Reality television has hit a new low

By James Keller

It’s a consequence of celebrity. People have long used the famous to live vicariously, taking part in lives much more exciting and intriguingly more scandalous than their own. However, we no longer want to peer into the world of the famous from our comfortable couches in suburbia. As MTV has successfully proven, we don’t want to be “just like” Nelly or Britney; we actually want to be them.

mtv’s Becoming gives star-struck pop fans the chance to do just that, transforming teens and young adults into their favourite stars. To complement their 15 minutes of fame, mtv dresses and makes-up participants to look like their chosen star, then teaches them to walk, talk, act, dance and sing like them as well. The end result sees the lucky fan star in their own video–as much their own as carefully imitating someone else can be.

Unfortunately, nobody in the entertainment industry seems to realize how dysfunctional, both socially and psychologically, this show really is.

Until now, reality shows played off our guilty voyeuristic desires, allowing us to peer into the lives of "regular people," while bringing out the worst qualities of the human experience. These shows encourage and even require contestants to befriend and depend on each other one minute, then betray and stab each other in the back the next. However, to their credit, the Survivors and Big Brothers never pretended to be anything different. In fact, as a matter of policy, this was their raison d’etre, something their creators were more than happy to admit.

Becoming has, in a very peculiar way, raised the bar of reality television. It’s true, shows like American Idol and Popstars have already created made-for-TV superstars overnight, but the real appeal was the chance to be famous, at least with the illusion of having earned it. mtv isn’t asking contestants to prove their worth. These aren’t aspiring musicians; they’re regular, everyday people. And we’re not watching to see them win a record contract; we’re watching to see them live out their dream–of being someone, anyone, other than themselves.

And how do these lucky victims of pop-culture react once they’ve experienced and seen, in the first person, the life of their idol? It’s the greatest day of their life, a dream come true. Their time on earth is now complete.

As dire as it sounds, it is on the set of Becoming that the battle to preserve our normalcy and our individual legitimacy is being fought. This show, as benign as it must seem to mtv, is the next extension of the beauty myth. It’s not even enough to be thin, well-endowed, scarcely dressed and airbrushed to perfection. And it certainly isn’t enough to gain recognition for your talents and abilities on your own merits. Now, you must emulate the wealthy, admired, beautiful people. You must become them.

Supporters and fans of the show, and certainly MTV, will object, calling it harmless fun–an opportunity of a lifetime. Perhaps they’re right. After all, Becoming isn’t the problem, just a symptom of something greater and most destructive. And reality tv doesn’t warp society’s beliefs and values, it reflects them. However, if this is true, maybe we’ll hit rock-bottom soon, leading this phenomenon to an end. FOX’s upcoming American Candidate, which will put a carefully selected candidate on the next presidential ballot, is already in the works. Although it might not seem as sexy as imitating a pop-star, what harm could it do to allow someone to be George W. Bush?

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