Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"Surviving Survival TV" Core Post 3

I was very intrigued by Anna McCarthy's argument concerning reality TV as both a social text that reflected free market, neoliberal policies of the 1990s, and a low-cost solution to the '80s/'90s fracturing of the television industry. Her notion that public life was filtered through the image of "the government of the self," the theme of makeover, and the "theater of suffering" is quite convincing. While I don't watch a lot of reality TV, over the last couple of years, I have been known to watch the occasional survival show (namely "Man Vs. Wild" and "Survivorman") with my seven-year-old daughter; she enjoys the adventure and problem solving, and their lack of crass cultural themes or social behaviors makes them kid-friendly.

While they don't have an overt social function in the way McCarthy describes "Random 1," they do riff off of general reality TV motifs such as "the impossible challenge, the personal confrontation, and the scavenger hunt" (McCarthy 21) in their episodes, which detail survivalists trying to sustain themselves in various remote locations around the world. By their very nature, I suppose one might define them as asocial texts, promoting the idea of a retreat from society and the "purity" of self-sustenance in the wilds; in that way they dovetail into neoliberal ideas of rugged individualism and personal fortitude. So when I recently saw the star of "Man vs. Wild," Bear Grylls (in a new show), not only guide President Obama through a glacier but also through a Christian evangelical prayer, I was only partially surprised to infer that he must be some sort of rightwing celebrity now.

Grylls' shows emphasize his Navy seal training and begin and end with dramatic helicopter entries and exists into remote locations. With his movie star good looks and heroic affect, his film crews and presentations clearly stoke myths of the military-industrial complex. By contrast, "Survivorman" Les Stroud, a Canadian filmmaker who carries all of his equipment with him, and shoots and edits everything himself, typically barely ekes out some semblance of food/water/shelter in his episodes. In contrast to Grylls' polished spectacles, Stroud's DIY bohemian scrappiness often reflects McCarthy's "failure of self-management," her interpretation of trauma as a dramatic catalyst for these kinds of shows, and a subtext for the failed state. The fact that Stroud has also produced a TV series ("Surviving Urban Disasters," 2009) in which he interviews survivors of Hurricane Katrina and demonstrates survival techniques is especially conducive to McCarthy's political analysis.


  1. Great post Doug, I found Anna McCarthy's argument also to be the most intriguing. One, because I am still trying to fully engage with the concept of neoliberalism and two, because the title, " A Neoliberal Theater of Suffering", is so damn catchy. Throughout the text, I was confused because from my understanding of Neoliberalism, I thought it related to self management and gaining success through self effort. When McCarthy began to talk about shows where people were being helped, I thought this was odd and it complicated by understanding. Then she started mentioning how in reality, these people that suffered on television, are not benefactors of welfare, but subjects of spectatorship to better the viewers. She mentions that when it comes welfare and abjection, subjects are divided, casted into a position of disgrace and have gone past the point of proper living, but their examples of failure will better those who are able to self manage (28). Throughout the text, shame and suffering was frequently mentioned and it really shed light on the power dynamics between the spectators and the people featured on these shows. Growing up watching shows like Fear Factor, Jerry Springer , the Maury show, Judge Mathis, Judy, insert various other fake judges... these shows always casted their characters in positions of shame, willing to be patronized and laughed at. Recently I watched episodes of Cut Throat Kitchen or America's Top Model, and these shows also incorporate sound effects and feature ridiculous casts that eliminate all chances of taken these people seriously. Through the shaming of others, reality shows have really lived up to the idea of being a "Neoliberal Theater of Suffering" (Still such a cool phrase).

  2. Hey, Raymond. I think "not benefactors of welfare, but subjects of spectatorship to better the viewers" is well put. Also, I think she's saying that by promoting narratives of self-help or random kindness, it supports the neoliberal myth of discarding the social net in place of people 'pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.' The shows implicitly suggest that we don't need practical political solutions, everyone just needs to better themselves.