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Controlling your reality

Illustration by Alicia Kovalcheck
Illustration by Alicia Kovalcheck Buy this photo

By Paige Pfleger, Daily Arts Writer
Published January 28, 2013

The first time I ever got drunk, I was a sophomore in high school. It was 2009 — a pretty indistinct year with all things considered — except a new phenomenon was crashing down with a vengeance on kids my age: the rise of reality television.

Prime time gems like “Flavor of Love” or “A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila” peppered the television lineup like a bad case of herpes. Then came “Jersey Shore” — the penultimate reality television show for getting plastered, having sex with strangers and living an entirely irresponsible life … while simultaneously becoming famous and getting paid.

These stars were impossible to ignore — their faces plastered on billboards, commercials and advertisements. So I, much like every other teenager, investigated what the hype was all about and eventually bought into everything the reality TV paradigm had to offer.

My friends came over for a sleepover, and we flipped on a “Jersey Shore” marathon. After my parents went to sleep upstairs, we snuck to the back of the living room, quietly shuffled some potted plants around and broke into the liquor closet. We mixed some vodka and orange juice and began to play a “Jersey Shore” drinking game.

“Every time someone refers to themselves in third person — drink!”
“Every time someone references gym, tan or laundry — drink!”
“Every time they have to blur out a body part — drink!”

By episode three, we were passed out drunk on the couch. The next day we awoke with killer hangovers and the vodka safely back in the cabinet half filled with water (sorry, Mom and Dad).

In my young mind, drinking and reality shows like “Jersey Shore” seemed to go hand-in-hand. I thought getting wasted, dressing awfully and making altogether bad life choices like Snooki and the Shore gang made them seem “cool.” And what kid doesn’t want to be cool?

It’s easy to write off this kind of anecdote as teen stupidity. That was “so high school” — after graduation, students receive the gift of maturity along with their diplomas. But the effects of reality shows have a tendency to burrow much deeper than one drunken sleepover. They can alter perception of what is right and wrong and can perpetuate drinking, drugs and sex throughout generations.

Communications Prof. Susan Douglas teaches a course that analyzes the effects of reality shows like “Jersey Shore.”

“Let’s say you’re thirteen and watching ‘Jersey Shore’ at night,” Douglas said. “You’re seeing all of this behavior, and these people that are famous because of this show, which can provide aspirational representations. You want to aspire to these behaviors with the goal of becoming famous.”

The result: you aspire to these behaviors with hopes of becoming famous.

Even for students in college, the idea of being on a reality television show can persist as a last resort. LSA sophomore Mackenzie DeWitt sometimes jokes with friends about how she plans to be on “The Bachelorette.”

“When your life turns to complete crap, it’s always a viable option to go on TV and make a fool out of yourself,” she said. “If we can’t become professionals, we can always become reality TV stars!”

One of the largest dangers of these shows is the overwhelming glorification of drinking and party lifestyle: Entire populations of young adults can have a similar experience to my own in high school.

“Shows like ‘Jersey Shore’ totally normalize binge drinking,” Douglas said. “They go out every night and drink massive amounts of alcohol until they have something that really resembles alcohol poisoning, which is harmful. We do know that binge drinking — unlike social drinking — is a problem on campuses including ours because it is a dangerous health behavior.”

DeWitt echoed Douglas’s sentiments from her own experience on campus.

“It seems as though students assume the more they drink, the more it will be like it is on television,” DeWitt said. “They search for that level of excitement and drama and vivacity.”

Reality shows don’t only perpetuate an emphasis on drinking in viewers, but they also heavily encourage it on set as well. Emotionally dramatic shows like “The Bachelor” amp up the alcohol content to make contestants irrationally emotive.

When the women go to the Bachelor house there’s often no food, only alcohol. Producers supply them with wine, and if that isn’t enough to create drama, they crack open the vodka, a fact that Douglas teaches in her introductory communications course. The cast is encouraged to engage in drunken conduct, a behavior that is then transferred to TV viewers regardless of age.

“I think reality television portrays drinking as something fun that has little to no consequences,” DeWitt said.