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Literary Scene: It’s a Reality TV world, after all

Love it or hate it, you cannot deny the influence of reality television on popular culture.

By some estimates, almost half of the shows on network, cable and streaming services are Reality TV, ranging from cooking and singing competitions, to dating shows such as “The Bachelor,” to lifestyle dramas like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

Dr. Danielle J. Lindemann, Associate Professor of Sociology, Lehigh University, thinks that Reality TV can teach us a lot about ourselves.

Lindemann’s book, “True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 335 pp, $30, hardcover, $20, paperback, $14.99 digital, 2022), explores why we watch it and how it affects our views about others and our society.

“I want to introduce sociology through the lens of Reality TV to have people look at it and at the world in a way that they hadn’t thought of it before,” Lindemann says during an interview in her office at Lehigh.

“People say Reality TV is so unreal, that everyone is acting. But we are all acting. We look at it as outlandish, but we do the same things in a more muted way. We post on Facebook about our perfect lives without posting anything bad.

“We like to think of ourselves as individuals making our own decisions and having our own thought processes. But the pure version of ourselves untouched by social forces is a myth,” says Lindemann.

The book has chapters as to how Reality TV portrays families, childhood, class, race, gender and sexuality in ways that can be attractive or repulsive, but fascinating to millions.

“There are a variety of reasons people watch it. It depends on the show. A cooking show is different than one of the ‘Real Housewives.’

“But one reason is that we like to distance ourselves. We think, ‘My life might be a train wreck, but not like those people.’

“It it is easier to form relationships with characters on Reality TV than with actors. You are making a connection with actual people on the screen.

“We know them as themselves, not someone playing a role. They often make themselves available through social media.

“The shows often have archetypes, someone you can relate to, like the ‘pretty one’ or ‘the shy one’ or ‘the smart one.’ You might see yourself as ‘the smart one’ on a luxury vacation or surfing.”

Reality TV can defy and reinforce stereotypes. Norman from the first season of “The Real World” was the first realistic gay person many people saw on television. “You saw his whole life, with fights and with his partner.”

Many shows present negative characterizations. Lindemann mentions the “angry black man” and the “overbearing black woman.” Other shows feature nouveau riche “stars” of lower-class origins who lack the taste or social skills of established wealth, she notes.

According to Lindemann, the most famous Reality TV star is Donald Trump, a host of 14 seasons of “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice” from 2004 to 2015.

“Trump was extremely effective at using the techniques of Reality TV. He’s a showman, who often used ‘the cliffhanger’ and ‘the big reveal.’”

Lindemann says Reality TV techniques were evoked after the removal of files Aug. 8 by the FBI from the Mar-a-Lago, Fla., club and estate owned by former President Trump. “We know about it because he brought it up. He made it a public spectacle, making the private into something public.”

Lindemann received a BA from Princeton University in 2002 and a PhD from Columbia University in 2010. “True Story” is her third book, the first that is not academic. Although it is written for a general readership, it is thoroughly researched, with 23 pages of references.

She lives in Princeton, N.J. with her husband and two daughters.

“Literary Scene” is a column about authors, books and publishing. To request coverage, email: Paul Willistein, Focus editor, pwillistein@tnonline.com

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Dr. Danielle J. Lindemann