Some might argue that among the modern indications of a coming apocalypse is the increasing proliferation and popularity of guilty-pleasure entertainment. Video programs like “Real Housewives” and “Teen Mom” have pushed traditional trash like “Jersey Shores” down in the ratings. The more shocking, the better. The line between cutting-edge, pornographic, and just plain dumb continues to be under attack.
Does it all really matter? Are we smart enough to understand that these “real-life” dramas are not real life at all? For decades now, we have been concerned about the impact of violence on television in the lives of young people. The conventional wisdom held that most rational folks discern between the make believe and the genuine. The argument goes, if humans could not tell the difference between reality and pretend, children would be dropping anvils on the heads of their siblings, ala Wylie Coyote trying to slow down the Road Runner. Even kids figure it out.
But as we have moved to an industry that claims realism as a cardinal virtue, can we trust that social media influencers and reality television are giving us the true story? What are the consequences and who owns them? MTV broadcasts a program, “Catfish”, which tracks down and confronts the errant partner in an online romance that refused to meet in the physical world. As is expected, most turn out to be con artists. Often, they assume identities and deceive others into giving them money, compromising photos, or their hearts. They are rarely the gender, age, orientation, or standing that they claim. Some seem very happy to be “famous” for a minute. Hurting strangers made them important! Does the program help the victims through a cathartic humiliation of the perpetrator as it claims? Or does it empower the losers by fulfilling their actual desire: notoriety? Do they care?