Introduction: Reality Television as Film and History

By Taddeo, Julie; Dvorak, Ken | Film & History, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Reality Television as Film and History


Taddeo, Julie, Dvorak, Ken, Film & History


Welcome to a two part special series exploring reality television as film and history. This edition focuses on the widely popular PBS Historical Homes series, including the British and American productions, 1940s House (2000), Frontier House (2001), Manor House (2002) and Colonial House (2003), as well as two offerings from Australian public TV, The Colony (2005) and Outback House (2005). According to PBS's Executive Series Director, Beth Hoppe, "These projects are fantastic at doing two things ... one is to really explode the myth, do away with the misconceptions about a time, and the other is to experience the nitty-gritty of daily life." (1) While the following articles agree with Hoppe's claim that the participants endure mental and physical challenges living in recreated simulacra, the series' explosion of myths remains in question.

The first essay, by Dvorak and Taddeo, presents an overview of the British and American House programs and how the "time travelers" confront categories of race, class, and gender both in the re-created past and in their 21st century lives. As "TV with a purpose," these programs allow viewers and participants alike to "live history" but within safe limits. Obviously, there will be no reenactments of war with actual bombs or a long winter with any real threat of starvation, or violent encounters between settlers and Native Americans, so that nostalgia for the past, despite its challenges and deprivations, remains in tact.

Leigh Edwards builds on these themes with an in-depth discussion of Frontier House and the tension between the producers' goal to "debunk myths" about the American Frontier and the lived experiences of the volunteers who cling to the image of the Wild West as the site of freedom and opportunity. Just as Taddeo notes how fictional representations of the Edwardian era shaped the Manor House participants' expectations, the producers and volunteers of Frontier House want to relive their childhood memories of movie westerns or TV episodes of Little House on the Prairie. Despite their noble attempts to revise the frontier experience--removing racial and gender inequality--their efforts at building community ultimately give way to individualism. The educational mission of Frontier House also recedes as the personal stories of the volunteers and how they use the past to understand their 21st century lives take center stage.

Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska continues the discussion of Frontier House by examining its place within the documentary and reality genres of television. While the documentary has long been used as a didactic device, the juxtaposition of this with the reality program serves the additional purpose of allowing both participants and viewers to negotiate their own preconceived ideas and even misconceptions of history. Her argument follows that of Stephen Gapps, who believes that audiences watching "historical reenactments" somehow internalize them as being "real." As the nature of historical inquiry shifts from a "monumental history" of important personages and political acts, to a social and cultural history of the experience of the "common man" (and woman), the new hybrid genre becomes extremely effective in dealing with this development. Malgorzata traces the way in which the producers of this program use both the realities and the myths of the American Frontier to facilitate a new discourse which is somewhere in between.

Myths about beauty, in British wartime and in our contemporary culture, take center stage in David Diffrient's analysis of 1940s House. As three generations of the Hymer family reside in a London home and endure the material deprivations of wartime, they develop a new appreciation for each other but also become too obsessed with the disheveled image they see of themselves in the home's many mirrored surfaces. Diffrient is especially interested in the female inhabitants of this house and how they cope with their own domestic shortcomings and struggle to live up to the wartime mantra of "Beauty is Your Duty" when even shampoo is in short supply. …

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