Skip to content

Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Did you know that PBS was a pioneer in the reality television business?

An American Family first aired in 1973, featuring a Santa Barbara family and their five children. In addition to offering an inside glimpse into family life, the family experienced major turmoil during the filming.

Wife Pat tells her husband she wants a divorce, and eldest son Lance comes out as gay. Perhaps difficult issues under any circumstance, but considering the public nature of normally private events, they made for dramatic television. (Keep in mind that the American Psychiatric Association had just declassified homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses that year too).

In a bizarre twist of reality becoming a work of fiction, HBO is debuting a film called Cinema Verite on April 23, a dramatization of the behind-the-scenes life of the Loud family during the filming of their family.

(KOCE owns the west coast rights to the series and will rebroadcast the original series starting this weekend).

French sociologist Jean Baudrillard wrote about the Louds in his 1983 book Simulations, referring to the show as a “truth experiment…neither a question of secrecy nor of perversion, but a kind of thrill of the real” (p. 50).

Baudrillard passed away in 2007, but my guess is he would find the latest development to be further evidence of the endless reflection between “reality” and simulation, making the two indistinguishable.

Weren’t we already supposed to glimpse “behind the scenes” during the original series? This alleged distinction is something Baudrillard refers to as “an absurd, paradoxical formula—neither true nor false: but utopian” (p. 50).

Part of the thrill of celebrity culture today is the illusion that we are regularly allowed behind the curtain. But are we?

Tags: , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: