How to be authentic in three easy steps!

The opening of a Reality TV School that teaches Big Brother wannabes to ‘be themselves’ is deliciously ironic – and telling.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Culture

‘Know thyself’ commanded the ancient Delphic Oracle. In the age of celebrity we have our own equivalent of antique wisdom: ‘Be yourself.’

This, at least, seems to be the impulse behind the New York Reality TV School, a new initiative from ‘acting coach and performer’ Robert Galinsky. For just $139 for a three-hour course, those striving to be reality TV stars, but having difficulty with its number one tenet ‘be yourself’, will receive expert tuition from a number of successful American reality TV stars. Graduates will then be equipped, so Galinsky hopes, to make very public successes of themselves.

An obvious question raises itself here. As aspiring student, 51-year-old Judy Bolton, put it: ‘Why do you need to go to school to be yourself?’ Galinsky’s answer is not unexpected: reality TV does not actually deal in reality. ‘Everything is concocted and contrived’, he explains: ‘It’s just an unscripted drama.’ (1)

Galinsky is right of course. Reality TV, be it Big Brother or The Apprentice, does involve a performance, an act. But it’s the nature of the act which sets it apart from scripted drama. For while an actor seeks to lose their own sense of self in a role in order to portray someone else, a reality TV participant seeks to find that sense of self, in order to portray it ever more clearly. Or, as is more often the case, loudly. For the actor, dissembling is intrinsic to the art; for his reality TV counterpart, it is detrimental. Little wonder that one of Galinsky’s key tips for a successful reality TV career is to remove ‘actor/performer’ from one’s business cards.

‘I know what the shows are looking for’, Galinsky continues. ‘Every casting director I have ever worked with does not want someone who fakes it.’ (2) So faking it, or acting as it is otherwise known, is precisely what one should not do in reality TV. Again, Galinsky is right; the cardinal sin in any reality TV show is to be ‘fake’, or, to use the technical term, ‘two-faced’. There is absolutely nothing worse. Hence it is better to be an obnoxious cretin, ‘telling people to their faces’ what you think of them, than to be ‘two-faced’.

In a format that celebrates the self, this makes sense. Politeness, the informal regulation of social interaction, necessarily appears as a façade, the inhibition of the unfettered self, or worse still its concealment. A student at the New York Reality TV school captures well the raison d’etre of the format: ‘I see that [reality TV] would fulfil the reason why I want to get into acting in the first place. I have that desire to express myself, to get what’s inside outside and there’s no more raw, real way than reality TV’. (3)

Be it advice on verbalising your intentions so as to ensure the camera’s focusing on you (for example, ‘I feel like airing my genitalia’), or about dealing with the camera’s unblinking gaze when it is on you, what the reality TV school offers its pupils is a form of heightened, even excruciating, self-awareness. Or better still, an awareness of one’s self from the camera’s perspective. But this constant self-display is not an invention of the reality TV genre. It belongs to a culture in which self-surveillance is pervasive, in which the image of one’s self on a night out is as important as the night out itself. There is but a short distance between insisting on camera phone footage of yourself drunk with mates to the crowning glory of the Big Brother contestant’s participation – the ‘here are your best bits’ clip montage. For its participants, reality TV acts as the ultimate affirmation of the self. Even, unfortunately, if it consists of ‘eviction night’ abuse, or press ridicule.

In short, reality TV stars are not talentless no-marks; they are not valued for nothing. Rather, the programme’s stars are celebrated for the same reason that people seek to participate: the need for authentic self-portrayal. For it is around this notion of ‘authenticity’ that the values embodied in reality TV cluster, from ‘keeping it real’ to not being ‘fake’ or ‘two-faced’. ‘Go out there’, Galinsky tells his pupils, ‘be genuine, be authentic, be yourself, rock the world’.

These sentiments are key, not least, for their ubiquity. Contrary to its more virulent critics, reality TV is not corrupting society. Rather, it draws upon a culturally approved fetish of ‘authenticity’. Historically, this has developed hand in hand with the devaluation of social life, a growing perception of a world in which public life, work and production more generally lack meaning or purpose. Little wonder that the philosopher with whom the notion of authenticity is most closely associated, Martin Heidegger, wrote his existentialist opus, Being and Time, during the late 1910s and early 1920s – that is, when liberalism, the sustaining ideology of the nineteenth century, was ceasing to provide a framework in which to explain the social world, let alone, legitimise it. To be oneself, to be authentic, was to resist the inauthenticity of the social world, to refuse to submit to its façade of rationality.

This is not to suggest that Jade Goody is the heir of existentialism. Rather, the foregrounding of the self as a sole value is a historical phenomenon writ large in reality TV. In contrast to a social world that lacks coherent purpose, in which work is unfulfilling, and informal social bonds have decayed, self-performance acquires an ersatz reality. A reality TV school is simply the absurd consequence of situation in which ‘being oneself’ – by acting a part – has become a goal of socialisation, the supreme value of an increasingly atomised society.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black enjoyed the first outing for Big Brother 9. Brendan O’Neill showed how the ‘nigger’ incident on Big Brother was turned into a parable about the viewing public. Jeffrey Rosen analysed The Naked Crowd. Frank Furedi argued that we shouldn’t blame the media for dumbing down. Or read more at spiked issue TV.

(1) Learning how to be more real, National Post, 21 July 2008

(2) Get real, reality-show professor says, just get real, Hartford Courant, 28 July 2008

(3) Learning to be truly real for reality TV, ABS-CBN News Online, 17 July 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


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