It's hard to have yet another Sarah Palin epiphany, but that's what happened as I was drifting happily through a conference called "Reality Worlds," organized at the Annenberg School for Communication by Marwan Kraidy and Katherine Sender.
Scholars devoted to the genre were generating all sorts of theories about these relatively inexpensive and ubiquitous program efforts. But what occurred to me (and undoubtedly has occurred to others) is how Palin's trajectory through the political campaign approximates the rhythm of makeover and other reality TV shows.
Palin is one-person reiteration of everything from "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" (early round dismissal?) up through and including "Survivor."
And then now, there's the story of Palin and her hair stylists, including Amy Strozzi, who received over $40,000 and was awarded an Emmy for her work on the show "So You Think You Can Dance." Shades of "Making the Cut," "Million Dollar $alon,"and "Top Hair."
Palin wasn't even mentioned in the Annenberg talks, but her arc during the campaign could have been a subtext for all the scholarly presentations.
Laura Grindstaff, for example, a professor at the University of California, hit a kind of proverbial Palin nail on the head when she spoke about how these shows seek out a center of American life, and engage in what she called the "production of ordinariness" through reality television.
Grindstaff was talking particularly about an MTV series called "Sorority Life" which chronicles the life of pledges as they move towards acceptance and initiation. I didn't ask, but it seemed to me that one could call Palin, whatever else she was, a kind of initiate, a rushee who among other things had to go through a process of hazing (did she make it? You be the judge.).
At the Philadelphia event, I talked with a very helpful Penn graduate student, Rebecca Pardo, who, like a lot of modern young scholars, has a slight and admirable obsession with "reality" filtered through this art form. She loves the work of Nicholas Couldry (a professor at Goldsmiths in London) and sees Palin as the embodiment of what Couldry has called the Myth of the Mediated Center.
Pardo also put me on to Justin Wolfe, who blogs about "The Hills," a reality show about life in 90210, hedonistic and pragmatic California. Wolfe has written , without, blogwise, using capital letters, about Palin and the process of candidate selection in reality shows:
"it's funny because the way sarah palin was chosen is, in many ways, just like the way heidi montag was chosen for the hills. if you strip all the fame away from heidi montag, if we pretend that she's just a normal girl what's special about her, what sets her apart? nothing, really, she's just normal. kind of pretty, sort of ambitious, but mostly normal. and, without the magic ticket she was given into the world of celebrity, into the show, that's how she would've probably stayed, a normal girl from a small town in colorado. If course, that's the Sarah Palin narrative, too: plucked from the relative obscurity of the alaskan wilderness into the national spotlight, with the barest of real experience or qualifications but with scads of those particular qualities that resonate with the american public: personality, relatability, normality.
As on some reality shows (take "Project Runway" for example), Palin was subjected to ingenious and daunting tests that would raise public anticipation about the outcome--triumph or failure. Would she make it to the next round? When Sarah met Katie Couric, it could have been one of these "tests" revealed to the contestant ("for your next challenge, you must go one on one with a noted anchor-person who will ask you questions you may have no way of answering"). Palin's life was a series of created melodramas with accompanying anxieties and the imminent apprehension of failure.
No reality show is complete without the backroom drama, as "Dancing With the Stars," illustrates through the elaborate process of trying to turn someone quite ordinary (in some respects) into the surprisingly gifted (the Pygmalion moment, the alchemy of transformation). Can you really make this person rhumba? Can he or she be trained to be a cook or a business executive (or an expert on foreign affairs)? We were all on pins and needles to see if this process would work with Sarah.
My mind drifted to one of my favorite shows I never watched in entirety: "Ladette to Lady," the story of a group of relatively inexperienced young women,who are given an old-fashioned five-week course in learning how to behave like a real lady. They are sent to Eggleston Hall, an English finishing school.
There was a lot of Ladette to Lady in the Palin tale, though Palin was not a Ladette, by any stretch. And the Republican National Committee wasn't Eggleston.
You could say that this wasn't a real reality show because it didn't have the panel of judges requisite in some versions. But I think of that curious crew of indifferent panelists Wolf Blitzer oddly and unrealistically named "the best political team on television." They could just as well have had cards and numbers; and Sarah (holding Todd's hand tightly) might have been seen on camera -- like frightened ice-skaters -- waiting for the results in an isolated room.
Zala Volcic, a Slovenian now living in Brisbane spoke, at the Annenberg conference (part of Professor Barbie Zelizer's Annenberg Scholars Program in Culture and Communications Program) about That's Me, a Big Brother style Balkan reality TV show which mixed roommates from all over the former Yugoslavia. The show was designed to "negotiate the struggles among religious, ethnic and national groups that still plague the region." That's Me was supposed to smooth conflict, and did not necessarily succeed. This was reality show as social engineering. Think Palin: The Message, energizing the base.
There was much talk at the Annenberg workshop about "parenting" as a persistent theme in reality shows. Mark Anthony Neal, the Duke scholar of hip-hop, gave an exuberant talk on Snoop Dog and his program called "Fatherhood." There and on so many other shows, the fragile nature of parenting--and the possibility of failing and the complexities of succeeding--were tracked.
Of course, the Sarah candidacy--right out of the box--was about mothering in American society--mothering and having a career, mothering and the extraordinary decisions about a child with Downs Syndrome, parenting and an unmarried daughter who discovers pregnancy--it goes on and on.
Much of reality television scholarship is about voting habits of the committed viewers. Stephen Coleman (Leeds), the guru of Big Brother voting, has concluded that there's not a gulf between those who vote in "real" elections and those who vote in "reality" elections. Aswin Punathambekar of the University of Michigan probably had a slightly different view. He spoke, movingly, about the temporarily intense political activity and rampant mobile phone voting in North-East India for the Indian Idol candidacy of Amit Paul.
And then, of course, there were the clothes. Palin and her relationship to clothing is Reality TV writ large. It's the epitome of the "makeover" story. One can think of the RNC operatives as channeling "What Not to Wear", the British show with Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine, even including those choice bits of surveillance where Trinny and Susannah view videos of the poor subject.
It's a small and maybe obvious epiphany--The Palin campaign as all reality shows rolled into one. The Annenberg conference luxuriated in phrases that resonated with the campaign like "cult of the commonplace." But mostly, it was interesting to see, through the Reality TV Show lens, what the Republicans -- McCain and Palin's handlers or the audiences reacting to her so enthusiastically -- were actually doing, thinking and reflecting this summer and fall.