Reality TV’s Final Frontier

The swift infiltration of reality television over the networks and cable stations have redefined concepts of privacy, celebrity and entertainment. We’ve watched our friends and neighbors live together on Big Brother, Survivor and The Real World; we’ve seen lonely men and women find the love of their life; we’ve watched destructive families swap moms; we’ve watched some of America’s most obese shed Lose Weight Exercise and tears on The Biggest Loser; we’ve watched folks face their worst nightmares on Fear Factor; and we’ve watched B-list celebrities battle drug addictions on Celebrity Rehab. We’ve been exposed to sex, adultery, and feuding. We’ve welcomed real estate agents, entrepreneurs, socialites, house wives, chefs, little people and transgenders into our homes. We’ve watched the ambitions, triumphs and failures of the naive and the self-absorbed unfold before our eyes. Come to think of it, beyond circumcision, there really isn’t anything we haven’t seen on reality TV — now that we can add death to the list.

In a disturbing but not terribly surprising announcement last month, notorious British reality TV star Jane Goody, who rose to fame as a controversial cast member of England’s version of Big Brother, told the media she’s turning her death into a modern day spectacle. Stricken with cervical cancer, Goody has sold the rights for a station to air her death in a show called “Jane’s Progress.” Goody, visibly exhausted, bald, weak and wheelchair bound, still smiles for the cameras as she undergoes treatment for an ailment that doctors say they cannot save her from. They told Goody she has just weeks to live.

Since we already know the outcome of Jane’s ‘progress,’ all we can ask ourselves know is how vulgar this charade will become. And it won’t be long before we have the answer. Chemotherapy is one of the most heartbreaking challenges anyone can face. From the puking, to the nausea, the Lose Weight Exercise loss, hair loss, physical and emotional exhaustion, battling cancer is something no one should have to go through alone. But it’s not exactly something people should go through with millions of viewers either. We’ve always been a culture captivated by death. There’s a special place in America for the celebrities who die young: Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger and the list goes on. Aren’t we all morbidly curious about the process of dying? The obituaries (and police blotters) is one of the most widely read sections of a newspaper. The top stories on the nightly news revolve around death, or potentially fatal dangers. Now that Goody’s precedent setting move has opened the doors to the documentation of the dying process, what cultural ramifications will remain after her legacy? As is the case with any kind of money-making water cooler talk, this likely won’t be the last reality TV death.

Could this desensitize us to disease and death the way some theorists claim violence in the media has? Is that bad? Good? After watching it manifest on the television screen, would we be braver about the process? Would we be less religious if were were more desensitized to death? By blurring the distinction between reality and entertainment during our most painful moments, would we enjoy our lives more? Or would this breed a culture of fear? Would we become obsessed with death?

Perhaps this discussion is premature and I’m simply a wimp for not wanting to tune in. Broadcasting death may actually prove postmodern; it simply marks a return to the roots of our culture. Perhaps viewers clamoring for video footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution is no different from the spectacle (and social event) of a public stoning centuries ago. Maybe I just need to watch a few episodes of Six Feet Under, suck it up and get on with my (non-reality TV) life.

Jason Turcotte

Jason Turcotte is a former CCT Graduate Student.