Featured Guest:
Christopher J. Wright

Each issue of Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900 to present) we feature an interview, or a conversation, with a scholar in the field of American popular culture studies.

Christopher J. Wright works in the political media in Washington D.C. and has research interests in reality television. In 2006, he published Tribal Warfare: Survivor and the Political Unconscious of Reality Television (Lexington Books) in which he uses a “combination of textual analysis and survey research to demonstrate that Survivor both operates and resonates as a class discourse.” Recently, we interviewed Wright to get his thoughts about the show, his research, Mark Burnett, and reality television in general.

Were you a fan of Survivor before you wrote this book?

Oh yes. I’ve been watching Survivor since the third episode of its first season. I got hooked on it right away and hoped against hope that Richard and his alliance would fail and perky Colleen would somehow win. Mark Burnett roped me into his editing game from the get-go.

When did you know you wanted to write about the show?

By the time the third season started in fall 2001, there were numerous news websites devoted to reality TV and Survivor in particular. But few of the articles I read really delved beneath the surface. They were mostly articles trying to guess who would win, would so-and-so fall in love. Now and then there were hints of deeper stuff: Was the second season’s Jerri Manthey really evil or just “drawn” that way; was the editing fair?

I’d written an article that summer on the Gary Condit mess for a website called PopPolitics.com, and I wrote the editor to ask if she’d be interested in a weekly article on the show, with a sociological grounding (my bachelor’s was in sociology and journalism). So that’s how I got my start. A year later, I began graduate school and was delighted that my professors in Georgetown’s Communication, Culture and Technology program were supportive of my writing more and more about the show, and about reality TV as a genre. I think half my term papers were on it. One of them was published in 2006 in the Journal of American Culture, and my master’s thesis project became the basis for Tribal Warfare, which I worked on after I graduated.

What do you think we need to understand about reality television in American culture? You call Survivor the “false real.”

Well, a number of scholars (and newspaper writers, too) have documented how “reality TV” is an ironic term. Sure, what we see on Survivor and The Real World, etc., isn’t fiction – it did happen. But it’s a bad idea to assume that things occurred during filming exactly as we see it on screen, and viewers, myself included, could get lulled into a false sense of a relative lack of mediation – like we’re watching a live event, nearly free of editing. Now, Survivor, The Amazing Race, and maybe one or two other reality shows are expertly edited – as good, I’d say, as some adventure/drama/suspense films. Both shows at their best can be riveting. So we forget about editing, time compression, the fact that when we see a contestant alone, talking to the camera, they’re usually responding to interview questions from a producer.

But the biggest issue may be the potential impact on socialization, and that’s something I try to hit on repeatedly in my book. If Survivor and reality TV are seen as “real,” then the ideologies, stereotypes, and the like presented in them are all the more believable. In our society, we already stereotype people left and right – we all do it. This doesn’t help.

You write, “Tribal Warfare, then, will explore Survivor through the lens of the political unconscious by probing examples of Jamesonian repression on the show, the intent being to determine whether it functions as a political allegory reflecting society’s hierarchical nature.”

The goal of my project was to read the show as a political allegory. On Survivor, they usually tell us at the start of a season that the contestants are being “forced to create a new society,” and Mark Burnett even called the first season’s two tribes the “haves and have-nots” in his book – but from my research, no one had probed if that was a valid way to describe the program. My thesis adviser, Matthew Tinkcom, pointed me toward The Political Unconscious, and I began to look for ways to apply it to the program. Everything seemed to keep going back to alliances, which are Survivor’s version of a class system. In society, we usually think of the “have-nots” as outnumbering the “haves,” with the former group lacking the cohesion and will to do much about their situation. This formula seems to repeat itself on Survivor over and over: a numerical minority bands together and, through a combination of verbal sleight of hand and luck, votes out enough other contestants to become a controlling majority. So the narrative of the show often becomes an allegorical class war. From there, I conducted a survey of more than a thousand Survivor viewers, and among those who took the survey, those who considered themselves upper-class or upper-middle class were more likely to view contestants in a long-term controlling alliance more positively. Those who called themselves working-class were more likely to see outsiders or “underdogs” – those who must pull themselves up by their allegorical bootstraps to have any hope to survive – more positively. These patterns were sustained, to varying degrees, across most of the first ten seasons of the show.

You write, “Executive Producer Mark Burnett is the mastermind behind Survivor, so it is not surprising that he was the first to note his program’s class structure.”

Burnett is a very smart man and has overseen the great editing and marketing of Survivor. He’s shown from the beginning that he knows how to latch onto – some would say manipulate – an audience, through the building of suspense that is often genuine but occasionally manufactured. The first two seasons of the show, he and his team seemed to especially enjoy trying to out-spoil the “spoilers” who watch the show, its advertisements, etc., very closely to try to determine in advance who will be voted out and who will win.

What is the future of reality television? Will audiences continue their obsession or is it a fad?

There was a point soon after the September 11th attacks when it seemed as if reality TV would be a fleeting fancy. Things were so much in flux culturally at that point. Ironically, right after 9/11, Friends was resurgent and reality TV appeared to be curling up on the vine. Yet today, sitcoms are hard to find near the top of the Nielsen ratings, but shows like Survivor, Dancing with the Stars and of course American Idol still do very well. So the genre has kept going and has sustained itself to a large degree, despite its fair share of flops. We’ve got Dancing now, and seemingly endless makeover programs like What Not to Wear. So for better or worse, reality TV is here to stay. Its popularity will wax and wane, much like serial dramas have resurged after a lengthy down period, but its low production costs if nothing else will keep programs like Survivor out there.

What is your next project? Are you working on another book? Will you continue to research and write on reality television or will you move on to other interests?

I’m not currently working on another book. I’d be interested, however, in exploring how The Amazing Race, another top-notch reality show, represents the culture of “the other” as its contestants travel around the world. Or maybe someone else could tackle that. I was also intrigued by the programs Joe Schmoe and My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancee, both of which featured “real people” who thought they were taking part in a reality program, when in fact they were surrounded by actors. This sort of hybrid would appear to tie things in theoretical knots.

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