I will begin by acknowledging that spending one’s Saturday night in pajamas, with a full glass of wine*, watching the A&E “reality” show Flipping Las Vegas in no way qualifies one to offer refined observations of cultural phenomenons. I don’t have a PhD or even a Masters in Sociology or cultural studies, and I went to university long enough to know that I haven’t done anything close to the sort of “research” required to make educated comments on the state of pop culture in 2014.
(*By “one” I mean me, and by “a full glass of wine” I mean REALLY full, up-to-the brim-so you-don’t-have-to-get-up-to-refill-it-as-often full.)
Despite my lack of academic credentials, I’m pretty sure there isn’t anyone out there who still believes there is anything even remotely realistic about any of these programs. However, it struck me last night with a healthy dose of melancholy exactly how sad it is that we still bill these shows, shows like Flipping Las Vegas and so many others like it, as “reality”.
Am I a bit late to the party with these observations? Probably, but I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time and just when it seems that it can’t get worse it gets, well, a lot worse.
If you’re old enough like me to remember the birth of reality TV, many moons ago, you will recall a little show called “Survivor”. Not “Survivor – somewhere exotic”, just “Survivor”. The original. Before Survivor we had comedies like Friends and Seinfeld, and before that there were sitcoms like Growing Pains and way before that there was M.A.S.H. All of these offered a variation of a fictional story with fictional characters doing fictional things. No one would argue that when Survivor came along, it changed television forever.
Some will point out that Survivor is nothing but a game show, the likes of which have been around for decades. While I agree that’s true, there were no previous game shows offering the voyeuristic pleasure of Survivor. Maybe The NewlyWed Game, which always felt to me like being at a dinner party with three other couples and one of them starts arguing only they keep smiles on their faces because they’re trying to be polite, except that it’s super awkward for everyone and you do a lot of staring at the food. That show gave us a bit of a glimpse into the relationships of newly married couples, but nothing really pulled back the veil and let us peek behind the curtain quite like Survivor.
The premise (and main allure) behind this new “reality” show was of course the chance to watch the contestants doing mundane tasks while also forging relationships and “alliances”, engaging in betrayal and even finding romance. The show began by dramatically exiling the contestants on a remote island and sequestering them into “tribes”. They engaged in challenges and systematically voted each other off – the worst kind of popularity contest, where all your so-called tribemates write your name on a paper and tell the camera why they no longer want you around. Yes we knew they were competing for a million dollar prize, but there was something so enticing about watching how it all went down – who would be sneaky and manipulative enough to win the whole she-bang while who would leave in tears.
Did we realize, watching that first season of Survivor, exactly how far down the reality TV rabbit-hole we were going to fall? I don’t think we did, but maybe there was no avoiding it. Survivor was fun to watch and it was fun to guess and predict who was going to be voted off. It was something different, and we all enjoyed discussing and debating the morality of the contestants’ choices and betrayals, myself included. I don’t think we really noticed as each consecutive show seemed to push the boundary a little further so that year after year we grew to tolerate the manipulation and even the cruelty just a little bit more.
Which brings me back to Flipping Las Vegas. Despite all my misgivings, I do watch my fair share of reality television, although I tend to limit it to home improvement or real estate shows. My worst indulgence by far is The Bachelor, although I’ve managed to eliminate any illusion of any reality in the show. So when my husband turned on Flipping Las Vegas last night, I figured it would be the formulaic format that I’ve come to expect from such shows, and despite having doubts about the actual quality of their renovations I usually enjoy watching the finished product come together.
However, there is just something “off” about this Flipping Vegas show. The main characters are a husband and wife duo, and of course the husband (Scott) is the investing businessman while the wife (Amie) is the ‘designer’ – don’t even get me started on the sexism at play here. The caricatures are made even more obvious when we see Scott zipping around in a sexy looking sports car and Amie cruising in a Land Rover or mini Hummer (or something).
The stereotypes don’t stop there. Scott has a blond mop of hair and is constantly in shorts and polo shirts with sandals. Typical Vegas new money perhaps? Amie, a beautiful woman, has for some reason decided or been told that her beauty would be enhanced with far too much cartilage removed from her nose and far too much silicone inserted in her chest. Why, Amie… why? Despite having not even seen her “before” pictures, I am 100% certain that she didn’t need a single one of these procedures and certainly not the amount that she’s gotten. This is what starts to make me sad.
It gets worse when we see Scott and Amie interacting. Typically, Scott wildly overreacts to everything and there is an endless string of words coming out of his mouth that A&E has to beep out. At least half of this is directed at Amie. Of course she is portrayed as the flighty, over-spending wife whom poor Scott struggles to keep in check; he fails, of course, which is supposed to make us chuckle knowingly – har-har-har, you know how women are!
If it’s not bad enough watching Scott and Amie demolish women’s equality along with the chipped formica counters and ghastly old kitchen cupboards, we then get to see how Scott treats his employees. Remember, this is Vegas; five minutes into the show I bet my husband that all the actual labourers would be Mexican and spoiler alert: I didn’t lose that bet. Except of course for Scott’s project manager, he’s another white dude in polos. Naturally.
So the Mexicans show up in 110 degree heat to do a tonne of work in a ridiculously short turn-around time, and here Scott’s true colours come out. The men don’t speak English, prompting Scott to role his eyes and throw a few random Spanish words at them until his project manager arrives. The problem is that the equipment the workers are using has overheated in the broiling sun, so Scott helpfully pantomimes to them how they should get up off their butts and try to fix the machine. His solution is to put the machine in the shade which sadly gets the thing going in about twenty minutes. You can practically feel his disdain for the men who are going to probably get sunstroke just to ensure that the house is flipped in time for Scott to collect his sixty-thousand dollar profit.
This brings me back to my large glass of wine and the melancholy. How is it that A&E felt that this racist, sexist portrayal of the worst version of capitalism is worthy of production? Are we supposed to envy the life that Scott and Amie have together? Is this the so-called American dream – to ascend to such heights of wealth and success that we can treat everyone around us like crap, even if it is all contrived for a television show – and we believe that we will be celebrated for it?
Fourteen years ago, would we have watched that first season of Survivor if we’d known this was where we’d end up? What is it that keeps us watching this trash? These aren’t questions that I have answers to, but I’m putting them out there in the world because I think it’s time we really consider what we’re teaching our young people about “reality”. I’m as guilty as the next person of watching bad reality TV, but I admit that it took me awhile to accept that even Survivor was plotted out by the network rather than actual reality. Through no fault of their own, today’s young people don’t know any better either. Are Scott and Amie really who we want to offer as role models for them? I don’t think so.