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Reality TV, from entertainment to stupidity

I don’t believe in the clash of generations. This old idea, which has been repeated since Socrates, according to which “the young people of today” are less virtuous than those of yesterday inspires me no sympathy. However, I sometimes get stupidly angry with the whole youth when I see them give too much interest to what, in my opinion, undoes their education and quenches their curiosity.

One day, I distributed Proust’s questionnaire to my students, and questions like “Who are your heroes in real life?” and “What is your favorite occupation?allowed me to measure the phenomenal importance that many of them give to reality TV and the celebrities it produces.

Some cultivate the dream of participating in the “Marseillais à Miami”, others admire this or that “star” from this kind of program, and see them appropriate expressions from the “Angels of reality TV” , I wondered to what extent young people could be influenced by such broadcasts.

If their language is shaped by these programs, how can we not think that they also have an impact on their behavior, that they upset their conception of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, cool and mediocre?

Instrumentalized to convey a message

In an episode of the wonderful American podcast “Invisibilia”, produced by American public radio NPR, Alix and Hanna tell the exciting story of a Somali reality television show, funded by the United Nations and inspired by “The American Idol” – the American version of the “Nouvelle Star” broadcast on M6.

In this country plagued by war and jihadist terrorism, a young woman, Xawa Abdi Hassan, says that the al-Shabab group went so far as to ban cellphone ringtones in the name of music prohibition.

The idea behind the reality show ‘Inspire Somalia’ was to shake al-Shabab’s hold on the morals of Somali society, through music. And even if the participants were well aware of risking their lives by taking part in such a process, many of them came to sing or recite verses of poetry, surrounded by armed soldiers, themselves frightened by the high probability of attacks.

Reality TV can thus be instrumentalized to convey a message and influence the morality adopted by a society. It remains to be seen whether, in such cases, it achieves its ends.

This is what Betsy Levy Paluck, a researcher at Princeton University in the United States, tried to find out by studying the case of a reality radio show in Rwanda, which aimed to encourage tolerance between different ethnic groups in a country deeply marked by the genocide of the Tutsis.

Perception of standards

After a year spent in Rwanda broadcasting this program to different randomly chosen communities, Paluck came to the following conclusion: “Mdespite the fact that people liked to follow this program, it did not change their relationship to violence or reconciliation. But the show changed their vision of Rwandan society, their perception of norms and, at the same time, their behavior.»

In other words, while their core beliefs have remained largely intact, the image that listeners have of “what is done and what is not done” has changed, leading them to adapt their behavior to suit it.

According to Paluck, it is not so much our convictions that dictate our actions as our conception of norms: “NOTWe are constantly trying to make adjustments to match the social norms around us, often unconsciously“, she says in” Invisibilia “.

Reality TV shows obviously have an impact on the behavior of viewers who watch them. And for those who would be tempted to believe that this would not be valid in our western countries, many studies show the universality of this phenomenon: for Brad Gorham of Syracuse University, reality TV has visible effects on behavior in society. And Philip Ross, in an article for the International Science Times, explains that these programs have a detrimental impact on the perceptions of the world of those who watch them.

Desire for fame

So when we know that 42% of young people aged 15 to 24 in France follow “Les Anges” on NRJ12, it is necessary to take reality TV out of its status of simple entertainment to consider it as what it really is: a societal phenomenon conveying and disseminating powerful normative beliefs. It remains to be seen which ones.

I watched “Les Marseillais”said my student to me as recently as Monday, when I asked her what she had done with her weekend. In this program broadcast on W9 since 2012, young individuals in search of “success” are gathered in a house, and must obey the professional injunctions of a “booker” in order to stay in the adventure. It is the same principle that is reproduced in “Les Ch’tis” or “Les Anges”.

According to the psychologist Jean-Yves Flament, very particular behaviors are valued in this type of emission. There is of course the desire for fame that drives all candidates, but also individualism, competitiveness and the renunciation of any form of intimacy.

The long-sought fame no longer comes from any form of talent, but from being better than the other, no matter what. And in this environment of competition taken to the extreme, everyone is young, everyone looks alike to be mistaken, nobody ever reads or educates themselves, nothing ever exceeds, neither by the physical, nor by opinions or language.

According to Alain Lieury, researcher in cognitive psychology at the European University of Brittany, the candidates for these programs display a very poor vocabulary: “To barely 600 different words on average, compared to 1,000 for example in a comic strip and 27,000 in school textbooks.” His study also shows that addiction to reality TV shows causes a significant drop in school performance.

Gender Stereotypes Vector

In these artificial universes created from scratch that are passed off as realities, men are uneducated, insensitive, unfaithful, resourceful and comical. Women are uneducated, intrusive, talkative and submissive.

Several CSA studies published in 2016 confirm that these programs “are particularly vectors of stereotypes, whether by the profiles staged or by the male-female relationships presented therein“.

Shows featuring lovesick bachelors like “Bachelor, the Bachelor Gentleman” (NT1), “Who Wants to Marry My Son?” (TF1) or “Love is in the meadow” (M6) would be based “on the subjugation of a group of women to the drastic selection of a young bachelor judging them on criteria combining aesthetics and docility“.

The CSA also notes that women are mainly represented in the socio-professional category of employees (23%) or people without activity (15%). Women in power, having done long studies, executives, researchers – all those who jostle the clichés from near or far – are never represented in these programs.

Extimacy imposed, right to privacy flouted

These are the standards conveyed by these programs that appeal to young people so much: ignorance is normalized, culture is made strange and success can be measured by the money you collect. Gender equality is violated to the point of indecency, and the right to privacy is denied.

On this last point, we hear here and there that young people have lost all notion of privacy. For famous Canadian columnist Josh Freed, this is the biggest generational divide in decades. He sums it up like this: on the one hand, we have the “generation of parents”, on the other, the “generation of transparencies”. I do not believe it one second.

The desire to show off is fundamental in human beings, and it precedes the desire to have intimacy. Serge Tisseron, in Overexposed intimacy (2001), proposes to call “extimacy” the movement that pushes everyone to highlight a part of their intimate life, both physical and psychic.

He explains that communicating about his inner world is a kind of “instinctivelywhich has long been stifled by convention and learning. What is new is not its existence, nor even its exacerbation, but its claim.

On the other hand, if extimacy is legitimate, intimacy is no less fundamental. For Tisseron, the two terms are inseparable from a third, self-esteem. And the injunction to unpack everything, not to a group of friends but to millions of viewers, contributes to building the idea that intimacy has no place to be.

I’m well aware that not all young people who watch reality TV reject all forms of intimacy altogether, just as they don’t all become stupid, egocentric and uneducated.

Reproduction of social and educational inequalities

The scientific studies mentioned above demonstrate all the harmful effects that these programs can have on adolescents in general, but none of these studies, to my great regret, seek to know which profile is most threatened by the influence reality TV.

On this, I have my little personal hypothesis, based on my own observations: “Les Anges”, “Les Marseillais”, or “Les Ch’tis” could never destabilize the education of well-born children, bathed in culture and sensitized to the art of taking a step back. Even if they caught their attention, it would only be to provoke their mockery.

No, I firmly believe that reality TV confuses the minds of those who are already suffering the pangs of social and educational inequalities. She is this abominable brute who detects the weakness of others, feeds on it and has fun with it.

In those who have no reference points or access to culture, it instills misogynistic, superficial and individualistic social norms that require so much effort to deconstruct. And in the name of what principle should we allow the weakest among us to fall prey to the producers of stupidity?

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In 2013, the CSA considered banning these programs before 10 p.m. I note today that they are still broadcast daily at snack time. I don’t believe in the clash of generations, but I have to admit that there is one who does everything to stupefy the next.

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