MTV things + an interview w/ author Amanda Ann Klein on her book "Millennials Killed The Video Star"
Let's try this again.
Hi, friends. I was going to write this long intro explaining my decision to relaunch this newsletter after leaving it out to dry since the year started. But I literally only made two posts, so who really cares! Also, I received several new writing gigs at the beginning of the year (praise the Lord) and was simply not in the headspace to write for free, which is pretty straightforward. That being said, I’m finally getting used to my new work schedule and will probably be showing up in your inboxes at least once a month. If I don’t send anything else out after this, it means I got a full-time job or found someone rich🤷. Anyway, enjoy!
It’s been a delight over the past few months to cover the best reality-competition series in the history of television, The Challenge on MTV *and* its new spin-off The Challenge: All Stars on Paramount+ for Vulture. For writers/Very Online people, it turns out that if you obsessively tweet and flex your knowledge about a certain piece of pop culture that’s considered niche or generally underappreciated until it inevitably becomes en vogue again (thank you ‘90s/Y2K nostalgia) on Twitter, it might result in some nice, one-off job opportunities. Likewise, I recently got to interview Mark Long (also for Vulture) from the first-ever season of Road Rules about his idea to create on all-OG edition of The Challenge and how the franchise has changed over the past 20+ years it’s been on the air, so check that out. I also wrote about the season premiere of Real World Homecoming: New York for The Daily Beast—also feel free to give that a little skim—which brings me to today’s Very Special Interview.
While searching for scholarly articles about the origins of Real World and early MTV on JSTOR to write about the Real World reboot, I fortuitously stumbled across a chapter from Amanda Ann Klein’s new book Millennials Killed The Video Star: MTV’s Transition to Reality Programming just a couple of days after it was released. I needed special access to view it, so I decided to just buy a digital copy of the book, assuming it would contain a substantial amount of information and analysis on the history of Real World and its impact on television that would likely enrich my review. As I alluded to at the top, I’m also just deeply enamored with the Bunim/Murray reality universe (and Jersey Shore, which is covered in the book) and was eager to dive in to Klein’s work from a fangirl perspective.
I was fascinated (and slightly humored) by Klein’s thesis that MTV’s post-2004 cycle of identity-based reality programming (i.e. The Hills, Jersey Shore, Buckwild, Teen Mom, etc.) helped white youth establish and brand themselves outside of the blanket label of “white.” Upon reading this in her introduction, I immediately thought of Jersey Shore, one of the most notable examples of white people defying the rules and expectations of (respectable) whiteness on a national stage.
Interestingly enough though, my favorite chapter was about the girls/women of Laguna Beach and The Hills, two shows that I primarily became knowledgeable about through teen tabloids and gossip sites growing up as opposed to actually watching them. I remember binging reruns of The City (also mentioned in the chapter) one day at my grandfather’s house, but that’s all. Anyway, in these #girlboss times, it was interesting to see the neoliberal concept of a “Can-Do Girl,” coined by Future Girl author Anita Harris, applied to the franchise’s high-achieving white, female protagonists whose privilege and social status—which allows them to be “high-achieving—goes unmentioned throughout the series but is nevertheless very visible. Much like the mostly white, modelesque, Ferrari-owning women of Netflix’s Selling Sunset—also produced by Adam DiVello—whose success in real estate is solely attributed to being really good at selling houses. *insert Kathryn Hahn winking meme*
OK. That’s enough of me babbling. The point is, read the book. But for now, enjoy this chat I had with Klein a couple of weeks ago over email. Klein, who’s also an associate professor for East Carolina University’s English Department and teaches courses in film and television, talked to me about her relationship to MTV, the process of writing the book and the implications of this particular programming on our current culture.
What's your relationship with the reality shows you cover in the book? Did you watch the shows as a fan when they were airing? Or did you approach them later on as an academic?
I have a clear memory of MTV premiering in 1981, even though I was just 5 at the time. I watched throughout my childhood and was obsessed with The Real World in high school and college. Later, when shows like The Hills and Jersey Shore came out, I watched them with my husband. So I’m a lifelong fan who then began to study these series in my scholarship.
I read in your acknowledgements that the seeds for this book were planted when you wrote an article about The Hills in 2009. When did you realize you were interested enough in this subject to write a book about it?
I first started to think about these TV series through a scholarly lens back in 2009. I had been watching a lot of Laguna Beach and The Hills and I was fascinated by the way they presented the lifestyles of these young women—they had no financial worries and always looked great and landed their dream jobs. And everyone was rich and white and straight—but no one ever commented on that within the show. I wanted to know what the appeal was and why MTV’s audiences were drawn to these series. And over the next few years, I continued to think and write about other MTV series like Teen Mom and Jersey Shore.
How did you come up with your thesis?
As I mentioned, my scholarly interest in these series began in 2009 when I published an article about The Hills and its multi-platform approach to storytelling. Then, as I began to write about other MTV reality series, and in doing so, I noticed that there was a value in looking at this group of reality TV series as a coherent production cycle. How do these texts make meaning when studied collectively? Discussing them as a production cycle, with a shared producer, audience, aesthetic approaches, subjects, and ideological underpinnings illuminates how MTV’s reality programming generates a coherent discourse on youth and identity.
What do you think are the most obvious repercussions of this particular cycle of television, in terms of white people finding ways to self-identify beyond their whiteness? For example, whenever I re-watch the Jersey Shore, I think about the current conversation around "black-fishing" on Instagram.
Another thing I talk about in my book is how series like Jersey Shore and Buckwild offered the allegedly “culture-less” white suburban teen (MTV’s key demographic) the opportunity to see their own identities not as whiteness itself but as a constellation of highly specific and, thus, meaningful identities. In the last decade, there have been also dozens of reality shows made on the subject of “white trash” America, in which the poor, white subjects have made a choice to appear on television and have their lives documented through the particular lens of the “hillbilly” or “redneck.” This shift to visible whiteness is not simply harmless fun in the form of diverting reality television. Rather, the making-visible of whiteness as an identity over the last decade has also had the unfortunate side effect of emboldening the ideologies of white supremacy.
Did you discover anything while watching and researching these shows that shocked or surprised you?
To continue what I discussed above, it’s been illuminating to revisit series like The Real World, which I watched as teenager, and to realize just how myopic the series was about race. When I first watched the series in 1992, I was living in the same world as these characters. And this was world was structured by a colorblind liberalism that told white people that “ignoring” race was the best way to not be racist. Obviously, that didn’t work out very well! But those 90s-era seasons of The Real World are amazing time capsule of discourses about race and youth. They offered lessons on diversity, but it was centered on experiences of white people learning—and people of color doing the teaching.
A lot of the new reality shows that are on streaming networks still feel aimed at millennials as opposed to Gen Z, even when they have a social media theme. Have you watched or heard of any shows that you feel speak to that particular audience? Or do you think YouTube and other social media has occupied that space for them?
I haven’t gotten that far. I will say from my purely anecdotal experience that my 14 year old and my 11 year old will watch [reality TV] with me like Love is Blind, The Circle, and Temptation Island.
Lastly, is there a connection you draw between your interest in film and reality television? I found those were the two mediums I was most interested in covering when I first started writing, but it took me a while to articulate a connection between the two.
The primary connection is the development of documentary filmmaking, particularly the post-WWII availability of development, of lighter, cheaper, and more portable 16-mm cameras, and portable sound equipment. But what is the line between a documentary and a reality TV show? Does it educate or entertain or exploit?
Thanks for reading,