In 2004, three events took place that forever changed American identity, both politically and socially.
In early February, the CIA officially admitted to there being no imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, thereby admitting to either unintentionally peddling false information or blatantly misleading the American public. Barely two months later, CBS ran a story detailing the systemic abuse and torture endured by Iraqi prisoners detained in Abu Ghraib, at the hands of American soldiers. The Abu Ghraib atrocities ended up being overshadowed by the pop culture monsoon that is MTV, which five months after the CBS exposé, premiered the reality show juggernaut Laguna Beach. In the midst of a political and moral existential crisis the American people were given an escape that came equipped with golden, sandy beaches, palm trees and young, tanned white youth living their best lives under the California Sun. Why think about human rights abuses when you can spend your hours deciphering if Lauren Conrad really was a natural blonde?
MTV—while not quite the behemoth it used to be—still has a profound influence on the current pop culture landscape. Its laser focus on discovering emerging talent and trends has ensured that it’s legacy is one of constant evolution. At some point in its 36-year history it recognized the potential of reality shows, which were curated to be as alluring and vapid as possible. Watching people living their “authentic” lives with liberal amounts of scripted drama thrown in for ratings offered the illusion of an escape, which came at a time when real life was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.
When Laguna Beach premiered it was a novelty not only because something so boldly superficial and airbrushed had not yet been seen, but because it seemed to simultaneously mock and represent the fantasy cultural zeitgeist of its time. A year before its release, persistent paranoia, fear, and anti-Muslim rhetoric saw George W. Bush leading Americans into Iraq and what would be one of their most deadliest wars of the new millennium. This, along with the Abu Ghraib crimes, had Americans questioning their understanding of democracy, liberty, and the all-important “American Dream.” Where could the dream be found in a country that was sending its young and brave to fight against an enemy no one really knew, for reasons that seemed uncertain at best and disingenuous at worst? In Laguna Beach, an eden untouched by war and the idea of government transparency. A place where your patriotism was unspoken but expected because everyone was white, everyone was happy, and everyone was well-off. In this place the American dream was distilled into the most artificial of concepts (wealth and successful heterosexual relationships) where the only stumbling block is your own self.
In her 2003 memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Iranian author Azar Nafisi wrote, “Americans have a dream, they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future.” From the onset of Manifest Destiny the quintessential American future has always been painstakingly upheld in the lives and experiences of white American youth. Their cares or lack thereof feed the belief that to be American is to be in a constant state of mindlessly, blissful celebration, unencumbered by political, social, or racial worries. Reality television, though not real, portrays the very real and longed for carefree attitude that is hard to cling to when you’re grappling with the public failures of your country.
Four years after Laguna Beach hit the screen, America was ushering in its first black president and as hopeful and ebullient as the mood was, there were countless anti-Obama protests across the country from those unwilling to live in a nation where the highest office was now held by a black man. As Republican congressman Paul Brown labelled Obama “a Marxist” with the “potential to become Hitler,” Jersey Shore hit the screens with drunken white debauchery. The adventures of Snookie, JWoww, and the guy with the really greasy hair became the cultural landmarks of choice, lulling the American public into a false sense of comfort and easy pleasure. Reckoning with the still very racist present of the American people could be avoided as long as everyone consumed the tawdry lives of those on the Jersey Shore.
Now, as we brace ourselves to face another three years of Trump’s America, MTV’s Siesta Key—the breezy, sunny series that premiered in July—has reintroduced us to the formulaic concept made famous in Laguna Beach. The white kids are wealthy, and even when they are struggling it’s never so bad that it affects their quality of life. Worst case scenario: you get a bartending gig at the local bar where the pay is enough for you to take weeklong trips to Bimini, Bahamas, and the hours flexible enough to only have you be there once a week. The classical American dream: working just enough to make a living, but never to the point of back-breaking labour. Worrying about health care is never an issue, flight bans are unheard of, and gun violence is a thing you only see in The Expendables movie series.
The golden reality show scheme propelled by Laguna Beach, Jersey Shore, and Siesta Key seduces the audience with the promise of unblemished, perennial youth, unaffected by everyday realities. Their whiteness isn’t a miscalculated lack of diversity, but the intentional marketing of that glorious American dream that is white, young, and available to those who will choose to indulge in the fairytale.
When F.Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby it was an indictment of superficiality, materialism and consumerism. But he also foreshadowed The Great Depression and knew that the decadence of the Roaring 20s would not last and was more of a distraction to draw people’s attention away from the issues at hand; a precarious economy, civil unrest and the fragility of world peace. In Daisy Buchanan, Fitzgerald placed all the shallow and fickle characteristics of a dream that is as alluring as it is elusive and ultimately dangerous. As she was a distraction from the real-life perils surrounding Gatsby, so too have MTV reality shows fooled people into settling into complacency and buying into a reality that is unattainable, and only serves to both distract and numb.
The uniquely American escapist myth via the lens of white American youth has always seemed to be financially sound because people will always tune into a reality that is less Brave New World and more Sweet Valley High. But it is also socially inept. Sure your life can be golden, but that doesn’t mean that the world you live in ceases to fall apart. That barrier is only ratings-deep. In his series of essays entitled The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, author and professor Fred Moten talked about a number of social ills including anti-black racism, capitalism, white supremacy and the privileges it offers. On white people’s reticence to fully engage with the suffering of black people, Moten wrote, “I don’t need your help. I just need you to realize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?” The whiteness of MTV reality show casts creates a barrier that sells the notion that for white people such bliss is achievable if they simply choose to disengage from the realities of inequality and just focus on self-gratification. World problems do not have to be white problems, and pain is othered as something that only affects those removed from white youth and golden sunsets.
The beautiful disaster of reality shows is that as dreamy as they are, while people continue to watch the illusion of real so they can ignore the problems around them, their version of real will always come to the exclusion of everyone else. It’s easy to avoid racism, poverty and systemic oppression when all your characters are white, representing the unattainable American dream that has actually been a very real nightmare all along.
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