Graduation Year

2008

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Ph.D.

Degree Granting Department

English

Major Professor

Debra L. Jacobs, Ph.D.

Keywords

Hegemony, Capitalism, Popular culture, Rhetoric, Audience

Abstract

Since 2000, there has been an explosion of "reality," or unscripted, television shows in a variety of formats. The series in which new societies are created in isolation appeared almost immediately to be influenced by certain identity constructs, particularly gender and sexual orientation. Audiences came to these shows with definite expectations already in place. I intend in this study to determine why this is so and what those expectations are. Survivor, the germinal presentation of this genre, has as its motto "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast." However, as the show has developed through many iterations, the ability to literally survive in a hostile environment has been eclipsed by what is now called "the social game" by contestant, viewers, producers and observers of the phenomenon.

Because of cultural stereotypes about gender, amateur review writers, along with regular viewers who frequent internet communications spaces, began to remark on how women win (when they do) compared to how men win, and to comment upon the various player behaviors and strategies in terms of sexual orientation, race, age and other constructs. Because I was hooked in the first Survivor series, and subsequently became interested in Big Brother as well, I searched for information online and discovered the explosion of discussions. Despite all the other aspects of, and activities in, these games, the large majority of the texts seemed to center upon identity constructs. Although there is a great deal of strategy to observe and discuss, even that was frequently couched in what a viewer could expect of a person of given gender or sexual orientation.

It wasn't long before I began to perceive both the programs and the writing generated by them as texts that could be analyzed in terms of rhetorical appeals. Certain texts which might be expected to demonstrate credibility were ignored in favor of emotional reinforcement. Viewers and reviewers seemed most pleased with, and attributed the most credibility to, those speech acts and behaviors which resonated with their values and beliefs systems, regardless of their effectiveness I found this trend interesting enough, and distressing enough, to examine in depth to learn how people read the texts of strategy-genre reality television. In general, there is a complete lack of critical viewing and no application of logic except by academics and journalists. Average viewers reject whatever does not match their belief system, even if that behavior wins the game. Feelings have eclipsed all else as the standard of credibility and value.

I conclude that credibility may only be derived from a text when feelings match viewer values. Of paramount importance in matching these values are the behaviors of the players, in that they must meet expectations in stereotype and tradition, and of course, the gender and sexual orientation of the winner.

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