Reality TV in the United States has a poor reputation. And frankly, it often deserves it. After all, some of this year’s biggest reality hits include raunchy, mindless fare like “Jersey Shore,” “The Real Housewives” franchise, and “The Hills.” As for less smutty, more family-friendly shows like “The Biggest Loser” or “American Idol,” well, they’re not exactly high art.
But like it or not, reality television is popular, and as such, is a “shared text” of our culture—for good or ill. And reality shows are also becoming shared texts for cultures as well. In Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates, the spread of reality shows along the lines of “American Idol” or “Britain’s Got Talent” is producing some surprising—and oddly, pleasing—results.
In today’s installment of “Lunch with TED” Cynthia Schneider examines how highly popular merit-based competitions in the style of “American Idol” are changing tribal societies. Contrary to what you might assume, the shows aren’t promoting Western ideology, but local language, traditional music, and poetry. It’s also a great opportunity for women to gain a voice and prominence in societies that have traditionally disenfranchised females. In a beautiful, ironic twist, these shows are bringing about a renaissance in the arts, and elevating the status of women as well. As Schneider says, “reality TV is driving reality.” ‘