Reacting to Reality Television, by Beverley Skeggs & Helen Wood

A welcome and invaluable critical analysis of some of the effects of the genre on its viewers.

Submitted by Tom Jennings on September 27, 2012

Morality Plays. Book review – Tom Jennings
This intriguing study follows its authors' comprehensive international collection of academic research in Reality Television and Class (Palgrave Macmillan 2011), showing that the genre quintessentially recycles – in melodramatic excess but fitting contemporary neoliberal ideology – the governmental disciplining of the lower orders. The latter enthusiastically display, commodify and cultivate their inadequate conduct – yet with scant chance of benefitting – in formulae with ubiquitous global appeal to media producers massively profiting from an apparently insatiable appetite among audiences to passively consume cheap spectacles of the shaming devaluation of their peers. Austerity agendas of cuts in welfare and social provision may help explain more blatant demonisations of the undeserving [1], whereas objectification, judgement and punishment for failing bourgeois exhortations has a longer pedigree. But what seems genuinely new – along with the popular acceptance of Reality TV as a legitimate, even entertaining, enterprise – is the narcissistic clamour among its targets to offer themselves wholesale to the sacrificial slaughter of self-respect.

However, such compelling interpretations imply that lower-class agency and resistance is already successfully closed down – also accommodating the blaming of victims for their abjection and chiming with traditional snobbish prejudice as well as current material assaults on the poor. Unwilling to so collude, the authors drew on Beverley Skeggs' Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable (Sage 1997) and Class, Self, Culture (Routledge 2004; reviewed in Freedom, 11th February 2006), which offer many insights into the middle-class prudent investment in social and cultural capital that others are excluded from access to. Except now the analysis prioritises 'affect' – immediate visceral responses only later overlain with individualistic connotations of psychological and emotional nuance more easily skewed by the oppressive weight of superior education, taste and distinction to hence favour privileged perspectives. The researchers solicited working- and middle-class viewers' explanations of their undeniably strong reactions to Reality TV narratives, exploring how this lived experience became coded in discourse in ways which might correspond or conflict with the presumed efficacy of biopolitical domination as represented in degraded form by these sadistic scenarios.

Gratifyingly, the focus groups consistently rejected the mocking ministrations of the programmes' 'experts' and 'mentors' in reforming recalcitrant charges. Nonetheless, middle-class viewers preferred moral criteria and patronising liberal sentiment in sympathising with the plights of lower-class subjects – but emphatically condemned anyone succeeding without knuckling down to improving themselves in the prescribed manners. Whereas working-class viewers empathically registered contextual restrictions, valuing humility, concern for others and perseverance over vanity, pretension and piety – only incompletely succumbing to capitalism's colonisation of the depths of the soul which widespread seduction by Reality TV (and other trivia) might signify. This more contradictory mulling over, rather than mere surrender to, the unpleasant 'reality' of everyday life – the surveillance society's fracturing, monitoring and instrumentalisation of intimacy amid deteriorating conditions of precarity and intrusive management – hints at abiding sociocultural resources still beyond the reach of unequal exchange [2].


Reacting to Reality Television: Performance, Audience and Value, by Beverley Skeggs & Helen Wood, is published by Routledge (2012)
1. see, for example, Owen Jones' Chavs (Verso, 2011).
2. see also: ‘Imagining Personhood Differently: Person Value and Autonomist Working-Class Value Practices’, Sociological Review, 59, 2011, pp.496–513 (
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 73, No. 9, September 2012.
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