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Review: Better Living through Reality TV

Self-governing through Reality TV.

Better Living through Reality TV. Television and Post-Welfare Citizenship.

Laurie Ouellette and James Hay.

Malden/Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

In their book, Laurie Ouellette and James Hay draw on Michel Foucault’s and Nikolas Rose’s writings on liberalism and governmentality to situate the increase of popular non-fiction on television within strategies of liberal governance. They use the concept of liberalism as a ‘governmental rationality’ to refer to a form of governing through freedom, in which – on the one hand – rulers should minimize any intervention in the affairs of both the free market and individuals, and – on the other hand – individuals are expected to govern themselves, by choosing order over chaos and good behavior over deviance. In these continuous processes of self-governing, people rely on diverse social and cultural technologies, including television. The need for self-governing has become different and more urgent in today’s advanced or neoliberal societies (or ‘post-welfare States’ as Ouellette and Hay call them). For in these neoliberal societies, where the rationality of the ‘free’ market has expanded (resulting in a greater reliance on the privatization and personalization of welfare), citizens are increasingly obliged ‘to actualize and “maximize” themselves not through “society” or collectively, but through their choices in the privatized spheres of lifestyle, domesticity, and consumption’ (12)[1]. Ouellette and Hay argue that one has to understand (and question) the surge and popularity of reality TV from within this larger analysis of contemporary post-welfare States. The starting point of this book is the idea that reality TV has become a quintessential technology of this neoliberal citizenship, since it aligns TV viewers with a burgeoning supply of techniques for shaping and guiding themselves and their private associations with others. ‘At a time when privatization, personal responsibility, and consumer choice are promoted as the best way to govern liberal capitalist democracies, reality TV shows us how to conduct and “empower” ourselves as enterprising citizens’ (2).

Throughout the book they demonstrate how this approach of reality TV within an analytics of neoliberal government offers interesting ways to conceptualize television’s power, illustrating their argument extensively by discussing diverse strands of reality TV.

A first chapter deals with charity TV. The term charity TV is used to designate programs that focus on ‘helping needy people turn their lives around by providing material necessities such as housing (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Mobile Home Disasters), transportation (pimp My Ride), food (Random one), and medical care (Miracle Workers, Three Wishes)’ (40). The authors offer a macro-perspective on this kind of ‘do-good TV’, situating its proliferation and specificity in the larger (intertwined) evolutions that affected both media and government. So it is argued that television after the broad deregulation has not rejected its allegiance to the public good, but on the contrary, has ‘quite aggressively’ (34) pursued a form of civic engagement that enacts the logics of a neoliberal government. The authors convincingly demonstrate how the political rationality of reality-based charity TV endorses a neoliberal ‘can-do’ model of citizenship that values private enterprise, personal responsibility, and self-empowerment. They also argue that these programs show appreciation for the State’s involvement in the care of citizens as ‘inefficient, paternalistic, and “dependency-breeding”‘ (35). The authors also illustrate extensively how this type of reality TV programs fits into Bush’ post-welfare politics. Besides this clarifying macro-perspective the authors offer a detailed analysis of how precisely television manages neediness; how it regulates the life of ‘”real” people as unable (or unwilling) to care for themselves adequately’ (32). This is mainly done through a close analysis of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

A second chapter addresses what Ouellette and Hay call life interventions programs. They use these term to describe programs that mobilize all kinds of ‘professional motivators’ and ‘lifestyle experts’, to help people overcome all kinds of obstacles in their personal, professional, and domestic lives – from obesity and housecleaning to ineffective parenting – by instilling self-management techniques. The intervention can focus on transforming a person’s entire self or it can attempt to resolve more specific problems. Life interventions TV includes, amongst others, very popular formats such as Supernanny, How Clean is your House, and Honey, we’re Killing the Kids, series that all originated from the BBC; and very successful American series as Dr Phil and Judge Judy. These programs are characterized by what the authors call ‘an applied form’ of public service (71). With this concept, they point to the fact that these programs do not simply educate viewers about, for example, the problems of obesity or addiction, as traditional journalism or documentary might do, but ‘actively intervene to solve particular manifestations of the problem’ (71). This involves that television is taking up roles and duties normally carried out by professional social workers. The authors contend that what unites the diversity of these programs is their self-governing idea, their concern with producing citizens who are not merely capable, but ultimately grateful to learn how to increase their capacity to govern themselves. The authors demonstrate that both participants and TV viewers are expected to be part of this mission of empowering by self-governing, but, however, are addressed in different ways. The needy participants are classified as ‘other’ people (and typically presented as less knowledgeable and less personally motivated than the general audience) who require authoritarian and intrusive governing techniques such as home visits, hidden camera surveillance and pedantic lecturing. TV viewers are offered more comfortable sources of self-empowerment through all kinds of derived services and products commercialized on websites, in books and magazines.

This connection of self-empowerment with the logics of commerce and consumerism is echoed in the diverse chapters of the book, throughout the analysis of all kind of strands of reality TV. Ouellette and Hay claim that reality TV ‘has situated the power to shape social life entirely within the logic of the commercial market’, it has ‘neoliberalized’ social welfare assuming that ‘there’s no distinction – and no presumed need for one – between do-good activity and the manufacture and sale of cultural product’ (38-39).

However, it is in the chapter dedicated to makeover programs that Ouellette and Hay develop this idea of the commodification of the self-empowering processes in the most far-reaching and peculiar way. In this chapter they go into diverse beauty/style makeover programs that aim to transform ‘ordinary people into improved versions of themselves’ (102). Examples are Extreme Makeover, Ten Years Younger, The Swan and the most extensively illustrated (once again originally BBC) format What Not to Wear. Their central point is that by instilling rationales and techniques for fashioning the self, reality TV also works indirectly to guide and govern workers, and to facilitate their self-government in the flexible neoliberal economy (102). They claim that ‘although makeover programs are not only (or even primarily) focused on people’s vocational lives they do make promises about TV’s capacity to help the unemployed and/or unfulfilled help themselves as managers of their “greatest assets” – themselves’ (103). Ouellette and Hay observe a parallel with what the sociologist Paul du Gay identified as the managerial philosophy of ‘excellence’; a philosophy emerging in the 1980s and 1990s that motivated workers merely by putting emphasis on the promise of more opportunities for self-management and self-fulfillment, rather than on material rewards. This philosophy is most explicitly present in televised talent/job search programs such as American Idol or The Apprentice where a team of experts, teachers and judges seek to transform ‘raw human potential into coveted opportunities for self-fulfillment through the realization and expression of talent’ (127).

In the two final chapters of the book Ouellette and Hay elaborate on the more familiar notion of television as a civic laboratory. They start with a discussion on reality TV programs that present practical demonstrations about rules and techniques for membership, participation and group government. Programs with a more ludic dimension, such as The Survivor and The Apprentice, and series that accentuate the seriousness rather than the play of the experiments, such as Wife Swap and Black/White, are taken in consideration. These kinds of experiments in self-actualization are situated within US television’s preoccupation with representing and managing diversity (186). However, the authors only briefly develop this idea and keep away from questioning the way diversity is addressed. This omission might partly be explained by the way that Ouellette and Hay position their work in relation to other critical projects in cultural theory, sociology, cultural studies, feminist studies, and political theory. The book contains no overview of these other research traditions; it hardly makes any references to them. Yet, in the few – implicit and explicit – references, one can easily read a clear dissociation from what Ouellette and Hay call ‘leftist’ approaches that conceive television culture as a system of representation (14), and that critique misrepresentations and manipulations through a comparison of these representations with ‘reality’ (38). Ouellette and Hay also shy away from the projects in cultural media studies whose mission seems to consist of ‘countering the view that TV is undemocratic’ (205). They dispute the idea of democracy as something authentic, as a universal idea, and approach it as ‘a provisional achievement, involving ongoing failures and break-downs and whose technical procedures provisionally allow citizens to govern themselves actively and responsibly’ (206). ‘So rather than asking whether these developments have made TV more democratic’, they argue ‘it is necessary to ask how TV has been redesigned to accommodate more techniques of self-government and more forms of the democracy game, and how that development has been useful to a discourse and reasoning about the present as being “more democratic” than before’ (206-207). In this way, the project Ouellette and Hay present in their book, clearly closes many roads that critical traditions in cultural media studies have been using for a long time, but at the same time it opens other interesting other routes that link up with the more recent attention for governmentality.


[1] References to the reviewed book contain only the page number(s).


Kristel Vandenbrande is lecturer in Media, Democracy & Journalism, Politics & Popular Media, and Qualitative Research Methodology at the Department of Communication Studies and senior-researcher at the Centre for Studies on Media and Culture, both at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels (VUB). Her research deals with glocalization, marketization and EU reporting; docu-soap production, governmentality & narration; political debates & power in institutionalized interactions; ICT and organizational changes in newsroom.

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