reality equalizer

My tastes in entertainment have been changing, but I chalked it up to my general interest in learning as much as possible about everything. At least until school started, I was far more interested in nonfiction than fiction, and I’ve expanded my blog and news reading as well. Fiction was starting to be the same old, same old. Anyway, now I have intensive theory readings that accompany two novels every week for my crit class, plus various other readings, so if I’m going to read something for pleasure, I want a guarantee that it will be pretty good. Somehow lately that means going for kickass memoir or narrative nonfiction about a topic I want to learn more about, like economics or history. But I’ll probably be moving back to fiction soon. Things come in cycles.

Somehow I still have time for tons of Hulu, even though I have insane homework, two nights of a cappella, and an afternoon of volunteering each week. Actually, then, it all makes sense, because when I had three jobs and college, I thought I watched too much television, so of course I’m watching too much now that I have even more unstructured time. But I’m kind of over a lot of the drama I used to watch, and instead I’m increasingly more obsessed with cooking shows of all kinds, and with competition shows. This is weird, because I think reality television à la Jersey Shore and Real Housewives is awful. But a lot of these competitions, when they eliminate the living together and drama, actually make some astute observations about culture, and they almost serve as social equalizers. Unlike scripted shows with ridiculous stereotypes and whitewashing and tokenism, competitions like “Top Chef,” “Chopped,” “The Voice,” and “The Sing-Off,” while still white-heavy, come a lot closer to replicating actual United States demographics than, say, “Gossip Girl,” which I gave up on halfway through last season (not even the fabulous clothing could hold me anymore).

The judges on these shows are generally actually qualified to be there, in that they come from the field and actually have respect, experience, and expertise in it (i.e. not Paula Abdul judging people’s singing but Ben Folds, who studied music in college, who plays instruments and sings, who writes songs and records, and who has produced a cappella, judging an a cappella competition). Also, because their professional background maybe makes them a little less inclined, or a little less required, to go with producer suggestions for eliminations and things, contestants who could be identified as coming from marginalized groups usually go a lot further. And in confessionals and interviews, you can see that both judges and contestants are aware of the inequalities that exist in American culture, and they comment on what an anomaly it is to have, say, four women on one episode of “Chopped.” I like that because people who pretend that race/gender/sexuality doesn’t matter and who don’t comment on it don’t help. Alex Guarnaschelli saying how personally invested she is in judging a television show where there are four women trying to break into a male-dominated field that Guarnaschelli herself has already enjoyed success in tells the viewer that these things are important. It’s probably because of those factors that minorities on these shows have more of a chance of getting ahead. Because they’re slightly less corporate and for the ratings (not that I don’t think it still has a hell of a lot to do with that), people win more on merit, not on status quo. The first winners of “The Sing-Off?” Puerto Ricans. Second season winners? Black men. Winner of “The Voice?” Afro Latino. Among the winners and top contenders of “Top Chef” you see an Israeli, a Vietnamese-American, a black woman, and a black man, for starters. And the host of the show is Indian. It’s of course a long stretch from total equality, but the fact that people on the show actually speak about these things and say stuff like, “Women are traditionally shut out of the culinary world,” or “It’s great to see a black role model up there” indicates that not the whole of the world of media is actively pretending like these issues don’t exist. Talking about it is the first step.

That’s probably not the reason I watch these shows. I also just like listening to people sing and watching people make food. But that’s a huge reason why I respect those shows, and why I’m not embarrassed to say I watch them, and certainly why I think they have more value than collagen-lip-infused bimbos drinking wine coolers.

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