“Don’t Be All, Like, Uncool” (The Self)
Seven strangers are sitting around a table, making introductions.
Heather explains that she went to an all-Black high school. “Maybe…” She pauses and adds, “No, it was just a Black high school.” The others laugh. “You know, I can’t even say, ‘Maybe [one white person].’ It was just a Black high school.”
Eric’s neighborhood, on the other hand, was populated with white middle- and upper-class families. “But then you can go jog like two miles and you get into Asbury Park. And that’s like predominantly Black.”
“I was way out in the country,” Becky explains. “This was, like, as white as can be—one culture there.”
Kevin’s eyes widen at the “one culture” comment.
There’s no better place to start exploring what reality TV teaches us about ourselves than the premiere episode1 of The Real World. First airing on MTV in 1992, as explained in its original opening sequence, the show is “the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a loft and have their lives taped.” Not only was The Real World arguably the “first” reality show, but it also shows us, very clearly, what it means to think sociologically.
At its core, sociology is concerned with understanding collective human experience. It is the study of how we do things in groups, how those groups work, and how they change over time. But that doesn’t mean we neglect the individual; the discipline has always explored the tricky tango between our individual selves and the social contexts that shape, and are shaped by, them. One classic sociological topic, for instance, has been unemployment—which is at once a personal issue and a collective problem, subject to broad cultural and economic patterns.2
Widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of sociology, French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) promoted the idea that our lives are shaped by social forces, which can be analyzed in a systematic, scientific way. Durkheim broke with existing fields (such as psychology) that had focused on individual experience, as well as fields (such as philosophy) that had analyzed the social world from a more humanistic perspective. In his bid to legitimate sociology as a discipline, he drew comparisons to the more established, “hard” sciences—arguing, for instance, that we can study the different elements of society in the same way that a biologist might examine the components of a cell. Not only was society a worthy object of study, Durkheim claimed, but by investigating it, we could extract quantifiable truths and make future predictions.
Society, Durkheim contended, isn’t simply a collection of individuals; rather, it is its own entity and demands its own analysis. Specifically, our lives are governed by “social facts,” which “consist of manners of acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him.”3 If suicide, for instance, were just about the individual decision to commit the act, that wouldn’t explain why suicide rates vary among countries or why they change within a country as characteristics of the economy change.4
Further ruminating on the relationship between the individual and broader society, the modern sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916–1962) defined what he called the “sociological imagination” as “the capacity to range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self—and to see the relations between the two.”5 Both Durkheim and Mills, in slightly different ways, were concerned with a core sociological issue: How can we understand our own lives as a part of something larger?
“We’re all influenced by our social environments” may not seem like a revolutionary premise, but in Durkheim’s time, Mills’s time, and even today, many of us scarcely realize the extent to which this is true. Often when we have troubles in our lives, Mills wrote, we lack a sociological imagination. We tend to see things as the result of individual failures rather than as the products of large-scale sociohistorical forces. To be clear, this imagination doesn’t absolve people from making bad choices, but it demonstrates how we always make those choices within particular social constraints. Going back to unemployment, for instance, it’s objectively true that I lost my high school job as a bank teller because I was slow and unmotivated. But it’s also objectively true that the economy was tanking and the branch needed to fire someone. As the newest, youngest, and worst employee, I was the lowest-hanging fruit.
At first blush, reality TV might seem like an inapt candidate to teach us about the social forces that influence our lives. In some ways, the genre is hyperfocused on the individual, showcasing humans with interesting traits or quirks (drag queens! celebrities! people who eat their couches!) and underscoring the importance of personal responsibility.6 Yet reality programs also expose how these personalities are cultivated within the patches of social life they happen to inhabit. When diverse individuals socialized in different ways come into contact, sparks may fly, illuminating the fact that our understandings of the world are learned rather than innate.
WELCOME TO THE REAL WORLD
Magnification of social difference is at the heart of The Real World. The first season’s cast members were all in their late teens to mid-twenties and individually compelling in some way. You may remember Julie, who, attempting to break free from her southern conservative upbringing, rode on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle and spent time with the homeless. Heather (aka “Heather B.”) had already established a career as part of a rap group and was trying to make it as a solo artist. Becky and Andre were also musicians. Eric was a model. Kevin was a poet. Norman, the token queer character (and the first of many on that series), was a painter and gave his testimonials in a bathtub for no apparent reason.
Though The Real World is ostensibly about these unique individuals, it’s fairly easy to view it with a sociological imagination, because the show does much of the work for us. Julie’s fish-out-of-water trajectory highlights how, despite her zeal for exploration, her upbringing has in many ways molded her outlook on the world. In one iconic scene, Heather’s beeper goes off, and Julie asks whether Heather sells drugs. While the comment is punctuated by a dramatic guitar riff, nobody on the show calls it out as racist. In fact, Kevin, who is also Black, tells the cameras that Julie seems “very open.”
But in another scene, race is the explicit topic of dinnertime conversation, when Kevin comments that racism “is alive and well.” He goes on to discuss his experience with the n-word and people’s assumption that he’s good at basketball, while Heather describes how she’s treated like a potential shoplifter when she visits stores. It’s not a stretch to understand how collective, historical understandings of race and gender have impacted these three housemates’ perceptions of and interactions with the world. And if we can’t make that leap ourselves, Kevin, Heather, and Julie help us over the hurdle, by explicitly pointing out that the US has a shared history that disparately impacts members of its various groups. “At some point in my life,” Kevin says, “I recognized that a large part of my history was denied from me.”
“Your history is my history,” Julie objects.
“I agree,” says Kevin. “You just don’t realize it.”
It’s Sociology 101, and it’s gorgeous.
In more recent seasons, Real World (it dropped the The in 2014) evolved into, basically, conventionally attractive people making out in hot tubs. One might argue that this change was culturally illuminating in its own way, but it wasn’t really illuminating anymore in the sense of people sitting around tables and discussing how race, class, and gender have shaped their lives. Yet reality TV still teaches us about these things. We may have to work a little harder these days to get the sociological meat off the bone, but it’s still there in abundance.
THE MAN WITH THE CAT ON HIS HEAD
Today, reality TV continues to be a rich context for understanding how we become selves within social contexts. The contrast between people from small-town and urban environments, for instance, is a recurring theme within the genre. On that first episode of The Real World, Julie is traveling on a subway train that stalls; when she attempts to get her token refunded, her roommates laugh at her naivete, and Kevin comments that she’s obviously not a New Yorker.
Early sociologists, writing during a time of rapid industrialization, were quite interested in these types of individual differences. The burgeoning city changed our experiences as social beings in concrete and observable ways, creating new behavioral norms. In his 1903 book, On Individuality and Social Forms, for instance, Georg Simmel argued that life in these environs creates a particular “type” of individual. Because urbanites are constantly being bombarded with sights and sounds, they become relatively immune to these sensations. Unlike people in small towns, Simmel observed, the “metropolitan type” develops a “blasé outlook,” which is an “incapacity to react to new stimulations with the required amount of energy.”7 Hand in hand with this, there’s a greater acceptance of diversity and uniqueness in the city—or at least an indifference to it.
In sum, the metropolis and the small town create very different kinds of individuals—in terms of how they respond to their surroundings, how they feel internally, and how they treat others. And various reality shows have touched on these differences. Breaking Amish (TLC, 2012–2014), for example, follows a group of young adults, raised in Amish and Mennonite communities, who move to New York City and experience the new environment together. The show often highlights these characters’ sensory overload in the city. In one episode at the beginning of the series, for instance, the group visits Times Square for the first time.8 They recall that the experience was “overwhelming” and that the streets were noisy and “it didn’t feel safe.” Strangers rush past them, adopting Simmel’s “blasé” attitude—toward not only the Amish in their midst but also the TV cameras. Yet the sound of a loud whistle frightens the Amish. Various sights that might not stop the average New Yorker in his tracks, such as a man casually standing on the sidewalk with a cat on his head, fascinate these newcomers. “It’s a little crazy,” a cabbie advises them at one point, “but that’s what New York is all about.”
These characters’ fish-out-of-water experiences, while augmented by the fact that they come from cultures that reject modern technologies, are likely familiar to many of us. Anecdotally, when I first moved to New York in my early twenties, I shared the subway one morning with an elderly man dressed in a bumblebee costume who elicited zero reaction from anybody else in the car. Later, as an experienced subway-goer, I learned to plop headphones over my ears, to stare at a book or a crossword puzzle—to wrap myself in a “protective shell,” as Simmel puts it.9 Beyond the specific culture shock of the urban experience, many of us have needed to adjust to new behavioral expectations—moving between different socioeconomic contexts, across racial boundaries, or through international space. It’s telling that both Becky and Heather from The Real World talk about how entering the world beyond their single-race high schools required an adjustment. What becomes apparent in these moments is the extreme role of our socialization in shaping who we are—our attitudes and preferences, our behaviors, and our overall orientations toward the world.
CARDI B AND THE SOCIAL SELF
So, society shapes the self. But it would be too simple to leave things there, because we’re active participants in this, too. One major tension often explored in sociology is between structure, on the one hand, and agency on the other. Structure is how society is organized (in ways that may constrain or empower us as individuals), and agency is our individual free will to move within that system of organization and sometimes transcend it. In nearly all situations, to varying degrees, both elements are at play.
While that first season of The Real World, for instance, was focused on social difference, it did not leave agency behind. At the same time that these roommates showed us how social forces constrain our lives and shape our senses of self, they also demonstrated our ability to transcend these forces. As Durkheim noted, because society is more than just a bunch of individuals, social facts don’t need to apply to everyone in order for them to be social facts.10 Even during times when the suicide rate is skyrocketing, clearly not everybody is committing suicide. And we can also break free from social facts, though often not without struggle. Julie’s story line, for instance, concentrates on her choice to step outside of her previous experience by coming to New York. In many ways she is “open”—propelling herself into different adventures, meeting new people, testing out different frames for understanding the world. And in its early seasons especially, The Real World highlighted moments when its participants drew close to one another despite their differences. It’s perhaps telling that Heather B. has said she still keeps in touch with most of the original housemates all these years later.11
As both classical sociologists and Real World cast members show us, to say that our selves are shaped by society is to tell only half the story. Individuals also work actively to shape and present their selves to others, within social contexts. Charles Horton Cooley (1864–1929), for instance, developed the concept of a “looking glass self.” Just as we might examine ourselves in a mirror and be happy or unhappy based on how we look, he argued, we see ourselves reflected in other people’s reactions to us, and that helps to shape not only how we act but who we think we are.12 Erving Goffman (1922–1982), too, has suggested that we actively reason and operate in the world based on how we think others perceive us. Arguably one of the most influential modern sociologists, Goffman engaged in dramaturgical analysis—explaining the social world using terms and ideas from the theater. For Goffman, we were all actors, mobilizing props and costumes and reciting lines for others. While there is a “backstage” area—when we’re away from other people and we can sprawl on the couch and do socially unacceptable things like watching Real Housewives—even then we don’t fully cut our cord with the public. We’re able to relax somewhat backstage, but we’re also busy rehearsing and putting together props for future social performances.13 (True story about Goffman: his sister played Adam Sandler’s grandmother in Happy Gilmore.)
Across reality programs, we see individuals interacting with the broader social world, crafting selves in concert with their social surroundings. While, as Goffman and Cooley point out, we all do this, reality TV participants do it in a heightened, public way. In fact, reality TV as a genre is particularly poised to reveal this process. As the media and culture scholars Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette have pointed out, unscripted television has long been at the vanguard when it comes to the use of new and interactive technologies, going back to Big Brother (CBS, 2000–present), a show with twenty-four-hour web streams. The genre “continues to serve as the principal testing ground for emerging convergence strategies such as podcasting, user-generated content, and greater viewer involvement in television.”14 Along with capitalizing on new technologies that engage viewers in unique ways, the genre has always functioned on multiple platforms simultaneously: TV, web, social media, books, video games, music, and more. These two, interrelated aspects of reality TV—its interactive qualities and its multiplatform approach—uniquely converge to show us people who are crafting, assessing, and revising their self-presentations in response to highly engaged publics, across various social stages.
Perhaps no one exemplifies this reciprocal process between self and society more than Cardi B. A former teenage gang member who was raised in the Bronx, Cardi B first ascended into public view when she posted messages and videos on social media discussing her career as a stripper and her musical aspirations. Then, from 2015 to 2017, she was a cast member on Love & Hip Hop: New York (VH1)—a reality show following several women with connections to the hip-hop music scene. Since her appearance on the show as an aspiring artist, she has continued to pull herself up the celebrity pipeline, ultimately emerging as a Grammy-winning rapper. By 2019, she had received two Guinness World Records for her music15 and was being followed by 42.5 million people on Instagram.
Cardi B personifies Graeme Turner’s notion of the contemporary “DIY,” or “do-it-yourself,” celebrity, who propels herself into the public arena through the internet or reality TV.16 But she not only reflects our new parameters and pathways for celebrity. She also shows us, more broadly, how one can use the social pulleys and levers that are available in order to craft and present a self. Her career trajectory illuminates how one can move within social constraints—new technological frameworks, new modes of work—to create an image for public consumption. For instance, Love & Hip Hop, a show featuring mainly women of color, often dips into the well of race and gender stereotypes. The central characters are regularly portrayed as sexually irresponsible, materialistic, and quick to anger. (We’ll further explore these stereotypes later in the book.) But Cardi B, who is Afro-Latina and Afro-Caribbean, has also been able to work within the confines of these collective meanings to serve her own ends. As one article in The Cut points out, the rapper has “taken the concept of ‘ratchet’—a southern rap term, first used as an insult akin to ‘ghetto,’ that evolved over the years to mean ‘raw’—and played with it to her advantage. She’s an adroit creature of the media she’s been saturated by growing up.…”17
I want to pause for a moment here on “ratchet,” which is a term for a subcategory of reality TV characterized by explosive conflicts and ostensibly uncouth behavior—not always but often featuring people of color. Because the term can have derogatory, racist (and often sexist) connotations, I use it in quotation marks throughout the book. I still do use it, however, because the concept of “ratchet” is analytically useful for thinking about the relative value we assign to different types of reality TV shows and how that value links up with broader social hierarchies. Further, it is important to note that, as Cardi B illustrates, some people of color on these shows and scholars who write about them have reappropriated the term as a form of resistance. The African American literature and culture scholar Therí A. Pickens, for example, has argued that “ratchet” can function “as a performative strategy that secures a liberatory space for black women.”18 Again, more on this later in the book.
In sum, Cardi B takes the cultural mechanisms available to her—for instance, the social meanings connected to her gender and racial categories—and she manipulates these materials to craft an image that is not only palatable to others but immensely lucrative for herself. And Cardi B is far from the only reality star who seemingly gazes into the looking glass and creates a persona around the expectations she sees reflected. As Amy Kaufman has pointed out, it’s not just the show’s creators who construct the broad archetypes on The Bachelor but the performers themselves who also play along; many contestants “cop to their part in the creation of those roles.”19 And it makes sense that they do this. They, like Cardi B, are potentially able to benefit by transitioning their reality TV personalities to other contexts, such as the business world, talk shows, and scripted TV.20 So while reality TV has always demonstrated the weight of society as it pushes individuals into particular molds, it also shows us how people move around under that weight, shifting it and imagining new possibilities for themselves.
WILL THE REAL COUNTESS PLEASE STAND UP?
So far, we’ve seen how individuals are shaped by their surroundings and how those individuals engage in this process, too, actively changing in response to social feedback. But ultimately, reality TV teaches us that we can’t understand either of the two players in this drama—the self and society—without understanding the other.
This brings us to “Countess” LuAnn de Lesseps.
The Countess has been a fixture on The Real Housewives of New York City (Bravo, 2008–present)—a show following a revolving group of five to eight wealthy-ish New York women—since its inception. We’ve been able to watch LuAnn mold her on-air persona over the course of multiple seasons in response to real-world interactions and viewer responses. In her first appearance on the show’s “Meet the Wives” episode, she uttered the tagline “I never feel guilty about being privileged.” She explained that she was married to an actual count and also had two kids and a housekeeper, whom she enlisted to pack up the family for the Hamptons. “Everybody wants me to come to their events so I really have to pick and choose what I do over the summer,” LuAnn told the camera, throwing up her hands and adding, “But I manage.”21 In another notable scene from that same episode, when Bethenny introduced LuAnn to her driver by her first name, LuAnn corrected her. “If you introduce me to, like, a driver, it’s, like, ‘Mrs. de Lesseps,’” she explained.
“It’s, like, get over yourself,” Bethenny commented in a testimonial.
Later we’d find out LuAnn’s life until that point had been a rich tapestry. She’d been a licensed nurse, a Wilhelmina model, a beauty queen, and an Italian TV show host, and she’d once impersonated Sharon Stone on an Italian awards show.
Despite the fact that she came into public consciousness as a caricature of a New York snob, and still retains elements of that persona, LuAnn has remained compelling enough to keep her spot on the show for over a decade. (Technically, she was a “friend of” the Housewives and not billed as one of the leads in season six.) She accomplishes this by clinging to the “Countess” persona—even though she has divorced and remarried and divorced again—as an amorphous archetype that she slides from seriousness to satire as it suits her. In 2009, for instance, she took the public’s association (whether “real” or ironical) between her name and the concept of sophistication and spun it into a book, Class with the Countess: How to Live with Elegance and Flair, as well as a highly auto-tuned single, “Money Can’t Buy You Class” (2010). In 2015, during a confrontation between some cast members on the beach, LuAnn sauntered over in full Countess mode and calmly offered them plates of “eggs à la française.”22 Fans debated whether there is indeed such a dish or if it’s just a snobby name for scrambled eggs; LuAnn shared the recipe in Glamour magazine.23 A subsequent profile of the Countess in The New York Times mentioned that she was “sipping espresso out of a mug emblazoned with the phrase.”24 On that same cast trip, LuAnn’s castmate Heather rebuked her for bringing home a male stranger, who had fallen asleep upstairs in their shared house. LuAnn told Heather, “Be cool. Don’t be all, like, uncool.”25 Bravo played the line repeatedly in previews, and when it aired, it was splashed across the internet, with People calling it “the moment fans have been waiting for all season.”26 That year, LuAnn recorded a new song, “Girl Code: Don’t Be So Uncool.” The tagline was featured on various merchandise.
In perhaps her most un-“Countess” move to date, in December 2017 LuAnn was arrested in Palm Beach, Florida, after drunkenly trespassing in a hotel room and assaulting a police officer. A grainy video appeared, on the internet and various news media, of her in the back of a police car, shouting, “Don’t touch me! I will kill you!” at the cops. She entered an alcohol treatment program and addressed the incident on the show, seemingly approaching it with the self-awareness and humility she lacked in season one. In the 2018 season finale, she then rose as a phoenix from the ashes of her incarceration by headlining a sold-out cabaret act, #CountessAndFriends.27 The act, in which she poked fun at her Countess image and her arrest, was profiled in that Times piece, which called LuAnn “a woman for whom art and life have always been deeply intertwined.”28
Some might view LuAnn’s shifting selfhood as evidence of her own phoniness or perhaps the unreality of reality TV. Indeed, Bethenny has repeatedly questioned the Countess’s authenticity, pointing out incongruities in LuAnn’s personality over the years. “Keeping it real” is a common rhetorical weapon on reality TV, generally wielded by someone who is making an unkind pronouncement about another cast member (“But I kept it real!”). Reality TV personalities also use it as a charge that castmates are being inauthentic. Bethenny aligns herself squarely with this mantra. In Bethenny’s eyes, LuAnn appears to contradict herself at every turn—at once classy and classless, prim and licentious, judgmental yet seemingly such a prime target for judgment. We have seen different sides of LuAnn as the seasons progress, and even within single seasons, single episodes, and single scenes.
Copyright © 2021 by Danielle J. Lindemann