Smart people love stupid TV
Here’s why so many bright women are fascinated by frivolous reality shows
Romy McMaster is really, really smart. At 33, the Vancouverite has a master’s degree in epidemiology, and she spends her days as a health researcher doing, well, really smart stuff. But by night, she devolves into a reality–TV blogger. At www.theperogypile.com/—the name is a tribute to her Winnipeg roots—she yaks about The Bachelorette, Survivor, and most recently, America’s Next Top Model, Cycle 11.
“Before I started the blog, we’d all watch Survivor, and I’d write about it on MSN Groups,” she told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview on November 20, referring to her group of 10 friends, all university educated. Among them is an accountant, two teachers, a pharmacist, and a human resources manager. “Once The Bachelor started, I’d watch and just vent and bitch and moan about it to the TV. John [her husband] said, ”˜I don’t want to listen to it anymore. Start a blog.’ ”
McMaster said she can’t explain why so many smarties love stupid TV. For her, there are two attractions. First, it gives her a chance to turn her brain off after an intense day. Second, she said, it’s an instant conversation connection with other women she meets. “I compare reality TV to sports for girls.”
On November 19, 4.8 million Americans watched supermodel-turned-reality queen Tyra Banks crown the distinctively fish-lipped Brittany “McKey” Sullivan on America’s Next Top Model. That’s a lot of people. Most, according to Nielsen Media Research, were 18-to-34-year-old women, which is the CW Television Network’s target demographic. Neither the CW nor Neilsen was prepared to cough up the other demographics for the Straight, such as education and income levels. That information is collected, however, Nielsen spokesperson Alana Johnson confirmed by phone.
McMaster isn’t the only bright girl fascinated with frivolity. At ivygateblog.com/, managing editor Maureen O’Connor serves up news, gossip, and reality blogs for a target audience of fans from Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale universities. O’Connor’s site boasts over 600,000 page views per month. This is what they come for: “Last week saw the sad demise of Victoria Marshman, Yale ’09, from America’s Next Top Model. Eliminated for her ”˜prickly’ disposition while posing as a cactus, Tory left the show and returned to life as a History major.”
“If you’re 22 in America, you know something about ANTM,” O’Connor told the Straight in an interview from New York City, noting that pop culture cuts across all social boundaries. “Pop culture is irresistibly powerful, so everyone is engaged with it. I work on Fox News occasionally, and the older reporters are all, ”˜Oh, God. People get their news from comedy shows.’ Everybody acknowledges that it’s bad for us, but it’s not going away.”
Why not? According to UBC’s Toph Marshall, an associate professor of classics, ANTM may not be the new Homer, but it does serve a purpose. “I think some people are doing a lot of mental work when they watch TV,” he told the Straight. Marshall watches The Amazing Race, Survivorman, Kitchen Nightmares, Mantracker, and occasionally, The Biggest Loser. Many smart people work in isolated cubicles and offices, he said, and know that gossip will hurt those who are close by. So they bring their urge for interaction to vacuous TV.
“I don’t want to be weepy about it,” Marshall said. “But there is that sense of regret that something is being lost. I don’t know if reality TV is helping that. It’s probably exacerbating that. But it is responding to it. It’s presenting people in situations where their mettle is tested. Running around the world on no sleep. Having to suddenly lose 30 pounds. You’re really testing people in a way that they may not test themselves. So they become little heroes for us. And quite often they fail. What reality TV provides is this sense of not measuring up.”
Marshall seeks, in his research, to understand how the narratives of the ancient Greek poets would have been understood by their original audiences. So, he pays attention to what modern culture consumers make of contemporary myths. He recently coedited Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica (Continuum International, 2008).
“Here’s what Aristotle would say about ANTM as tragedy,” Marshall said. “If the fashion industry is the pinnacle of our society, and that being waif-thin and abnormally tall is going to be the measure of beauty and the measure of beauty is what our culture values above all else—and that might be reasonable—Aristotle would say we look up to them, but while we are identifying with them, we really don’t want to be them.”¦It serves as a warning against aspiring to that. It’s about maybe being content with being a medical researcher, rather than being on the cover of Vanity Fair or Vogue.”
For McMaster, it’s not that complicated. She likes the release and the entertainment. As her November 19 blog entry said, “Who cares about American politics when ANTM is winding down with the finale. Um, well actually.”¦sigh. That’s probably a blog for another time.”