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Media has a huge effect on the way we view the world.
Jaws made everyone afraid of sharks.
It made everyone afraid of clowns.
Big made everybody afraid of being rapidly aged by a weird fortune telling machine.
But what about when media actually portrays the real world in all of its whale abusers,
duck hunters, and baby beauty queens?
If imaginary house elves can make us more sympathetic to inequality what does watching
actual factual humans do to us?
We’re in the midst of a nonfiction media boom - both documentary and reality TV.
There were 750 reality shows in 2015, leading some critics to say that it’s even remade
television culture entirely.
Similarly, documentary has been cinema's unlikely Cinderella in recent years, with three documentaries
in 2018 cracking the list of top 30 highest-grossing documentaries since 1982, and that’s not
even counting the insane proliferation of documentary filmmaking happening on streaming
If fictional media changes the way we view the world, how does nonfiction media contribute
to or inform our worldview?
In short, what might documentaries and reality TV be doing to our brainy parts?
Let’s find out in this week’s Wisecrack Edition on The Philosophy of Documentaries
and Reality TV.
And spoilers ahead for some documentaries.
To figure out how documentaries and reality TV affect us, we first need to understand
what this stuff is.
Documenting reality is literally as old as filmmaking itself.
The earliest films, made around the end of the 19th century, were pretty much all super
short visual accounts of real life events, like workers peacing out from their factory
or an elephant being cruelly tortured for our entertainment, which you can thank your
favorite lightbulb inventing scoundrel, Thomas Edison for.
Yes, this elephant is about to be electrocuted and no we’re not going to show you cause
But the term documentary has always implied more than just taking a camera and shooting
whatever goes down in the life of your local yodeling community, though, by all means,
go for it!
The word “documentary” was first used by Scottish filmmaker John Grierson in the
1920s, and he described it as “the creative treatment of actuality.”
Even this definition says a lot.
Applying creativity to actuality already suggests that it's distinct from actual actuality.
Rather than showing neutral uncut footage of an event, a documentarian will use a variety
of tools, including editing, to string together a compelling story.
Since its early days, documentary has had a complicated relationship with the truth.
Take the 1922 documentary Nanook of the North, which depicted the life of a man from the
The film is definitely misleading - for starters, Nanook wasn’t even named Nanook - His real
name was Allakariallak, but the director, Robert J Flaherty, thought that was unmarketable.
Flaherty also staged several scenes which were historically inaccurate, showing Inuk
life the way it would have been a century prior.
For instance, though Nanook typically hunted walruses with a simple gun, Flaherty asked
him to use a harpoon for the sake of drama.
The film’s various elements compound to present Nanook and his family as childish,
primitive and a bit silly.
It helps here to think about a different definition of documentary, as an “imaginative representation
of an actual historical reality.”
Documentary is supposed to have fidelity to a particular historical reality - whether
its showing an Inuk tribe in the 1920s or a wealthy Florida Housewife in 2012.
Flaherty distorted that reality by depicting historically inaccurate customs.
As we move forward to the 1930s and 40s, the way documentary bends the truth is perhaps
most glaringly apparent, when just about every major country put out its own form of propaganda
trying to get people jazzed about war and whatnot.
Most notably, Triumph of the Will solidified Hitler’s power and public persona.
Now, we seem to talk about this movie more often than a 1930s German soldier at a dive
bar, but I swear its relevant.
In this film, we see the way subtle choices in cinematography can drastically alter a
documentary’s meaning and fidelity to the truth: Look at the way Hitler appears on camera,
from a low-angle shot, he seems taller, almost larger than life, and certainly more powerful.
Anyway, that same year, the “talking head” or the interview style in which an often boring
person stares at the screen and talks for awhile, would be introduced via the documentary
Housing Problems, as an attempt to let individuals tell their own story, rather than having it
dictated by a “voice of god” narrator.
This was an honest attempt to make storytelling more truthful.
In the 1960s, cameras became smaller, allowing film crews to become more mobile.
This facilitated a new form of documentary practiced by filmmakers like the Maysles Brothers.
It was called “cinema verite,” which translates to “truthful cinema” or “cinema of truth.”
Functionally, cinema verite filmmakers will follow their subject around, passively observing
their lives without interfering, as the subject ignores the camera, all in an attempt to more
accurately capture the truth.
Of course, that caused problems of its own.
Because the camera movements imply honesty, we assume that we’re watching actual reality.
Some filmmakers, such as Richard Pennebaker who made the Bob Dylan documentary Don’t
Look Back were sensitive to this, and purposely kept aesthetically unpleasing cinematography
flourishes to argue for the film’s truthfulness - showing the audience the camera eye focusing,
or keeping awkward zooms.
Filmmakers began experimenting further with the very nature of what it meant to engage
in nonfiction storytelling.
Documentarian Errol Morris encorporated dramatic reenactments to simulate a real-life murder
in his 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, to some criticism.
By the early 90s, more intimate documentaries became popular, functioning as cinematic autobiographies
or a close look at an artist’s family.
In recent years, films also became “voicier,” as in the work of Michael Moore who editorializes
and inserts himself into his own plots, less documenting reality than crafting it.
The 2000s were dominated by documentaries that made strong arguments like An Inconvenient
Truth, Super Size Me, and Fahrenheit 9/11.
In Super Size Me, the documentarian is the opposite of the neutral observer - he literally
turns the camera on himself and his rapidly deteriorating liver (Which, if we’re speaking
about ethics, becomes a little more problematic due to recent revelations that director Morgan
Spurlok was a longtime alcoholic.
So can we really blame only Fast food?)
In a lot of ways, these films are more self aware than your classic cinema verite - their
artifice is right on the surface.
For example, when Michael Moore storms a General Motors shareholders meeting, we clearly know
we’re not witnessing neutral reality.
At the same time, modern filmmakers are also, arguably, taking more creative license with
There is perhaps no greater narrative artifice than the satisfying, climactic ending.
Many a documentarian has grappled with this, but perhaps none more interestingly than filmmaker
Ben Berman in his documentary, Untitled Amazing Jonathan Documentary.
In it, the filmmaker shadows the titular, terminally-ill magician.
The problem is: Several other people are doing the exact same thing.
Looking for a way to make his story stand out, Berman, at one point, believes that the
only satisfying conclusion would be Jonathan dying.
Waiting for your subject to die is pretty blatantly macabre, and Jonathan even calls
the guy out on it.
"You're just waitin', you're just waitin'- you're biding your time until I die and then
you get that ending you want."
Here, Berman confronts the inherent ethical dilemmas of imposing requirements of a satisfying
story on reality.
Luckily, he finds an ending without killing the Amazing Jonathan.
But beyond imposing artificial beginnings and ends, creatively tinkering with reality
has other complications.
Take the issue of characterization, or the way that characters are constructed in a given
piece of media.
Scholar Carl Plantinga notes that, “in any documentary, the images and sounds that represent
the character are not neutral and transparent, but carefully constructed and chosen to portray
them in a specific way.”
He adds that the process of “selection and omission, emphasis,[plotting] and point of
view” all create additional ethical dilemmas for documentarians.
The way most documentarians will deal with this is to make characters that are, as Plantinga
puts it, “flat” or simple, possessing one or two central characteristics.
For example, in a Michael Moore documentary like Roger and Me which serves as an indictment
of the very very wealthy, you’re not going to see General Motors CEO Roger Smith patting
his son on the back, or giving a dollar to a homeless man, because the message of the
film is that he’s an evil asshole.
Forming “round” or complex characters, according to Plantinga, is much more difficult.
And so, for the most part, every aspect of filmmaking and editing will serve to emphasize
a central quality of any given character.
(Now, this is also true of fiction… but that’s part of what makes it fiction.)
Flat characters seems like as good a segway to reality TV as we could ask for.
Now, reality TV has always been documentary’s bastard son.
But we just want to say here: Most documentarians struggle deeply with the ethics of their craft.
Not so much.
It’s less respected and taken less seriously.
It’s also frequently charged with taking a giant Nerf gun to reality.
But the truth is more complicated.
Some of the earliest iterations of “televisual reality" fall somewhere between the categories
of documentary and reality TV.
This includes Candid Camera, which used a hidden camera to film normal people reacting
to practical jokes on and off from 1948 to 2014.
Similarly, An American Family used what television scholar Misha Kavka calls a “live-in camera”
to chronicle the oftentimes boring pursuits of one upper middle class American family
to the delight of millions.
Kavka goes on to separate the history of “real” reality tv into three distinct categories.
The first is the camcorder generation which hit a stride in 1989 with a boom of crime
and emergency programmes that offer an “ultra verite” experience through the use of shaky
These shows were super real, but they also vacillated between being very exciting and
very, very boring.
So reality TV regrouped.
The second generation began in 1999, and that’s when things get gnarly.
We start seeing competition shows like Survivor, The Amazing Race, American Idol and America’s
Next Top Model, along with surveillance shows like Big Brother and The Real World.
As Kavka notes, the genre began developing “its own format rules, production practices
and audience expectations” such as confessional interviews, elimination ceremonies, and plenty
of ugly crying.
Kavka notes that this era of reality tv “found its place in the millennial culture imaginary
by openly combining actuality and artifice in ways that broke ratings records and caused
Intriguingly enough, every twenty-two minute episode of the Real World was the result of
seventy hours worth of raw footage, meaning this version of reality is… has to be...
Cherry-picked and skewed.
These shows frequently insert their casts into artificially constructed situations that
generate lots of stress.
Then, they actively facilitate the social destruction that follows, often by staging
and producing scenes that “complete” the narrative arc.
Also - booze.
Not exactly the kind of thing the Maysles brothers would have been about.
The third era of reality TV kind of crept up starting in 2002 with what Kavka describes
as “a gradual but noticeable change… from an emphasis on documenting ordinary life to
manufacturing celebrity out of the everyday.”
The very phrase “manufacturing celebrity” not so subtly hints at the artifice inherent
in these shows, where characters seek “the insubstantial but highly desirable commodity
People’s onscreen behavior is increasingly motivated less by genuine emotions than by
the desire to attract as much attention as possible, a phenomenon best encapsulated by
Kris Jenner, who could turn a bunion on Kim’s big toe into an international news story,
and probably already has.
What we’re seeing is that, far more so than documentary, reality TV involves deliberate
departures from “truth” be it in the form of hawk-eyed producers staging dramatic scenes,
or a drunk housewife doing it herself in hopes of scoring her own vodka brand.
If the second generation of reality TV birthed several distinctive genre tools, the third
generation solidified them.
As a result, certain aspects of reality tv are so familiar to us, from the tearful confession
of past trauma, to the manufactured fights, to the words “you’re going home.”
So what is the net result of watching tv and movies that are optimized and dramatized but
self-present to audiences as real?
One consequence that really resonates with us is that documentaries and reality TV make
us narrativize reality, that is, see our own lives and the lives of those around us as
stories with beginnings, middles and ends.
As philosopher Alex Rosenberg puts it in his book How History Gets Things Wrong, “We
humans have an insatiable appetite for stories with identifiable heroes, the tension of a
quest, obstacles overcome and a happy (or at least emotionally satisfying) ending.”
Quick note: Though Rosenberg is talking more broadly about the way we employ historical
narratives, we think it can be usefully applied to documentary and reality TV as forms of
Rosenberg also notes that we use historical narratives to make sense of the present and
even predict the future.
We may watch a makeover show and think our lives are just one over-night transformation
away from fulfillment.
And how could watching hours of banal Kardashian drama not make us think that maybe, just maybe,
our lives might be interesting enough to be chronicled for the world to snarkily enjoy?
What’s more, Rosenberg argues, stories with satisfying narratives are like aloe vera for
our brains, soothing us and lulling us into a false sense of understanding.
Susan Boyle may have never been kissed, but boy did she wow the judges on Britain's Got
Here, Susan’s real-life suffering is first used to make us care about her.
Then, her objectively-excellent performance and rousing reception offer a compelling resolution
that ultimately redeems her and her suffering.
It wasn’t for nothing, after all!
Or, even if we’re healthily skeptical of a Chopped narrative, - "I just feel like people
find reasons to hate on me, cuz I'm definitely different.
because" - some part of us is stoked that this girl’s suffering at the hands of bullies
has been redeemed by winning Chopped Jr.
All of this fundamentally limits our understanding of the world.
As scholar Ib Bondebjerg writes, summarizing the work of neurologist Antonio Damasio, “our
sense of self and our ability to interpret the world are based on emotional and narrative
Narrative Structures are part of the very fabric of our mind and imagination.”
So our brains crave narrative like a unicorn craves sparkles.
And reality TV sells us that narrative as truth.
As a result, watching The Voice may subtly makes us think that everything we do in life
can be seen as us triumphing over our central life struggle.
Watching The Bachelor subtly makes us eager to find our “happy ever after,” a term
that is certainly ridiculous to anyone who's ever been married.
And watching My Super Sweet Sixteen not so subtly informs us that absurdly wealthy adolescents
are monsters which…
This can be a problem because real life isn’t made up of neat narrative arcs and clean,
It’s messy and things happen for no reason, and not every choice you make is motivated
by the fact that the neighborhood asshole Ricky made you wear your underwear as a hat
in third grade.
You probably won’t have a hero’s journey, and if you do, it probably won’t take place
in three acts.
But watching enough nonfiction media has a tendency to confuse us.
So what is a responsible, non-masochistic movie-watcher supposed to do with all this
Should you protest Chopped’s false narrativizing or skip that super compelling documentary
on Kim Jung Il impersonators, which doesn’t exist but goddamn it should.
We love documentaries just as much as the next film nerd, and we’d never ruin The
Great British Bake-off for you.
We just feel like, as media fanatics, we all should be a little more aware of the way everyday
storytelling affects the way we view our own lives and our own stories.
But what do you guys think?
Are documentaries and reality TV ruining the way you understand the world?
Or is narrativizing reality just a necessary part of being human?
Let us know what you think in the comments.
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