Trump’s Reality Show Has Peaked

I suppose this was inevitable. The President-Elect, our reality star-in-chief, lashed out against the show that built his celebrity and the network that sustained his brand for nearly a decade.


This shouldn’t be surprising. This is what Trump does. He uses Twitter to distract us from all the other messes he is causing. To distract us from Putin and Russia. But the PEOTUS mocked Celebrity Apprentice for low ratings reveals how Trump is utterly delusional. Here is why:

In the early-2000s, reality television exploded. These shows were inexpensive to produce, merged real life, entertainment and commercialism, and capitalized on emerging digital technologies. I remember watching the first season finale of Survivor with my parents (the “Rat and Snake” speech is classic television) and feeling like this was a huge moment that millions of people were invested in. (51.69 million viewers watched this episode.) While reality television was not unprecedented, everything about the genre was suddenly bigger. Both the sheer quantity of new shows and the size of the media personalities behind them. Reality TV has since evolved from a fad to a ubiquitous genre.

Two favorite pieces in 2016 tackled Trump and the role his celebrity . Ira Madison of MTV looked at how The Apprentice was purely an advertisement for the Trump Empire. Anne Helen Petersen of Buzzfeed tackled the facets of Trump’s celebrity and why he must be analyzed as a celebrity, not a politician. Both pieces provide excellent context for the Trump reality show we are now living in. (Also read this piece about Mark Burnett and Trump on The Ringer.)

The reality genre crafted around the ideas of voyeurism. Audiences tune in to reality series because it so unlike what they experience in their own lives. (Are you an Alaskan fisherman? Why are you watching The Deadliest Catch?) Eventually all reality shows reach their expiration date. This is especially true of the game-doc series which become repetitive season after season.

So the classic game-docs still airing – Survivor, The Bachelor, The Amazing Race, MTV’s The Challenge – are their respective network’s key reality programs. Each show has tie-ins with tabloids, aftershows, podcasts, social media, etc. Their cast members become network personalities (this is particularly true of The Bachelor/The Bachelorette and The Challenge, which sees the cast members return for spinoff after spinoff.) And so, these shows depend on spectacle through casting to sustain their ratings and their brands.

Popular reality shows are also easily derailed by scandal. TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting is my standard example for this argument. For more than a decade, the Duggars were provided a platform to present and normalize their unorthodox family structure and extreme Evangelical beliefs. 19 Kids was TLC’s longest running and highest rated program. This lasted until the scandal forced TLC to cancel 19 Kids. TLC has since launched a Duggars spin-off, Counting On (centered around the Duggars 2.0) but this series is no where near as popular as the original series. It never will be.

Back to Donald Trump and The Apprentice – On The Apprentice, Donald Trump was the spectacle. Audiences loved watching him in this element and delivering the catchphrase “You’re Fired!” Sure, Ivanka was there but this entire program was built around Donald’s showmanship.

Donald Trump is a spectacle.  He always has been. Neal Gabler, writing in 1998, explains that Trump’s blockbuster was so good that not even failure (his bankruptcies, his divorce from Ivana) could close it.

The second Trump announced his candidacy, the 2016 Presidential Election became the most surreal media spectacle of all-time.

Now that Trump is the President-Elect, his reality show has peaked. It has peaked because audiences have caught on to the gimmick. We know he is distracting us and gaslighting America.

And so, Donald Trump is the scandal most likely to bring down his own celebrity and the empire he built. People are not watching Celebrity Apprentice because Arnold Schwarzenegger is a failed movie star. People are not watching Celebrity Apprentice because they are tired of the Trump brand. And it is better to focus on derailing an unstable President-Elect by doing what he hates most: ignore him and deny him the satisfaction that you are watching.

(Hi, yes, my long hiatus is over. I plan on blogging from time to time. Periodic posts will follow.)


Bernie Sanders is a Disney Princess

birdie sandersIn a presidential campaign where fantasy and reality are constantly clashing, the memeification of Bernie Sanders is a strange phenomenon. The fervent need to declare Sanders the most authentic presidential candidate falls somewhere between hysteria and deification. But now the Sanders phenomenon has reached a climactic moment. Sanders statistically probably won’t be the Democratic nominee but his perceived authenticity is still attracting rabid support.

Birdie Sanders, the meme that emerged after a bird landed on the podium as Sanders gave a speech in Portland, illustrates the spectacle surrounding his candidacy. The audience reaction, seen above, is mesmerizing. It is unreal. It is literally the unabashed fandom reserved for Tumblr manifesting itself at a political rally.

It’s also reminiscent of a trope commonly found in several Disney Princess movies.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
beauty and the beast
Beauty and the Beast (1993)

The visual comparison between Birdie Sanders and Disney Princesses found its way into the subsequent meme; Buzzfeed posted several “amazing” examples. Like anything driven by nostalgia and the Internet, people were entertained by the comparison. But Birdie Sanders is not an adorable intersection of politics and pop culture. These memes do nothing more than show how the Disney Princess movie is almost always perceived as a charming fairy tale. The false nostalgia from childhood clouds the memory and value of deconstructing these movies. Continue reading “Bernie Sanders is a Disney Princess”

It’s Dionne’s World, We Just Live In It

By now almost all of the hype surrounding Chris Rock’s Oscars is over. But there is still one moment I cannot shake. It has nothing to do with perfect human Brie Larson, precious cargo Joe Biden or endless meme generator Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s the bizarre appearance of Stacey Dash. What was Dionne from Clueless doing at the Oscars?

In case you missed it (how could you?), watch the clip below.

Like Chrissy Teigen, you cringed. I cringed. We all cringed.

Coming at the end of Rock’s monologue, which was either legendary or divisive depending who you ask, Dash is introduced as the Academy’s new Director of Minority Outreach.  You can hear the crickets in the audience as Dash walks on stage and awkwardly proclaims, “I can’t wait to help my people out! Happy Black History Month!” It’s a kind of joke that seemingly bombed and served no purpose.

It may be one twisted symbiotic relationship but Dash’s appearance is kind of genius. It’s subversive and weird and politically in tune with the entire monologue.

Continue reading “It’s Dionne’s World, We Just Live In It”

Counting On: Meet the Duggars 2.0

Jill and Jessa 2

You probably heard by now, TLC has ordered a full season of Jill and Jessa: Counting On. If you didn’t know, I’m sorry to ruin your day. (But are you really that surprised? I did tell you this could happen and be successful.) But do not dismiss TLC’s continued commitment to the Duggars 2.0; this family and every nuanced aspect of their brand matters more than ever before.

Perhaps you have caught on to the extreme conservatism (and extreme progressivism for that matter) holding the United States hostage right now. The Duggars, as public evangelicals whose sole purpose is to normalize fundamentalist Christianity, are contributors to and a byproduct of the public sphere currently reshaping American politics and ideologies. Beyond that, as I’ve written before, 19 Kids and Counting and now Jill and Jessa: Counting On are part of a larger, complex media system. As much as you might hate the Duggars’ presence, they’re sticking around for a reason. Continue reading “Counting On: Meet the Duggars 2.0”

Desperately Seeking Authenticity: The Memeification of Bernie Sanders

“Nowadays, everybody tells us what we need is more belief, a stronger and deeper and more encompassing faith. A faith in America and in what we are doing. That may be true in the long run. What we need first and now is to disillusion ourselves. What ails us most is not what we have done with America, but what we have substituted for America. We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in place of reality.” Daniel Boorstin, The Image, 1962

The popularity of Bernie Sanders among millennial voters is rather extraordinary and it is striking a nerve among older voters, who are actively dismissing Sanders’ youngest and often most vocal supporters. Gloria Steinem’s criticism of young women voting for Sanders reveals a fundamental and generational divide between feminists. Steinem’s comments reveal something larger happening during this election. That is the divide between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns.

More and more, I am observing my peers share memes and misconceptions about the two Democratic nominees across social media. These memes, particularly the Bernie Bros, emphasize that for whatever reason, the Clinton campaign simply does not resonate with millennials. Among my friends, the same people who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, are not supporting HRC. But why? Because Bernie Sanders, a 74-year-old white Jewish man originally from Brooklyn, is somehow perceived as more authentic than Hillary Clinton.

The supposed evidence of Sanders’ authenticity often appears on Facebook. For instance, a friend recently updated her cover photo with the caption: “When you walk the walk”.

sanders MLK
Bernie Sanders, allegedly marching with MLK, Jr. in Selma.

This is allegedly a photo of Bernie Sanders marching with MLK, Jr. at Selma in 1965 and it’s an internet hoax. Think about it. Do you really believe Sanders would go his ENTIRE political career (30+ years) without ever mentioning this photo? Or his presidential campaign, which needs moments like these (the real ones, not the fake ones) to elaborate the appeal of a Sanders’ presidency? The answer to both questions is no. But the memeification of Bernie Sanders is just selling what the Clinton campaign seems unable to produce.

Authenticity. Continue reading “Desperately Seeking Authenticity: The Memeification of Bernie Sanders”