In “Reality Television: A Neoliberal Theater of Suffering,” Anna McCarthy writes that “to see reality television as merely trivial entertainment is to avoid recognizing the degree to which the genre is preoccupied with the government of the self” (17). She describes reality television’s privileged ability to collapse the spheres of private life, public life, and the state – the apparatuses and institutions by which the individual is constituted as citizen – under the seemingly innocuous guise of excess and so-called ‘reality’. She specifically calls attention to the techniques and failures of “self-government” within the reality television program as analytical frameworks for understanding the machinations of neoliberalism, that is, “in which state policies synchronize with cultural practices to apply market-based individualism as a governmental rationale across the institutions and practices of everyday life” (21).
In thinking through these themes of self-government, the insidious control of the neoliberal state, and the structures of reality television, I would like to draw attention to one of the most fascinating examples of reality television I have ever seen: Pretty Wild, which premiered on E! in 2010. Initially conceived as a relatively standard docu-series about an non-traditional family of “party girls” exploring the Hollywood social scene, the program was thrown into total disarray by the arrest of its star, Alexis Neiers, shortly after the filming of the pilot. Neiers was arrested in connection with the (now-infamous) Bling Ring robberies, wherein a group of Los Angeles teenagers broke into and robbed the homes of a number of high-profile celebrities. What had initially been set up as a Kardashian-style personal profile was interrupted and became instead a portrait of a family in crisis and a lengthy, painful confrontation with the law, the press, and questions of guilt and responsibility – nevertheless intercut with traditional scenes of family drama, photoshoots, parties, flirting, and shopping.
The construction of Neiers herself as a figure – one who would later become infamous for an emotional phone call (filmed during the shooting of the series) she made to Nancy Jo Sales, a reporter Vanity Fair, who had published an unflattering profile of her during the trial – clearly works to locate her criminality not in the actions of the Bling Ring (after all, legal proceedings were ongoing during the shoot, which meant that a lot of information still had to be kept private) but instead in her party-girl persona, her youth, her conspicuous consumption, and her highly unconventional relationship with her adopted sister Tess. Her quest for redemption in the eyes of the law (and the series) became a public spectacle of self-flagellation and self-presentation, what McCarthy calls “the makeover as a kind of social reform”: performing the identity of innocence and apology for the cameras that had unwittingly recorded the revelation of her guilt (and were constantly searching for more). The spectre of the other camera throughout the show – the security camera, the ultimate in ‘reality’ filming, apparently neutral and unmotivated, that led to her arrest – haunts its every frame, reminding us that even in the fictive and fantasy world of reality television the state is still present, judging and assessing at every turn, and that the trauma Neiers is subjected to throughout the series is both personal and political, both entertainment and a kind of education in surrendering to state control.
Here is a link to the Nancy Jo call: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x10pkt3_alexis-neiers-phone-call-full-scene_fun
Also, here is the Vanity Fair profile of Alexis Neiers: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2010/03/billionaire-girls-201003