Reality TV and the Flexible Future

After every long day at the office I go home to face my addiction: watching other  people work. Whether I’m gritting my teeth as elderly miners crawl through a tunnel to chip out coal, or cracking up as drag queens scurry to complete missions assigned by RuPaul (catch-phrase: “You better work!”), there’s nothing I’d rather do after a two-hour commute than watch reality television. Much of my life is spent either at work, working from home, or looking for other jobs, so you’d think that the last thing I’d want to do is relive work in an estranged, if tautly edited, form. But reality TV is better than the morosely Freudian period dramas everyone else in my demographic keeps talking about. It’s far more honest about our condition, and therefore more educational.

The first thing you have to realize when you’re watching reality TV — hell, any TV — is that everyone is on the job. So before we consider weighty concepts such as representation, desire, and whose hair is fake, we must start from the fundamentals: TV is a bunch of people trying to survive under the conditions of capitalism, and in that way are pretty much like the rest of us. As Marx reminds us, capital isn’t just money, it’s a social relationship. Wage labor is compulsory. Work is experienced as social domination, which is a term that aptly describes the crap they put entertainment workers through. Even the cast of Jersey Shore, the labor aristocracy of reality show stars, is a bleached-tip hair away from roid-raging each other to the great Shore Store in the sky. With no time off between seasons, our bronzed broletarians are so ready to escape the Sartrean hell of endless GTL and Ron-Ron Juice that Vinny got the world’s worst chest tattoo in a desperate cry for help.

So I offer a corrective to the moralizers like Charlie Brooker, who in Dead Set literalizes the cliché that reality and its audiences are taking part in a mutually cannibalistic frenzy. Rather, the reality show workplace is a theater, run by the biggest corporations in existence, and they’re staging fantasies of work. And so to understand reality TV as ideology, we have to consider what it says about work. But if we want to see the seams of reality TV, the kind that Michael Kors would tsk-tsk on the runway, first we have to think about the part of the labor that isn’t staged for us: the conditions of labor behind the camera, and the larger global economic contexts of work.

The story of the off-screen labor of reality TV rings familiar to anyone who’s casually Googled “David Harvey.” Looking to reduce costs in one of the most heavily-unionized sectors of the US economy, producers hired non-union contingent workers instead. Writers were demoted to “story editors” while actors became “contestants,” plucked from the massive reserve army of aspiring cinema labor barracked in Southern California. Less amateurs than entry-level workers scoring a temp job, reality “stars” get paid around $700 a week, if they get anything at all. What a Bachelorette contestant describes sounds more like an internship: “The idea is, hopefully, opportunities come afterwards. Where maybe you can get paid to do things just to take advantage of, you know, what you’ve just done.” The reward for work done is the possibility of more work. And this comes after shelling out to make yourself look the part for casting: whiten your teeth, pick out the right clothes, hire a personal trainer (a friend always points out the “weird Bowflex abs” on Survivor contestants) — everything Patti of Millionaire Matchmaker (a show, which like so many others, stages the casting process) demands of her gold-diggers.

That reality TV is capital’s puppet-show for a labor regime is supported by how many shows are explicitly about jobs themselves, something that goes all the way back to the reality urtext COPS. Our current conjuncture presents two major branches of the professional reality TV sub-genre. The first is a documentary-style paean to the decline of American industrial labor. In shows like Coal and Gold Rush, squads of aging, grizzled white men risk death to extract whatever minerals remain in the corners of America’s dwindling wilderness, while equally grizzled petty bourgeois bosses nervously bark orders at them while sweating about their investment. The meager pleasures of these shows come from watching rusty boys playing with rusty toys, the ghosts of organized labor (for these workers are anything but organized) grasping to the only thing they have left: nostalgic masculinity. As with many documentaries, we’re outsiders looking in, wondering how and why anyone could do this.

This is not the case in the second genre. Framed as a game show, full of young diverse creative in hip urban locales, creative reality TV promotes the cultural economy that a decade ago excited Tony Blair almost as much as invading the Middle East. So far only Top Chef and Project Runway have had much staying power, but there have been similar shows for interior design, fine arts, music writing, video game testing, and making hit pop songs. It’s no coincidence that the professions in these shows match up identically to the majors at the for-profit career college where I used to work: cultural work is what remains of aspirational middle-class careers for Americans, who live in country where two-thirds of exports are cultural goods and intellectual property.

Unlike with morphine-addicted gold miners, I never question why a young fashion designer would want to be on a reality show. After all, these jobs are creative: the ideology of creative labor is that instead of the alienating grind of the office or factory, these people get to be artists who can express themselves through their work. They’re autonomous, independent from the standardization of the Fordist model of production. And therefore their creations represent them, are a part of who they are. “This is really me, I’m really putting myself into this squid ink tagliatelle.” As Emiliana Arturo points out, creatives tend to self-exploit: they “are willing to surrender rights and even to pay in order to obtain an identity.”

Submitting to the strains of TV production is part of that self-exploitation. The cost of the liberating autonomy of creative professions is flexibility, which goes hand in hand with precarity. As anyone who has freelanced knows, you simply cannot turn any opportunity down — and this is the real reason why exploiting yourself on reality TV seems like a natural and obvious choice. Part of the job of the freelancer — often most of the job — is finding more work. What Angela McRobbie calls “enforced entrepreneurialism” of the creative career, the requirement to become image/commodity/worker-for-hire, is as obligatory as any wage labor contract.

Such “autonomous work” takes place, of course, within determinative socioeconomic contexts. At the end of the day, to use a favorite expression of Top Chef’s overseer Tom Colicchio, everyone has a boss. Just as flexible work blurs Fordist distinctions between leisure and labor, work and art, so too do bosses become “judges”: one part customer, one part mentor, one part cracker of the whip. Tom can turn the charm on just like any boss in a praiseworthy mood, but you can see the hairs raising on the backs of the necks of the chefs when he walks into the kitchen. He’s come to announce one of the rote “twists,” in which production schedules are abruptly shortened, resources slashed, or productivity goals raised without any extra time. The same management strategies Foxconn uses to make sure iPads get to the store just in time become “challenges” that heighten the drama of the show — by squeezing workers until they burst or collapse.

By staging the conditions of the freelance labor market, creative reality presses home the futility of worker organization. “This is a competition,” contestants insist whenever they have to treat someone else like dirt. “At the end of the day,” Tom ruefully intones, “somebody’s got to go home.” Bosses are always reluctant when it comes time to fire somebody: it’s out of their hands, they insist! The game show framing has the advantage of getting everyone to work while not having to fire anyone — it’s just the rules of the game. Like workforce reductions, eliminations are forces of nature beyond control: charge it to the game, to the economy, to the downturn, to disappointing third quarter revenues, but please, pack up your things and go. In the real creative economy, this game mechanism manifests itself in the form of “spec work.” Instead of hiring workers and paying them fairly for what they design, companies construct a contest. The winner, whose work is used, might get paid, or may even get a longer-term contract. The losers did a bunch of work for nothing, and typically forfeit all rights to work they’ve submitted, just like how Lifetime owns every garment, winning or losing, sewn on Project Runway. Lately some of the reality competitions have thrown a few bones to their labor force: bonuses for winning challenges. They might have cribbed this from the playbook of our real-life Hank Scorpio, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who posts cash bounties for freelance open-source coders to fix software bugs. Just don’t ask him for a health care plan.

The workers on the shows know they’re exploited. Faced with impossible challenges, from pulling all-nighters in the desert to creating gourmet barbeque spreads, some Top Chef contestants rebel and go to bed, others sit glumly sipping beers, musing at how ridiculous their deadline is. Impossible production schedules have birthed the tautological banner-cry of resigning yourself to shoddy work: “It is what it is.” It’s an incantation with magical effects. Workers acknowledge their exploitation, come to terms with their inability to realize their creative visions, and yet still throw their hearts and what little energy they have left into their work. “I love being a chef, it’s all I want to do.” And if it’s all you want to do, you’re going to have to find some way to love it.

Maybe that’s why this stuff fascinates me so much. We’re not only supposed to do our jobs; we’re supposed to love them, to identify with them, inhabit them. If we can’t love our jobs and do whatever it takes to do them, how could we know we’re being creative at all? That’s why, even though few fashion designers will ever have gigs that give them health care, and even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates a decade without any growth in the profession, design school enrollments are booming. Reality TV gives us the model for reconciling us to the inevitability of our jobs, a flexible future of being constantly on the job and yet bereft of any security. It’s a situation best summed up by Heidi Klum’s chirpy slogan: “One day you’re in, the next day you’re out.”