True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us

Danielle J. Lindemann. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-3742-7902-8

In this insightful study, sociologist Lindemann (Commuter Spouses) dissects one of pop culture’s most derided phenomena: reality TV. She considers why the genre has become the touchstone it is in America today and argues that, though “bold and garish,” it also “holds the potential to explore new possibilities... [and] gain a keener understanding of ourselves.” She makes astute points by tracing the history of the genre all the way back to MTV’s The Real World in 1992, and offering analysis of popular shows such as Survivor, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and the Real Housewives franchise. One of the genre’s main hooks, she explains, is the sociological give-and-take it presents, wherein viewers expect certain behaviors from specific cast members who, in turn, cash in on these preconceived ideas “to craft... a self.” While this “reciprocal process” often reinforces stereotypes around gender roles, sexuality, and race, she points out how such confines have also been subverted, as evidenced in Cardi B’s reappropriation of the word ratchet during her time on Love & Hip Hop “as a form of resistance.” In sum, Lindemann argues, these shows “remind us that deviance exists on a spectrum and... what is acceptable changes across social contexts.” This takes the guilt out of a popular guilty pleasure. (Oct.)