By Megan Byrom - HSPS Student @ Queens' College, Cambridge
Reality television has cemented itself as a norm in popular culture. With its rise in the early 2000s with shows such as Big Brother, the shock of 24/7 surveillance and the intimacies of such viewership have been reinterpreted across channels and the world. From Geordie Shore to Love island, reality TV continually draws its audiences in by making them voyeurs on the extremes of human emotion. Despite claims of declining moral standards, exploitation and Orwellianism, one thing is for certain, whether we wish to admit it or not, we continue to tune in to reality television.
Whilst reality television can be dismissed as unintellectual, these experiments in human behaviour and psychology when under constant surveillance can be sociologically significant.
Such ideas about surveillance have been around long before the inception of reality television. Whilst his preserved body sits over the campus at UCL today, Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century was beginning to question the experience of being watched. In his imagined ‘Panopticon’, Bentham devised a system of control. In this prison design, the panopticon contains a security tower, seen by all the prisoners below. Whilst the tower has a guard in at all times, the prisoners will never know when they are being watched. Critically, the guard cannot watch all the prisoners, but the design of the panopticon obscures who is being watched.
In this system of surveillance, subjects feel they are watched at all times, and begin to behave in this reality. For Michel Foucault, the panopticon helped to explain the emergence of self-regulation in society. In a constant state of being watched and observed, he argued subjects began to be manipulated. It is this self-regulation that changes human behaviour, as we alter ourselves for fear of punishment.
Such self-regulation is evident across reality TV. In the early days of the genre with Big Brother, contestants' place in the house was dependent on public approval, with the editing selecting only an hour of content out of an entire day. Like Foucault and Bentham’s work suggests, the subjects, or the housemates, are unsure of when exactly they are being watched, so self-regulate their behaviour to ensure their place in the competition. With reality TV, we are the guards in the watchtower, and the inmates, or contestants, alter their behaviour to fit our gaze.
In an age of CCTV and social media, we too, have perhaps become the inmates within the panopticon prison. Constantly watched, recorded or perceived, whilst reality television is seen in isolation to ‘normal’ life, perhaps it is actually a stronger reflection of the ways we live ourselves and self regulate in the 21st century, always under the eye of Big Brother, whether that's on television or CCTV.
George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975)
Barton Gellman, Dark Mirror (2019)