Making Class and Self through Televised Ethical Scenarios
This project analysed the performance demands and responses to ''reality'' television programmes in relation to contemporary theories and modes of identity formation. Focussing on programmes which foreground transformation, we studied the dramatic techniques which framed the subject positions on offer to audiences. We found that class is re-made as a symbolic marker through questions of universal moral value, and our audience research, with 40 women of four different social locations of south east London, demonstrated how these systems of value are received by different groups. We found that social position is a very powerful indicator of how 'reality' television is received, producing a complex moral economy around questions of emotional and material labour.
Highlights of the Research
'Reality' Television, Individualisation and the Re-making of the Working-Class (Textual Analysis)
Our textual readings across a number of production formats suggest that in combining the features of documentary with melodrama, 'reality' television stages the performances of individuals in ways which mimic how class and gender are being rhetoricised in broader neo-liberal politics, e.g. via behaviour modification of manners and respect. 'Social actors' are called to 'perform' in various settings by reacting to immediate situations. They are ahistorically, but domestically, located and thus drama is created out of their instantaneous behaviour. Traditional forms of melodrama rely on fate and 'happenstance' in which the individual is 'done to', but with 'reality' television individuals are called to account for that which happens to them but which is out of their control. It is this structure of impossibility, set up by the textual features of 'reality' television, which allows us to see the mediation of new class formations. Participants appear without context; the economic or structural features that govern their actual everyday lives are not discussed, so that the surface and spectacular dimensions of what makes a good citizen become the focus of the entertainment. Bodily parts are attributed with value and judgement in a process of metonymic morality, whereby fat is promoted as a sign of a person who lacks self-responsibility. Features like bad taste, unhealthy living and poor communication become inscribed as personal failure, lack of self-discipline or lack of appropriate self-reflexivity in a broader universalising of middle-class values. This collapsing of the social into individual failure or bad culture is exactly the same process as that identified by class theorists who detail the euphemistic transference of responsibility prevalent in discourses of social exclusion (Bromley; Haylett). Instead of acknowledging the obvious socio-economic forces that shape our lives, those forces operate invisibly (especially for the experts on 'reality' TV) to produce shame, thereby displacing wider inequalities to self-failure. It is precisely because the forces of inequality are at work in society at large that there is so much available fodder for 'reality' television participants to perform and fail, and occasionally, to shine. Participants who flout the rules, repel experts and challenge the value system of the programme can also become, for our research participants, celebrity hero(ine)s. We draw attention the way in which these negotiations around ordinary 'spectacles' enact these social (class and gender) relations.
See Wood and Skeggs (2008) 'Spectacular Morality'
'Reality' Television, Proximity and Affect
Interviews and focus groups revealed how many of the women talk about 'reality' television in relation to the proximity to their everyday lives; closeness by which they become implicated in the programmes. Our analysis of the data shows how in the women's discussions they move seamlessly between empathising with the social actors as real people and converting these feelings into moral and taste judgements. We traced the use of the ambiguous term 'sad' which evokes simultaneously empathy with participants, judgement of participants, critique of the form of 'reality' television, but which ultimately turns to personal self-critique. We suggest that 'reality' television offers a visualisation and recognition of the labour of 'doing' femininity (of becoming a woman as both performative and performance), but because of the dramatic requirements for crisis and conflict, the difficulties and failure of performance are made explicit (making gender appear universalised), but tied to particular 'types' of women (those most likely to appear on 'reality' programmes, the working class (see White) thereby locating failure as a personal fault of working-class women).
(See Wood, Skeggs and Thumim, 2008 'It's Sad')
Across our data there are a number of themes in which questions of proximity are played out which broadly relate to issues of feelings, care, respect and empathy; or questions of civic morality of the nation, health, behaviour, taste, hard work, personal psychology; related issues of education value and the discussion of tips and advice; discussion of visceral affects such as depression, shame, guilt, pity, elation; many of the above are then further connected to discussion of the place of the cultural form of 'reality' television and questions of voyeurism.
Our text-in-action method, which relies on recording people watching television programmes and aligning their responses with the text, was revealing of the exact places in which the viewers felt compelled to make statements both about and addressed to those on 'reality' television. Close inspection of these moments revealed the power of the edit next to long held close-ups which we have labelled 'judgement shots'. There was a surprising regularity to the places where different viewers keyed into evaluative positions at the same moment in the text, which is a ground-breaking finding in audience research. Whilst the original design of the method relied on linguistic articulation, our shared viewing experience exposed the non-linguistic responses made to the television, of affects: gasps, tuts, sighs and laughter, revealing the textual incitement to moral involvement in the drama (developed as 'the affective textual encounter', ATE) as a way of analysing media interactions that do not rely on linguistic articulation from participants).
Across the focus group and the interviews one of the key distinctions between how the groups approached 'reality' television was influenced by the perception of authenticity as opposed to the value of particular forms of labour. Most of the working class groups recognised its economic potential and supported participants who had gained from participation, speaking from an allied position with television participants ('ghetto rats made good'), especially those who remained 'true to themselves'. On the other hand our middle-class participants saw 'reality' television as 'getting something for nothing' and located it within a broader crisis of value, exemplified by a 'celebrity culture' that did not recognises the value of education, cultural labour and cultural capital.
(see Skeggs, Wood and Thumim, 2008 'Oh Goodness')
The radical differences in cultural capital is a structuring device of many 'reality' programmes (e.g.Wife Swap, Ladette to Lady, Asbo Teen to Beauty Queen, What the Butler Saw) and social mobility is promoted as something achievable by learning the right skills (e.g. Faking It), usually etiquette or manners, such as using appropriate cutlery or learning how to hold a glass correctly. The 'how' of culture identified by Bourdieu, of how to put skills together and into effect fully and completely with confidence, is ignored, so an elocution lesson becomes a substitute for a lifetime of poor quality education, enabling failure again to be located as an individual disposition. For instance, Sylvie (a participant on What the Butler Saw) notes: 'It showed me a whole new world and all the things I could be doing, but I just can't', or her daughter Sinem: I feel like I live here, it's my home (an ancestral manor house). I never felt I belonged in a council flat, a comment which also naturalises inequality (similar to 'being born in the wrong body').
Methods as 'performative' events
(See Skeggs, Wood and Thumim, 2008 'Oh Goodness')
Making judgements and evaluating others become a central research finding with all groups. Research participants not only evaluated TV participants but by doing so located themselves in relation to an established symbolic evaluative system of the moral economy of personhood: a hierarchy of self and other-worth. We found the judgement of emotional labour, in its different forms: care for others, the labour of femininity, parenting and emotional management of relationships, was incited through the use of discourses and techniques of legality and psychology on the programmes. Mechanisms used for attributing value to the type and quality of the relationship was almost identical to the mechanisms deployed in law to assess emotional relationships (see Zelizer). But even more evocative to judgement was the use of a range of psychological techniques from traditional behaviour modification, reliant on rules (e.g. 'the use of the naughty step on Supernanny, or Bring Your Husband to Heel), to psychoanalysis lite: 'revealing your inner self, though changing your wardrobe' (on What not to Wear and Ten years Younger). These techniques offered the promise of self-transformation as an entertaining visual spectacle, which could be judged on its success. And if not successful could be used for 'tips' and advice, but also as a source of comedy or schadenfreude: judgement via comparison emerged as one of the main viewing pleasures.
Skeggs and Wood 'Legality and Psychology'
Background to the Study
"Yeah, yeah. And you think… they forget that normal women have just got to go out and go to work and sort the kids out, and, you know that does stuff your dresses up a bit." Michelle from Addington on make-over programmes
Names and Institution of all research team members
Name of Co-applicant Contact: Dr Helen Wood
Researcher Contact: (was employed on project from 1 September 2005 – end April 2007) Nancy Thumim, now at LSE, Department of Media and Communications.
List of publications
Wood, H (2007) The Mediated Conversational Floor: An Interactive Approach to Audience Reception Analysis. Media, Culture and Society. 29 (1) 75-103
Chapter in Edited Books
Skeggs, B (2007) Making Class through Fragmenting Culture, for A.Lin (ed.) Knowledge and Discourse. New York. Taylor and Francis. pp. 35-51.
Thumim, N. (2006) Mediated Self-Representations: 'Ordinary People' in 'Communities', in Herbrechter, S., and Higgins, M. (eds). Returning (to) Community Rodopi, Critical Studies Series, Amsterdam Netherlands and New Jersey, USA
Chapter in Edited Books
Wood, H. and Skeggs, B. (2008) Spectacular Morality: 'Reality' Television, Individualisation and the Re-making of the Working Class, for D. Hesmondhlough and J. Toynbee (eds.) Media and Social Theory
Class, for M.Wetherell and C.Mohanty (eds.) The Identities Handbook. London: Sage. (first draft Dec 2007) (BS)
Media Consumption and Identity, for M. Wetherall and C. Mohanty (eds.) The Sage Handbook of Identities. London, Sage. (HW)
Telling the Classed Self: Television and Audience Negotiation of Ethics, for T. Lewis (ed.) TV Transformations: Revealing the Makeover Show. London: Taylor and Francis. (first draft due Dec 2007) (BS, HW)
TV Lifestyle special issue. Continuum vol 3. 2008.