Written by Tim King
What separates us from the animals? A lot of people ponder this; a lot of half-clever movies have a lot of unclever answers to this question. For example:
• The ability to accessorize
• Thinking before we speak
• Opposable Thumbs
Some of the answers to this question are cheeky; others are objectively wrong; still others are objective fact; and that one about guilt and remorse is from Dexter, so it shows about as much depth and profundity as a Nine Inch Nails logo scribbled in the margins of a high school sophomore’s geometry notebook.
I’ve recently been doing some thinking of my own on the subject, and I believe I’ve come up with a suitable answer to this question; one that elegantly answers the question, offering both objective fact and profound philosophical importance.
I think what separates us from the animals is a need for authenticity.
Yes, the one thing that keeps us separate from the beasts and bugs that share the planet with us is a quixotic quest to find “realness”, otherwise known as the only non-skinny-jean metric for determining whether someone is hip or just a poseur.
Think about how often and loudly this debate rages, not only in hipster circles but across the country, across cultures, and across the world. Right now, as you read this, someone, somewhere is talking about how they’re just “Keeping it real”, and when they say that it actually means something. Elsewhere, someone is assessing a piece of art, lauding it for being “real”, and that also means something. If we’re really down on something, we can easily talk about how “fake” it is, and that actually carries more meaning than if it were being referred to as real.
I guess animals have the advantage here, maybe because they’ve never been forced to sit through the Matrix Trilogy and, as a result, thoughts of artifice have never really occurred to them. I mean, there’s a company that produces a product called “Beggin’ Strips” whose entire business model relies on your dogs being so trusting of their reality that you can punish them for it with bullshit instead of bacon.
The fact of the matter is that we’ve very successfully divested ourselves from reality, on almost all levels. We’re so far gone that things are now being sold to us on the basis of being real, and not just the art and metaphysical hipster nonsense. Things that shouldn’t have been unreal in the first place are now making a grab for the sweet, sweet reality money. Take food, for example. It’s disingenuous to ever really classify Pop Tarts as food, but they’re allegedly edible and trying to convince us they’re made with real fruit, and we should all be more shocked and ashamed that this kind of product marketing is not really an exception to any rule governing our supermarket shelves, not for its garishness but for the fact that we don’t eat actual food.
We’re just so removed from the natural world that we’ve lost all instincts capable of distinguishing reality from falseness, but we’ve been too arrogant to admit it. If you’re still on the fence about this, or concocting some counter-manifesto about how the people of 2015 are highly evolved and can easily tell real from fake, consider two simple facts:
• We despise the hair pulling and lower-upper class drama on any Real Housewives franchise, because that’s “fake”.
• We respect the hell out of Daniel Day Lewis for walking around for six months telling everyone he meets that he’s Abraham Lincoln, because that’s “real”.
Reality television seems a strange cultural touchstone for actual realness, but try and follow me for a second. Conventional wisdom dictates that reality television is fake, and it would be foolish to think that there wasn’t at least some level of engineering done in the taping and production of these programs. But let’s move past that, because to bash reality television for being engineered misses the point of how engineered everything else is to begin with. The reason that reality television elicits this strong revulsion from people is that reality TV exists in the uncanny valley of human behavior.
If you weren’t aware, this is the uncanny valley:
This chart plots human emotional response (the Y-axis) against how close a robot is to appearing human (the X-axis). As we can see, there is a gradual and steady increase in positive emotional responses to these robots as they become more human-like and on the other end, when they truly appear human, we’re particularly well disposed to them. On the other hand, there is that dip right before things appear to be human, that part in which we’re completely reviled by what we’re seeing because something about it is just wrong, and that part is what people who study this kind of thing call the “Uncanny Valley” (but you may be more apt to call it the “KILL IT WITH FIRE!” Trench).
Generally, the uncanny valley is used to discuss robots and virtual depictions of humans, but I think we can extrapolate this idea to other anthropological topics. Lots of topics, and I’m just spit-balling here, but perhaps we can use this to explain why reality television is super goddamned real but manages to come off as artificial to a vast majority of the viewing public.
If you’re a fan of watching Chinese television, you may have seen a show called “If You Are the One” (Simplified Chinese: 非诚勿扰, Pinyin: Fei1 Cheng2 Wu4 Rao3, lit. “Serious Inquiries Only”). It’s is based off of an Australian dating show called “Taken Out,” which they tried to make into a thing in the States three years ago with a show called “Take Me Out.” The Chinese iteration became, and largely still is, one of the most popular shows in Chinese broadcast television history.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing this fantastic program, an episode goes roughly like so:
The people in charge of this insanity parade single men, one at a time, out in front of twenty-four beautiful women swathed in various shades of ostentation, from the lady-in-the-street-freak-in-the-bed, clean-cut businesswoman, to the poor woman that looks more cockatoo than woman by the time hair and makeup are done with her. This single man tries to impress these women with video clips about his life. First, he shares his passions, his work, and his friends and family gushing over him. Then, he’s forced to show a second video, this one of his friends saying some not-so-flattering things about him. At any point in this exercise in loneliness, the twenty-four women can shut off the lights on their podium, indicating, in real time, that they don’t give a shit about him. If all twenty-four lights turn off, he loses.
You’re likely thinking along the same lines as my Chinese coworkers did when I had this conversation with them: Fake. Fake fake fake fake fake fake fake. But let’s not get hasty. Now that we know the format, let’s examine a case study.
The first episode I’d ever seen of “If You Are the One” featured a young man, probably in his mid-to-late twenties. He wasn’t the most handsome of guys, but he wasn’t ugly either, sort of like the difference between a Toyota and a Lexus. Immediately, some of the lights go off, but not many. Then he introduces himself and shows off his first video, and things are going well. He’s a musician, he’s got a good job, and his friends and family talk about him being the nicest guy on the face of the planet. Those who are averse to shitty singer-songwriters and the ones who are too flashy for “nice” guys turn off their lights. Still, a majority of the lights are on.
Then comes the second video. Oh my god, the second video. His family and friends all say basically the same thing: he just got out of a long-term relationship with a girl he was head-over-heels for. Spoiler alert: he didn’t initiate the break up. They go on, and on, and on, and on, about how much he loved her and how he was probably not over it, not even a little bit. This was probably two to three minutes of video but it felt like hours. It was excruciating to watch, and not just for me; the women’s podium lights started going out like the Blitzkrieg was coming through to bomb the stage and the only hope for survival was a blackout so that they couldn’t be targeted. All but three were blacked out now.
Then he plays a song, live on his guitar; a song clearly written about (and being sung to) the girl that got away. Parts of my body cringe that I didn’t think could cringe. Two more lights go off, and we’re left with one woman willing to give this guy a shot. She’s the paragon of Chinese beauty: slender and pale, with long black hair draping down the back of her red dress. As per the game’s rules, she is walked out to center stage to engage her suitor. She takes him to task on his nonsense but sort of says, “Hey, screw it, okay. Why not?”
Then the bomb drops: this woman is the coworker of his ex-girlfriend. She knows the ex and her new boyfriend, personally. Then this guy, and this is a hard paraphrasing of what he said, he basically says, “I came here looking for you because I thought that I could stalk my ex while using you as plausible deniability”. “Why not?” indeed. Predictably, the woman looks at him and says (again, paraphrasing), “Well in that case…um no, you loser.” End of segment.
Now that we’ve gone through that harrowing tale, we must talk about the elephant in the room: much of this meeting was likely engineered, in some form or another. Either the producers gave the woman a head’s up about the whole situation but paid her a little bonus for making such delicious drama, or something to that effect, but suffice to say that there are 1.7 billion people in this country; coincidences like this don’t just “happen” here.
But let’s look at the other side of this coin and really think about what this guy did: he went on national television, in front of nearly forty million viewers (which, I might add, is 1/3 of a Super Bowl, and they pull that kind of viewership regularly) and played some trite, treacly song that he wrote on an acoustic guitar in front of a menagerie of coiffed women while his friends talked shit about him on a hundred-foot plasma screen, all building up to the reveal that he’s only on the show because he heard that one of the panelists is a coworker of the ex he’s so hung-up on, in hopes that he can woo her as a consolation prize for the sole purpose of stalking his ex-girlfriend. What kind of person would so thoroughly assassinate their own character like that in front of an audience comparable with the 2014 Academy Awards, even if every last detail was fake? That’s not an actor; that’s a person so broken it would only make sense to refer to them as shattered.
And that’s where the uncanny valley plays into this. The broken kind of people who seek that flash-in-the-pan reality show fame may be put in contrived situations, but that cycle of behavior, that willingness to show every stitch and suture of their ruptured psyche very closely resembles so-called “normalized” human behavior as we’ve come to expect it, but falls just short enough that we instantly reject it as being false as hell. While sitting on the couch eating Pop Tarts with Real Fruit™ and feeding our dogs Beggin’ Strips, it’s likely easier to just accept what we’re watching as jury-rigged, unnutritious but filling fictional nonsense, than the very real cry for help it probably is.