No One's Coming to Dinner

July 8, 2005

Admit it. You watch it. It's everywhere, and it's taken over America. Reality TV. It's okay, I watch it too. Even "SuperNanny" on the really slow nights. And I couldn't turn off the marathon of "Gastineau Girls." Like most viewers, probably, I enjoy feeling superior to the rest of America when I watch, even as I feel guilty and sort of disgusted with myself afterwards. There are a few exceptions. "30 Days," the new show from Morgan Spurlock of "Supersize Me" fame, is getting great reviews. (Participants spend 30 days living in someone else's shoes.) "Crime and Punishment" was more like a documentary that shed light on the day-to-day workings of the criminal justice system. But apparently reality TV can get a little too real. ABC's attempt to examine racial and class prejudice, called "Welcome to the Neighborhood" has been preemptorily cancelled before it even hit the airwaves, amid protests of racism, housing violations, and a complex morass of ethnic representational politics. Read the AP article about it. Here's the gist: Texas homeowners in an upper-class, white suburban neighborhood get to choose their newest neighbor. Like other reality shows, this one has a family voted off every week, with the last remaining family winning the house. But the families are "controversial:" a Latino family, a gay male couple with a African American kid, an Asian family, a family where the mom's a stripper, etc. "The idea is to see preconceptions, even prejudices, break down as the white homeowners get to know the competitors as people instead of stereotypes," wrote AP reporter David Bauder. But the whites hated it, saying it made them look judgemental (basically it exposed their racism --apparently, they made all sorts of comments, even with the cameras rolling). The gays hated it, and the National Fair Housing Alliance hated it. The outcry shows just how sensitive everyone is to how minorities are represented, and will no doubt discourage the networks from attempting anything like it in the future. People took issue with the idea of picking one's neighbors, and with a bunch of white people judging people of color, and with the general humiliation that befalls people when they go on a reality show being concentrated on the people of color/people of lower income. So true, all of these arguments. I'm glad the protest is being made. But it's also so interesting to me that when a reality show finally attempts to address the big elephant under the rug in this country, it doesn't even make it to broadcast. It's no secret in America that there remains a huge racial and class divide in this country, and the income gap between richer and poorer has never been more evident. But the drug that is television has mostly just dangled money and/or fame as the ultimate salve to its contestants (and viewers). No one talks about the latent racism in those white suburban neighborhoods, or even the prejudices of well off white liberals. Or that if you're a person of color on TV, you're supposed to not draw attention to that fact. (It's considered in poor taste --look at what people said about Chris Rock when he continually pointed out his blackness when hosting the Oscars.) Every once in a while you can say you're proud of your heritage, that's about it. Of course, this just makes me want to watch this show all the more. It is imperative for reality shows of this ilk to have a happy ending. She loves her face lift, her newly renovated home, his children are better behaved, he met the love of his life and offered a promise ring, yadi yadi. But what if the white homeowners are still bigots at the end of the 8 weeks? What if it's simply given them the ability to say, "Oh, one of my good friends is a black gay man!" What if all the white people move away and housing prices fall? What if people start burning crosses on lawns? While fatally flawed, the show was a rare attempt to address these larger societal issues on a personal level. It may have started a national dialogue about how segregated housing both reflects and perpetuates the ethnic and class divides in this country. Too bad it got canned before the conversation even got started.




wow, too bad! i'd just like to point out that shows that address class differences, like "the simple life" (even the title makes me gag) have either failed to make their point, or their audiences have failed to see the point, which is the same thing.i loved "the simple life" when i first saw it, because it seemed to me that paris and nicole were shown up, week after week, in all their shallowness and ignorance, and the stoic family and community they descended upon got to tear into them every once in a while while america cheered.but america didn't laugh at them; apparently america laughed with them, all the way through the tabloid frenzy that followed and all sorts of spin-off money-makers like paris' "movie", to the bank. does anyone even remember the name of the first family they stayed with, or even how many members it had?ultimately, the idea that the american working class is composed of salt-of-the-earth, unsophisticated, simple people who are all interchangeable and who provide the quaint backdrop for rich people at play, was furthered.i wonder, if "the simple life" had provided working class characters stronger than paris and nicole, would it have even aired?
One more thing --I didn't mean to imply that the white people on the show hated it, just that other conservative whites, like the Family Research Council, hated the show. Don't want to mislead.