Performance of the self
There is a play-off between performance and authenticity in reality TV. ‘Everyone wore masks these days, and they seldom slipped. The extreme was the reality-based television shows, where people created meta versions of themselves by trying to act in a way they thought was natural’ (Lippman 2000: 176). Such a comment in the novel The Sugar House highlights how we should never takes things at face value. We all perform ourselves to some degree, putting on a mask to hide the ‘real me’ from the world at large. Reality television represents the extreme form of this everyday role-playing, a mediated space for a ‘meta me’. American sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a key book in
1959 called The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. Perhaps this book, more than any other academic study, is a meta-text for reality television. Goffman’s concept is that we perform ourselves in multiple ways, living life as part of a social drama. To make a connection between Goffman and reality TV is not new. From the early days of research in this genre, scholars have highlighted the
ways reality TV captures on camera the banality of everyday life and the ways audiences engage with the individual and collective performances of people caught on camera (see Corner 2002, Kilborn 2003 amongst others). This performative and entertainment frame can be sidelined in discussions of surveillance and reality TV. This chapter argues that the dominance of talent shows over the past decade has shifted emphasis from surveillance and governance to ideas of talent, celebrity and performance. It should be said that reality TV can be about both surveillance and performance (McGrath 2004). However, the focus on audience engagement with competitive reality formats in this chapter lends itself to reﬂections on performance, following other audience research along the lines of Beverly Skeggs and Helen Wood (2012) on performance and personhood, or Laura Grindstaff (2011) on celebrity and performance in everyday life. John Corner (2009: 62) cautions that Goffman’s idea of routine
performance is not to be lifted wholesale to reality television. There are differences between performing yourself in the kitchen and in front of a camera crew with an expected audience of millions. But, it is a testament to Goffman’s original idea that the performance of the self becomes increasingly relevant to the development of reality TV within the media matrix (Meyrowitz 1985). Our sense of self, performance mode and the reactions of others may be different, but there is a connection. It has become a cliché now that performers in talent shows refer to themselves as former audiences – ‘I was a big fan, and now I can’t believe I’m here in the studio’. The 2013 series of Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1, UK) showcased a superfan – from sofa to sequinned ball gown. The double identity of audience and performer connects with the internet where YouTube videos of auditions can garner more attention than televized screenings. For example, the Susan Boyle audition of ‘I dreamed a dream’ on Britain’s Got Talent (ITV1, UK) has over 300 million hits on YouTube. Highly performative and emotional moments in reality TV are a feature of many formats, ﬁlmed in bite-sized form for commercial television and social media. Gary Carter, Chairman of Northern Europe, Chairman of
360° Shine Group, notes (2013): ‘[W]e underestimate what a
revolution it is to be performing yourself.’ He explains: ‘[T]he revolutionary nature of this performance is because reality television allowed the individual participant to move from being the subject of the argument of another (typically, the ﬁlm maker) to being the generator of the argument’ (Carter 2014). Reality formats like Big Brother (Endemol) in the early 2000s or Pop Idol (19 and FremantleMedia) today make performing versions of yourself centre stage. ‘For example, Big Brother requires a performance as “national everyperson”, while Idol requires a performance of “me as pop idol”’ (Carter 2014). Producers and participants create high drama and big emotions that can be circulated as ‘did you see that!’ mediated moments. These big moments – a tearful audition in American Idol (Fox, USA), a broken shoulder on the ice rink in Dancing on Ice (ITV1, UK) – become mega moments, repackaged within highlights of the latest series, or circulated in social media. In turn, audiences talk about performance, multiple identities, and notions of truth and artiﬁce, in everyday conversations and social media gossip. One young viewer succinctly described the performance of the self in reality TV as: ‘I just think that’s life cos at the end of the day everyone lies’ (15-year-old schoolgirl). The fact that reality TV invites commentary on the notion ‘everyone lies’ in a strange way opens a door to reﬂection on the multiple realities of the world we live in.