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Sex House and the Refusal to Fuck

The problem for reality TV is that real life is too dull to make compelling TV, but compelling TV is obviously contrived.

The Onion gave itself a simple task: make fun of reality television, a drama already reviled and full of self-parody.

Satirical treatments of reality often strike for the grim and moralistic. In Series 7: The Contenders and in Dead Set, contestants end up killing each other, and the viewers are implicitly indicted as accomplices to inhuman carnage (explicitly, in the alternate ending for Series 7, where enraged audiences beat contestants to death for their reluctance to murder one another).

This is pure hypocrisy, of course, a bad-faith criticism of people for enjoying and participating in entertainment, by people who make their living from creating just such entertainment. Fortunately, the Onion took a less conventional path, and a more radical one: their story takes the side of the workers, the reality show contestants themselves, in their battle against their oppressive working conditions.

A reality show nicely encapsulates Mario Tronti’s argument from the 1960s: that the productive relations of the factory had expanded to all of society. On a reality show, the entire environment is a workplace, a space devoted to producing value for producers — factory and society are perfectly integrated. Producers hire television workers, casts and crews, to create a show, through the work of merely living while on camera.

The major problem for reality TV is that real life is too dull to make for compelling television, but compelling television is obviously contrived. The most reliable way to smooth over this contradiction, to hold the spectre of phoniness at bay, is sex. We’re supposed to understand sex as the most authentic expression of our inner selves, where our drives and desires overwhelm our conscious, rational minds, where we drop the presentation of self in everyday life and get real. Just like football needs cheerleaders to distract from the obvious homoeroticism, reality TV needs sex to prop up its central myths. According to reality TV scholar Mark Andrejevic, the origins of reality TV are in the soft-porn world of 1990s webcams.

Sex House’s fictionalized show foreground this, much like its real-life model, Big Brother, foregrounds intrusive surveillance with its allusion to 1984. But as we’re introduced to the plucky cast, already a few things are awry. First of all, there’s a middle-aged accountant Frank, who “won a Tombstone pizza contest” to get on the show. The strapping Derek discovers he’s the only gay man, and thus has nobody to hook up with. In spite of these hangups, the cast gets down to the staple activity underpinning almost all reality television: getting drunk.

Sex House’s first satirical target is the conventional ideology of the casual fun of hooking up. In a vodka-soaked haze, token naif Erin loses her virginity to Frank, old enough to be her father, who awkwardly blurts out “I love you” during sex. Much like sex in real life, the “3 ½ months of consequence-free sex” on Sex House is full of consequences. Wracked with shame, all Frank can say to Erin the next day is, “It’s important that you go to the bathroom.” Erin is visibly traumatized, withdrawing from the show socially and emotionally, sleeping under a pool table. Later, she finds out she’s pregnant.

But Sex House doesn’t just get mileage from puncturing ideologies of sexuality. Its plot hinges on the deteriorating conditions of the house itself. Vents inexplicably shoot out hot air, scalding the cast. The only provided food, pumpernickel bread, turns into a toxic mold infestation, and the garbage is never taken away. The bosses have neglected to give their workers the basics to sustain life, let alone libido, and the cast turns confrontational, with Derek at the vanguard.

Derek is the first to note the lack of food, and discovers the house clocks are out of whack, which mimics the way reality TV always obscures the progression of time for its viewers. The producers bring in the Host to manage these ineffective workers, offering retraining in proper gender behavior with some low-level entertainment professionals (women are taught striptease, men “bro down” with a profane comic). Derek leads the charge against the dead-eyed host: “Nobody have sex, it’s a trick!” By refusing to fuck, refusing to work, they cease producing any value for the show.

The next few episodes depict the cast coalescing around the strategy of refusal. Mainstreamer stereotypes Tara (the blonde ditz) and Jay (the bro) decide not to have sex, instead forging a deeper intimacy through the strike. Even oversexed Alex cools her jets after the Host rudely rebuffs her, earning sympathy and solidarity from the other cast members. The cast has a “house meeting to make a list of demands” from management, who, in a shadow of the bargains made with labor unions under Keynesianism, want increased productivity in exchange for improvements. But once again, it’s a trick — instead of real improvement, management only offers a patch (frogs to eat the plague of flies) and a quack therapist, whose solution to everything is to have sex — in other words, suck it up and get back to work.

Late capitalism, where not only is work necessary for bodily survival, but is good for the soul too!

When the cast resists a sexy oily game of Twister (“We avoided touching as much as possible during Twister. We tried to make sure it wasn’t a sexy thing.”) the producers desperately resort to drugging them, a plot thwarted by Tara’s foray into proletarian science: “Cloudy drink kills frog!” A hostage crisis force the bosses to pull the plug, abandoning even their camera crew to the victorious cast.


If you look at the view counts, you’ll notice most people bowed out after the first episode; while Episode 1 has over 3.5 million views, the last episode has barely 300,000. Something in the show failed to satisfy, perhaps failed to live up to the expectations we already have for a satire of reality TV. We’re predisposed to hate the “attention whore” contestants, here literalized as people who are paid to fuck on TV. Plenty of reality TV is designed as a feast of ressentiment. But the “love-to-hate” quality of reality TV relies on bourgeois ideology, where the production of the show is only questioned on the level of the morality of an individual choice. According to this line of thinking, the bad parts of reality TV are the prurience of the viewers and the exhibitionism of the contestants. The miseries of being on TV (poor working conditions) are the result of the distasteful competition and squabbling among the cast. This is the fetishism Marx talks about, where capitalism’s appearance of free contractual association is mistaken for the motor of history. In castigating the viewers and the cast, the two categories of people who actually produce value, the actual workers, it tends to let the owners and managers off the hook.

Sex House, by correctly representing the class struggle as one between cast and producers, refuses this ideology. Instead, it argues that free contracts are a myth, a source of exploitation and misery that can only be properly countered by rejecting the whole state of affairs. More radically, it shows this rejection as a victory — of sorts. The show transforms into a documentary of the failure of the show to be produced. By the end, it’s not clear that Sex House will ever be aired. The investment in the production of the show, as inadequate as it is for the maintenance of the lives of the cast, will not be returned. Profits will not be realized. Due to worker intransigence the commodity isn’t completed and production is shut down.

In the wake of the strike, the bosses give up and leave their workforce to their fate. Capital takes flight and Sex House becomes part of the Rust Belt. The housemates resort to creating an autonomous society, with highly structured routines of barley harvesting and amphibian husbandry. Here The Onion turns on the cast a bit, portraying them as isolation-addled primitivists. When the cast discovers that all along the “real world” was just outside, they reject that too, walling themselves up again to preserve their commune from capitalist-saturated everyday life.

The workplace struggles of post-Fordist entertainment are already visible. As management pits cast members against each other in contests, sometimes they resist. Fabio, the freegan of Season 10 of Project Runway pointedly refuses to snitch on his teammates, weaseling out of the demoralizing requirement to “throw someone under the bus.” It seems that he confers with his colleagues about doing the same. Some contestants, like Andrea and Kooan, simply refuse the work altogether, abruptly fleeing the set or resigning. Others, like Nathan, glumly carry on, with the knowledge that they too will eventually be cut, while considering rejecting the hostile environment of the show.

But Nathan stays until the bitter end. Here is the difficulty for our reality stars, and the  class of cultural workers of which they are a part, and why we should pay attention to their plight. The cast members of reality shows manage themselves, not for their own liberty, but for increased wages, privileges, and benefits. They think about the benefit a couple more appearances on the show, as miserable as they are, will do for their career. Count how many times a television appearance is likened to that “stepping-stone” crap job you hate: “It’s such an amazing opportunity…” And so self-management becomes capitalist management by other means. We are learning how this limits radical movements with large, vocal contingents of cultural workers.


Carrying the parody to its end, Sex House’s final reunion show is, as such shows always are, an exercise in revisionism, and the show’s darkest moment. The tortures and hardships of Sex House have been reformulated as a difficult and transformative experience. “Now I’m more comfortable with who I am,” says a made-over Erin, who has given her baby up for adoption to focus on self-promotion.

All the cast members have been sucked into the hypercompetitive production of their own celebrity. The radical leader Derek has gone straight, and now works for Coolio, who is, he reassures us, “very real.” The solidarity from the show’s filming has dissipated — everyone has turned entrepreneur of the self, and so they must turn to exploiting that self, aligning with the producers they fought just a short time before.

In the wake of the refusal to work, the social factory of everyday life once again rears its head — all of the castmates have become professional bloggers.


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