Duping the cynical/ironic/postmodern viewer

MTV's Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica if a reality TV show that follows teen pop stars Nick Lachey (former lead singer of 98 Degrees) and Jessica Simpson in the first year of their marriage. It has in its first year become perhaps the most extreme example of reality TV which ridicules its subjects for the entertainment of its audience (surprisingly, there are exames of reality TV that don't). Jessica Simpson has quickly become a reality TV legend, offering enough ditzy, bubbly one-liners in her first season to merit a regular rotation in Entertainment Weekly's Sound Bites. And yet one can't help feeling that it's the audience that's being played, or perhaps even conned.
Cynical stares are corrosive, and those who plead guilty to such stares don't tend to hold our interest for long. Sure, it was fun to watch the disasters that were the Osbourne household and Anna Nicole Smith for a season, maybe even two, but ratings didn't and couldn't last because they were so openly and brazenly exactly what we wanted to expose them as. In fact, how can we even resort to irony (supposedly the scourge of my generation, a disease present in everything we write and say--see footnote 1), which capitalizes on the difference between appearance and reality, when the Osbourne's or Nick and Jessica are exactly what we wanted and imagined them to be? It's more fun to ridicule when the subjects resist arrest.
It's not surprising, perhaps. TV has always depended, in great part, on feeding us exactly what we want (see footnote 2). That's their entire modus operandi, and they spend millions on market research, testing dozens of new programs every season, to find the right buttons to press, and when they do, they press them until the buttons fall off. It's difficult for me to know when it was that my generation was supposed to have descended into this cynical, ironic, post-modern funk I always hear us accused of--perhaps it was the Vietnam War--but if that is our primary mode of discourse, then somewhere along the line TV finally realized that what drew our eyes and ears was an echo of our own cynical voices. TV has co-opted my generation's mode of irony.
And so, to complement hopeful, happy television shows (Friends, for example), we're flooded with television shows that expose people for the unpleasant, money-grubbing scoundrels we always knew they were. People stabbing each other in the back on Survivor, contestants whoring themselves for money or sex on shows like Fear Factor and Dismissed, celebrities revealing their pettiness and idiocy in tabloids or in reality shows like The Osbournes, The Anna Nicole Smith show, and of course The Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica. Even when these shows attempt irony, as Joe Millionaire does by exposing the reaction of women to a rich man who is actually poor, it is in a mean-spirited, duplicitous way, and since we are already so cynical, perhaps it isn't ironic at all that the women turn out to be gold diggers. They're exactly what we expect them to be.
I'm guilty of being too cynical myself at times, and it's a voice that is common to young twenty-something bloggers who love to rant and rave about anything and everything. It's a way to preen in our superiority over the objects of our ridicule and to display our cleverness all at once, and so it's tempting, but it's also empty. Irony was once used as a form of protest and could stand on its own as a position, but negation without offering alternatives is simply empty.
Perhaps Jessica Simpson is actually a rocket scientist, but plays a dumb blonde in front of MTV's cameras to boost ratings for her show. After all, how could she, after watching season one, renew for a second season? Perhaps because she hears her fifteen minutes ticking away to oblivion and realizes that her only chance of holding the public's eye is not through her fading pop career but through her self-made caricature. Who's playing who here? Maybe Jessica's getting the last laugh after all.
You know that once it's unhip to be anything but ironic and cynical, then it's time to remember how to be sincere. I think I remember how.
Footnote 1: Worse than having my generation constantly blamed for being ironic is the chronic overuse and misuse of the word irony. Maybe my generation wouldn't be accused of being so ironic if everyone stopped labeling every damned event or statement as being ironic. Sometimes I can't even tell the difference among cynicism, irony, sarcasm, satire, and postmodernism. The blurred usage has got even me confused. It doesn't help that Alanis Morrissette's popular ditty "Isn't it Ironic" completely botched the definition of irony and profferred a slew of examples of irony, none of which were really ironic except under the broadest and loosest definitions of irony, ones which render irony somewhat meaningless and indistinct from misfortune or coincidence.
The most common case of mistaken identity is between coincidence and irony. Especially unfortunate coincidence. For example, someone who always carries breath mints in his pocket finally leaves them at home one day and then finds himself stuck with bad breath just as a beautiful woman wants to kiss. That's more Murphy's Law than irony, but many people would be tempted to say, "Isn't that ironic?"
In fact, it's probably giving my generation too much credit to call us all ironists. Many of my generation are just apathetic and/or cynical, but irony is a higher art form which few have mastered. Anyway, it's a topic which other folks have already covered in more detail than I.
Footnote 2: In this way, TV is no different than politicians, the latest and greatest example being Arnold Schwarzenegger whose election to the governorship of the 5th largest economy in the world has many people wringing their hands. Arnie read that state's discontents, echoed back their anger and desires (which he could gauge through polling), and rode that empathy and a poor economy to election. Clinton was a master of using polling data to adjust his campaign and elevate his approval ratings--by the time he reached office polling had become an art form. It shouldn't come as any surprise that Arnold won. After all, the most popular Democratic president in the U.S., by many measures, is Martin Sheen's Jed Bartlet on The West Wing, and he's just a fictional creation, so why shouldn't Arnold, an actor himself, and someone whose job in movies is to put butts in seats, attract more voters than a curmudgeonly Gray Davis, regardless of Davis' political experience?
The complaints about Arnie's victory remind me of the argument against using box office to judge the quality of movies: Just because Titanic was the greatest box office hit of all time doesn't mean Titanic . Just because a more people voted for Arnie than Gray Davis doesn't mean Arnie's an adequate, let alone superior, politician. A democratic vote isn't necessarily the best method to discern quality, just popularity.
On the topic of judging candidates, I find it ridiculously difficult to find objective information by which to evaluate one versus another. It's easier to find objective reviews of DVD players, or automobiles. Where's the comprehensive database of candidate's voting records, speeches, writings? There must be a way to remove at least some subjectivity from the whole process, lessen the influence of advertisements and PR. Perhaps the only passionate endorsements are partisan ones, but I'd like to think not.