28 years of changing the world through the exploitation of the pretty

There is periodically some debate among the educated as to whether advertising *really* works.  I mean, on kids, sure … exposing kids to cigarette advertisements sells cigarettes, and exposing kinds to junk food commercials turns them into ravenous little beasts who crave sugar as only the culturally mediated can.

But the rest of us?  Surely we’re more self-aware than that … especially those of us who who have advanced degrees, layers of irony, and a clear concept of capitalist hegemony?

I was reminded of that occasional debate when I read Willa Paskin’s ode to the 28th season (!) of “The Real World,” which is now debuting on MTV.  Looking back from then to now, she lays out just how much ground can shift beneath our feet without giving the educated vertigo.

The first “Real Worlds,” Paskin notes, were deliberately anthropological:

“The participants all had career ambitions, ambitions other than being famous or sucking on “The Real World-Road Rules” challenge teat in perpetuity. They were wannabe doctors and activists and musicians. There were personality clashes and egomaniacs but there were also heated conversations about race and AIDS … The Real Worlders aspired to be a useful, contributing member of society, and that was entertainment enough.”

It was, she points out, eight seasons – 8 seasons! – before two cast members slept together routinely.  The rest happened quickly after that, establishing the “reality TV” template that we’ve all internalized and can repeat, by rote, asleep.  Yet we had to learn this.  We had to be taught it.

“Since “The Real World” began, we’ve gotten used to watching people do things they’ll regret and once might have been deemed “exploitative.” We’re not the only ones who understand “exploitation” differently than we used to: so does MTV, and all reality TV producers, and reality TV participants. Most kids who aspire to be doctors or politicians or activists don’t want to have anything to do with “The Real World” anymore, maybe the biggest unaccredited party school in the nation. The ones who go on “The Real World” know what to do in front of the camera and have no fears about doing them — they’re there because they want to do them. They’re there because they aspire to be reality TV stars.”

The presence of a new “literary” structure on just a few TV shows … most of which most of us don’t even watch … has radically transformed the culture we live in, and we’re all co-conspirators.  We all know what it means to be a “reality TV star,” and we have strong opinions about it, even if we’ve never watched an episode of “Real World” or “Jersey Shore.”  A massive cultural tide has swept us along, to the point where we can barely remember the idea of being shocked by something we see people encouraged to do on unscripted entertainment television, and all it had to do was be on TV a few hours a week – whether it was appointment viewing for us as individuals or not.  We know somethings happened, but we have to stop and think carefully to realize just how far we’ve gone without any sensation of movement.

Maybe it’s easier to change the world than we thought.