Reality Television: The Black Mirror By Ryan Poole

Human beings create and model their own existence after what they perceive as important. Reality television serves as a basis for imitation because reality television celebrates the common man and elevates their status. People being slightly envious will attempt to repeat the circumstances in order to differentiate their lives. This idea of imitation is found in the nature of rearing children and in organized religion.
Reality Television
Reality is the genre of television where the purpose of the show is not to follow a created piece of fiction but instead to follow real life people on their journey through life. Reality television has a focus in entertainment traditionally. However, reality television is not a monolith and is made up of a variety of differences. There is structured shows where the purpose is to follow the cast through a specific task. There is unstructured, where the show follows a subject without a specific purpose. Reality television includes many genres such as competitions, drama, docu-reality, transformative, entertainment, and much more.

The opening intro of MTV's The Real World. The words used in this intro describes the premise that most reality television shows operate under.

One of reality television greatest assets is that a show can be a tailored to fits its audience. For example the popular competition reality television show Survivor airs on primetime television channel, CBS. Survivor attracts millions of viewers due to its universal appeal. However there are also shows like HGTV’s own Property Brothers. This show about buying and renovating property is more niche and as such does not attract as many viewers but it still is a great asset to the broadcasting network.

It is easy to become engrossed in reality television as the situations and feelings of the show grow in similarities to those within the viewer's own personal lives. People relate so well that marketing company, OnePoll found that 39% people watch some form of reality programing (Tiley, 2016). Reality TV’s audience is constantly growing as well. In 2015, 750 reality tv shows were on the air and 350 of those were brand new televisions shows (VanDerWerff, 2016). People are watching more reality television because there is an abundant amount to consume if one chooses. One reason for this potential rise of reality T.V. shows is how cheap it is to produce a reality show, a 30-minute reality show costs approximately $100,000-$500,000 per episode. This is significantly less than what it cost to run scripted television shows. (Joyner, 2010). It is economically more feasible to do a reality television show and this is one of the reasons reality television is on top. Also the talent of the shows, which are usually people off the street, can be also severely underpaid, compared to those actors starring in sitcoms.
Celebrity Culture

Reality television intersects with celebrity culture on an inherent basis. This is because celebrity culture is defined as the idea of idolizing certain people based upon the knowledge of their personal lives and the viewing these people as commercial brands. Reality television intersects with celebrity culture because even though most on reality television start as unknown people off the street they are given a platform, television, which automatically puts them above their fellow neighbor. Furthermore being on a show elevates those stars to a brand as well. The success or failure of the show is usually tied to the stars. Also when one viewer watches a show the star can receive benefits such as higher ratings which helps them. However that viewer is not receiving any bonus from the view besides situational entertainment. Celebrity culture creates a one way channel in which only the reality television star benefits the most.

Kardashian in the original season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians (left) and recently when testifying in front of Congress in the name of clean beauty (right)

Celebrity culture and reality television have a unique relationship as well. As for most reality shows with a dedicated cast, those that start as relatively unknown do not remain that way. This because again when viewers are achieved, this raises the value of the stars of the show. For example there was a time where Kourtney Kardashian was not different then any of the other aristocratic portion of Los Angeles and now as a result of the societal elevation, she has recently testified in front of congress. To further this point the early twenties aged cast of Jersey Shore were not paid physical compensation from the first season of the show, instead they were paid $200 a week by the store they worked in as a part of the show. By the show’s sixth and final season the cast took in on average $100,000 per episode (Spellberg, 2018).

The cast of Jersey Shore: Family Vacation
Celebrities' brands all start and end with ratings. To be simple you cannot be a commodity if people do not consume what is being sold. American Idol, the reality competition built around the American public choosing one singer believed to be the best offered that year, at is peak averaged 30 million viewers, which was roughly 10% of the population at that point in time. The stars of the show were shown to be commercial products as well due to establishing themselves as artists in the music industry. Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson and much more are platinum selling recording artists. Thus meaning consumers were pushing their peers into the celebrity stratosphere.

Pictured above recording artist Kelly Clarkson while on her season of American Idol

In the ever changing landscape of checking the viability of one’s brands, one way to check is to see how influential one is to see their social media presence is. Kim Kardashian has over 110 million instagram followers and comparative numbers on both Twitter and Snapchat. This amount of influence gives Kardashian the platform to states whatever is on her mind and also allows for product promotion. Kardashian has often placed advertisements on her social media handles for her audience to consume. Most of the time it is a form of self promotion, for her own products but on occasion Kardashian does promote non Kardashian affiliated products. These advertisements can lend Kardashian up to $250,000 per post (Jones, 2017). This meaning that due to celebrity culture Kardashian is put a position to amass a following of her peers to influence them, all the while being elevated above her followers.

The latest ad posted by Kardashian, which has since been removed due to controversy


This video describes the no lose situation of branding on social media.

Both celebrity culture and reality television are global concepts. All around the world reality television exists and sets trends. For example the original reality program Dom-2 airs in Russia. In this show contestants must build a house, all the while trying to find a partner for a relationship. There also international broadcast of already existing shows such as Indian Idol, Geordie Shore, The Real Housewives of Melbourne and X Factor Turkey. Even the U.S. based show investor program Shark Tank was based upon The Japanese reality program,Dragon’s Den.

Beyond international versions of certain programing, the shows or the stars benefit greatly from a global reach. For example the brand of Kardashians has reached global waters with live shows in Dubai, magazine covers in India, and tours in Japan. Even non reality programing individuals such as former Bollywood star, Priyanka Chopra have extended their reach. In her case she has lead her own U.S. based show Quantico, while also starring in movies and landing on the covers of magazines. Another non reality star is Jackie Chan who amassed a huge following in China first before becoming a global box office draw. These careers are spread through technology allowing news and media from one part of the world to spread easily via text, internet, or other media. The other way careers are built is through cultural diffusion. When visiting another country one takes in all that is perceived as important, including pop culture of the celebrities. These are brought back to their native country and the orginal celebrities influence is spread. When these factors are combined there is a global focus and consciousness created(Edmunds & Turner, 2005). These exact factors are included in global consumerism. As well leading to the brands becoming bigger as well, some examples of worldwide brands are Nike or the celebrity brands of those like Bono and Madonna Together through technology and our very existence humans have created a global culture.


It is in human nature to replicate or mimic what is in front of them. Relating this idea back to coursework there is observation in the book, Seeing the World and Knowing God: Hebrew Wisdom and Christian Doctrine in a Late-Modern Context by Paul Fiddes. In this book where Fiddes discusses the quest for wisdom and explanations for the human behavior. Fiddes describes that humans all realize that life is preordained for the most part,

“At the level of popular culture, there is a sense that the self ‘has become caught up in a prior agenda as a performer of pre-determined roles, at the mercy of political, economic, and commercial forces in the roles of consumer, or citizen, or borrower. This situation is inevitably undermining the sense of having a self which can direct a person’s own affairs. (Fiddes 2013, p. 43)”

In this quote Fiddes warns against people following the grain and not rocking the boat. Reality television is all about the average joe suddenly having a platform, and by extension more prestige, just being themselves. The process of gaining this prestige is about changing what is the norm. Celebrity and celebrate are almost the exact same word. Celebrities are people that are celebrated and as stated before those on reality television tend to rise in societal standing.

Mimesis is the deliberate imitation of the behavior of one group of people by another as a factor in social change. The social change that is spurred is breaking for the norms and expectations of society. Mimesis has taken over elements of western storytelling. Northrop Frye stated in the book Anatomy of Criticism that in one mode of modern storytelling there are is an archetype where the hero is no different than the man around him or the situation around him. In these archetypes the hero has low mimetic value and thus still looked up to and imitated. Also that description is seemingly very similar to the description of most reality television shows.
Fiddes states people must make a life plan that aims at making a good life. He follows this up by saying that people can only craft this plan after interpreting certain media but also but interpreting themselves. He concludes that a person’s sense of self is greatly influenced from what action one takes after undergoing this task of self reflection. Fiddes overall point is that people build themselves up from what they consume. This is no different than the human experience as it already exists. Most people grow up and inherit the values and rule set they were taught by their caretakers. People only delve from that path unless another behavior interests them.
And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock - Matthew 7:25
It is important to note the distinction between imitation and social learning. In the animal kingdom it was found that social learning is often the result of not only observations but trial and error as well. One such example was how rhesus monkeys are not naturally afraid of snakes, but instead develop that behavior after observing similar interactions amongst their fellow species. The main differential in social learning is that whatever is being learned is being assigned a value of either positive or negative.

Imitation however is devoid of that in the animal kingdom [and human world as well]. Imitation is based solely on observations alone. Imitation in the animal world is usually meant to absorb a behavior. Examples of this are common amongst birds. Parrots who mimic human speech, or song birds that can mimic the whistles of humans. Imitation is used amongst animals as well for rewards. In an experiment done with rats, it was found that rats that observed another rat being rewarded for one learned behavior where quick to do the task when given the opportunity (Heyes, 1993). The experiment with the rats is comparable to humans with reality television. People observe what it takes to get rewarded and then when blessed with the chance to imitate, it is what is done. The objective is to get the same reward. It is also comparable because rats imitate because they resonate with the behavior since it comes from another of their species. Humans see their peers on television and want to imitate just as the rats do.

The idea that humans give craft the best version of themselves is rooted in the theme of growth. When humans adapt new behaviors, that are usually for the better, it is called growth. In most circumstances growth opportunities are either modeled or strictly imitated from other people. This again is usually modeled first in caretakers in early life. However, as people grow they choose different venues to model after. This is present in reality television as well, when people imitate what they see they are actually chasing growth.

One such example of this is superficial growth. People bought the Kylie Jenner lip kits in record numbers. In fact the brand estimated to be a billion dollar brand at its current sales numbers. There is the opportunity for growth because people want to be to be seen as different and the kit aids in there self confidence. One example of wholesome growth is the show The Biggest Loser. If one was to imitate the goal of weight loss on the show, it can offer health benefits and self esteem benefits.

Kylie Jenner lip kits (left), Biggest loser contestant Helen Phillips before and after photo (right)

In the coming of age novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, there is a theme of growth. In one specific panel, Satrapi imitates the American punk bands wardrobe wise, while living in rural Iran. It brings her a great deal of happiness. Also in regards brought by Fiddes, there was no one dressing like that and she broke the mold of what average was.

Origins of Imitation
While it is the very essence of nature in both animals and humans to mimic, it might be hard to imagine that reality television is the best example of this phenomenon. This is because as was just argued that people take primarily from caretakers and role models and for many reality is lowbrow or trashy television. In regards to that criticism the Bible acts a response. The Bible fundamentally is in the style of a reality television program. The New Testament is the unfiltered retelling of a group of friends daily escapades. There is even multiple retellings from different perspectives of the events. These are comparable to the confessional shots that are often part of these shows. Confessional shots are retroactive narrations by characters of how they were feeling in a moment.
The heroes of the bible, the apostles and those of focus in the Old Testament, are like the protagonists on the reality shows. This is because those in the Bible and those on television are flawed but they are also heroic, celebrated, and iconic. Beyond that, there is also the purpose of the bible which is to act as a guide for human behavior.

Erich Auerbach, who wrote the book: Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. In the book, Auerbach critiques European authors and their representation of reality. Auerbach critiques that the Bible seeks solely to ensnare the reader and people submit to not be seen as rebellious. (Auerbach, 1946 p. 2) Although consuming reality television is completely not forced. Except it can be argued that to be seen as on trend that one must consume as well, and when they do that they will not be seen as off trend.

A theorist ,René Girard believed in his mimetic theory that all violence on Earth is the product of religion. In his version of mimesis as well, Girard believed that mimesis was not an object of social change but solely a way to accomplish one’s desires. Girard believed that because people were a lot more selfish it would lead to violence to acquire what people wanted in mimesis. Religion played a part in this because it acted as a way to condemn people for being violent. However at the same time it continued the cycled because the church elevates those who are selfless and caring. People, chasing their intrinsic desires, want to have their status elevated and violence continued (Gallese, 2009).

Girard’s theory which was crafted in 1977 does not hold up today, as even the most fundamentalist of societies have advanced over these 40 years, but the ideas of religion acting as a form of social control can be seen as accurate. The idea that people will be motivated by people in their own church as well for mimesis is accurate as well. When people imitate the Bible, people no longer have to imitate the book, they can imitate role models in their lives. When doing this the pattern of societal elevation continues.

The purpose of the book, and also the religion is to have the followers repeat what is in the text. While reality television is not made for this purpose, those that watch it have a specific purpose for the shows. Reality television allows for consumers to see the trends that they deserve. Consumers often believe that those in on the television are no different than themselves and so if they themselves have something, why cannot the consumer? Besides material trends,this logic can apply to behaviors as well.

In the book of Proverbs, Solomon writes, “Rich and poor have this in common: The LORD is the Maker (New International Version Proverbs. 22.2).” This passage has many meanings. One such meaning is that it reinforces the idea that despite the presence of a platform, people are no different than who they see on television. When that is the case people are inclined to attempt social change because everyone should be equal. That is the message of the Bible overall. The quote also comes into play with the global nature of celebrity culture as well. Rich, poor, male, female, non conforming, Asian, American, African, Greek, or any other category can participate. People are brought together by reality television. Anyone from these backgrounds can know watch these shows and participate in the culture. Wherever the place, most know who Kim Kardashian is, and with that the cycle of imitation starts anew.


In this video the Kardashians describe that how there is nothing compelling about them, and they attract viewers solely due to their likable nature.

Reality television allows people to build their own blueprint to base their life of. This attempt at mimesis, is in enacted to avoid status quo that many of the human race are currently inside. Reality television is used as a model of escape because only in reality television are people celebrated by being exactly who they are. People are taught that everyone is treated equally and people have some envious tendencies when the average joe is given a platform for simply existing. Behavior is learned and mimicked due to an innate desire for growth. This whole process highlights the superficial growth aspect of humans in which the goal of growth is not to better person for society at large but a better person for themselves. Reality television is all about the celebration of one self. When watching reality programing and slowly adopting behaviors viewed as important, people become clones of what is seen on television. People see themselves, looking into the screen it is a black mirror.


Auerbach, Erich, 1892-1957. (19571953). Mimesis : the representation of reality in Western literature. Garden City, N.Y. :Doubleday,

Edmunds, J., & Turner, B. S. (2005). Global generations: social change in the twentieth century. The British journal of sociology, 56(4), 559-577. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-4446.2005.00083.x/abstract

Frye, N. (1971). Anatomy of criticism: Four essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Heyes, C. (1993). Imitation, culture and cognition. Animal Behaviour,46(5), 999-1010. doi:10.1006/anbe.1993.1281

Gallese, V. (2009). The two sides of mimesis: Girard's mimetic theory, embodied simulation and social identification. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 16(4), 21-44.

Jones, S. (2017, November 27). How Much Kim Kardashian Charges For An Instagram Post. Retrieved from https://blog.hollywoodbranded.com/how-much-kim-kardashian-charges-for-an-instagram-post

Joyner, S. (2010, April 30). Why Networks Love Reality TV. Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/financial-edge/0410/why-networks-love-reality-tv.aspx

Spellberg, C. (2018, April 25). Here's How Much Money Each Member Of The 'Jersey Shore' Cast Makes. Retrieved from https://www.elitedaily.com/p/how-much-does-the-jersey-shore-cast-get-paid-heres-everything-we-know-8668331

Tiley, C. (2016, February 1). The reality TV habit. Retrieved from http://www.onepoll.com/the-reality-tv-habit/

VanDerWerff, T. (2016, January 07). 750 reality TV shows aired on cable in 2015. Yes, 750. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2016/1/7/10728206/reality-shows-how-many-peak-tv

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