Are we living in a period of ‘the cult of the personality’? An analysis in relation to docusoaps and reality TV

One of the markers of the 21st century popular culture is the apparent dilution in its quality and content. The medium with the widest reach, Television, is not only a source of entertainment but also employed by the powers that be to manipulate and deceive the gullible viewer in order to propagate its own political or business agenda. The contemporary media scene is such that the main focus is on vague and superficial qualities such as “the personality” and “the style” – a distinguishable shift from earlier programming that was more intellectually stimulating and culturally refined. Genres such as Reality shows, talent hunts, game shows, etc rule the roost in what is becoming an increasingly consolidated media space. Within an apparently diverse offering to the public, the issues and topics that find representation are very limited, more so in the news media (Marshall; 2004: 102). The rest of the essay will discuss the conditions that led to the present state of popular media, the direction it is headed and some possible remedies to reverse the situation.

To begin with, let us consider the meaning of the phrase “the cult of the personality”. The phenomenon of people being famous for being famous, as commonly seen in popular media of today is an apt description of the term “personality cult” (Marshall; 2004: 102). Such factors as the famous person’s achievements, virtues, values, etc are pushed to the background and intellectually thin attributes such as aesthetic looks, eccentric lifestyles, etc are given greater importance. The end result is the manufacturing of celebrity figures, conjured up on the basis of some superficial merits; hog a large share of communication airwaves, depriving representation for more weighty public issues. So while a majority of the general public is addicted to the “often-grotesque desperation of the rich and the famous”, we have to ask who the real beneficiary of this enterprise is:

“One of the attractions is the many, many levels of stardom. So, while at the top of the pile sit the Madonnas and the Tom Hankses of this world, at the bottom are the reality TV cast-offs that spend their day chasing agents to get them something – anything – that will allow them to strut around inquiring haughtily, ‘Do you know who I am?’ How has it come to this? Why do people turn up in their thousands to auditions for Pop Idol and Big Brother? They always say the same thing – ‘Because I want to be famous’ – but so few of them make it. Even those whose stars flared, such as Brian Dowling and Kate Lawler, have returned to relative obscurity” (Wiese; 2005: 239).

But how did a nation known for its sophisticated tastes and discerning audiences come to accept the staple offerings of reality television. An analysis of the history of mass media in the UK will be of particular relevance in answering this question. In the United Kingdom, the advent of television has had a crucial role to play in shaping its cultural landscape. Ever since the first public airing on 29th of September, 1946, the mass media industry in the UK had evolved into a very large industry in its own right. From the days of the BBC’s Third Program, which was said to cater to higher intellectual and cultural sensibilities, the decline in quality of programmes have been gradual and continuous. During these early years of British Television, full-length dramas of the classic mould such as Aeschylus were broadcasted for public recreation. In addition to this there were “European dramatists, lectures on philosophy, and announcements of major scholarly achievements were part of an intellectually nourishing fare for discerning listeners” (Osborne; 2007: 37). The academic community was also involved in this enterprise during the early 1950’s, which were very embracive of intellectuals and ideas from all sections of society. But unfortunately, this initial success also set in motion what is now commonly referred to as “celebrity culture”. While academics do not make for suitable celebrities in the twenty first century, they certainly did so a half-a-century back. Such authors as T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster deserved their celebrity status during the 1950’s and 1960’s, but unfortunately their counterparts today are not from such accomplished backgrounds (Osborne; 2007: 37).

This leads us to the question of celebrity class. As is obvious from the above example, the calibre and stature of the community of celebrities have been down graded in the contemporary media. To illustrate the point further, let us take the following example: George Galloway’s elimination from the popular reality show Celebrity Big Brother was front page news in many tabloids as well as in news channels. In one particular late night news edition, this bit of trivial information was slotted as the third item on the programme, ahead of a discussion of the education White Paper. To say that it is absurd and insensitive would be to describe it mildly. This new found interest in “ordinary lives” says something about our own social values. For one thing what makes these reality shows and ordinary people’s lives interesting is the voyeuristic tendency in humans. What was erstwhile make completely private with the aid of four walls, had suddenly become a commodity in the pop-culture consumer market. The decadence associated with this rampaging celebrity culture is also evident from the fact that Heat magazine is such a big success in the UK (Osborne; 2007: 37).

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