise their social status or standard of living anyway, as the kinds of people they would socialize with (Richie and Hilton) are socially and morally repugnant.  But Hendershot dissects the viewing experience that is The Simple Life, ultimately likening it to a mixture that has not quite fit its mold.  Whereas the slapstick antics of the dimwitted Richie and Hilton would be endearingly humorous were they sincerely in need (or at least want) of legitimate work, the fact that they neither want nor need to participate in working class activities makes their inability to fulfill their basic duties more a sad insult to the viewing audience than a comedic event with which the average viewer can empathize.

Indeed, recognizing that comedy is, by and large, the result of struggle and resilience against social inequality, the fact that Richie and Hilton think that they can not only be funny, but be funny through off-handed reality mechanisms is, on the one hand, a grave insult to the art of comedy and the artists of the craft, if Hilton and Richie have conscious understanding of the narrative that will be presented.  On the other hand, if they do not, it is entirely telling of their lack of intelligence and artistic sophistication.  Given Ockham’s razor, the simplest explanation being the most likely one, it appears obvious from Hilton and Richie’s ignorance that, though money can buy taste, and “Taste Classifies”, intelligence, social character and moral fiber are still without a price tag (254).

1.)    “The foolish sayings of a rich man pass for wise ones” – Old Spanish Proverb – Do the preconceived narratives of the Simple Life paint a realistic picture of the character of all people of means?  Are Richie and Hilton’s behaviors indicative of some sort of trend, or are they too far beyond most economic classes for their behaviors to be indicators of larger social movements?
2.)    The art world is not that much unlike Project Runway, in that much labor is unpaid and many artists toil in obscurity, building a portfolio as a means of gaining notice.  Does an accurate portrayal of this process help or hinder artists?

Murray, Susan, and Laurie Ouellette. “Belabored Reality: Making It Work on The Simple Life and Project Runway.” 243-55.  Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. New York: New York UP, 2009. Print.

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