Aspiring to the Creative Class: Reality Television and the Role of the Mentor

Carla Rocavert

Abstract


Introduction 

Mentors play a role in real life, just as they do in fiction. They also feature in reality television, which sits somewhere between the two. In fiction, mentors contribute to the narrative arc by providing guidance and assistance (Vogler 12) to a mentee in his or her life or professional pursuits. These exchanges are usually characterized by reciprocity, the need for mutual recognition (Gadamer 353) and involve some kind of moral question. They dramatise the possibilities of mentoring in reality, to provide us with a greater understanding of the world, and our human interaction within it. Reality television offers a different perspective. Like drama it uses the plot device of a mentor character to heighten the story arc, but instead of focusing on knowledge-based portrayals (Gadamer 112) of the mentor and mentee, the emphasis is instead on the mentee’s quest for ascension. In attempting to transcend their unknownness (Boorstin) contestants aim to penetrate an exclusive creative class (Florida). Populated by celebrity chefs, businessmen, entertainers, fashionistas, models, socialites and talent judges (to name a few), this class seemingly adds authenticity to ‘competitions’ and other formats. While the mentor’s role, on the surface, is to provide divine knowledge and facilitate the journey, a different agenda is evident in the ways carefully scripted (Booth) dialogue heightens the drama through effusive praise (New York Daily News) and “tactless” (Woodward), humiliating (Hirschorn; Winant 69; Woodward) and cruel sentiments. From a screen narrative point of view, this takes reality television as ‘storytelling’ (Aggarwal; Day; Hirschorn; “Reality Writer”; Rupel; Stradal) into very different territory. The contrived and later edited (Crouch; Papacharissi and Mendelson 367) communication between mentor and mentee not only renders the relationship disingenuous, it compounds the primary ethical concerns of associated Schadenfreude (Balasubramanian, Forstie and van den Scott 434; Cartwright), and the severe financial inequality (Andrejevic) underpinning a multi-billion dollar industry (Hamilton). As upward mobility and instability continue to be ubiquitously portrayed in 21st century reality entertainment under neoliberalism (Sender 4; Winant 67), it is with increasing frequency that we are seeing the systematic reinvention of the once significant cultural and historical role of the mentor. 

Mentor as Fictional Archetype and Communicator of Themes

Depictions of mentors can be found across the Western art canon. From the mythological characters of Telemachus’ Athena and Achilles’ Chiron, to King Arthur’s Merlin, Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, Jim Hawkins’ Long John Silver, Frodo’s Gandalf, Batman’s Alfred and Marty McFly’s Doc Emmett Brown (among many more), the dramatic energy of the teacher, expert or supernatural aid (Vogler 39) has been timelessly powerful. Heroes, typically, engage with a mentor as part of their journey. Mentor types range extensively, from those who provide motivation, inspiration, training or gifts (Vogler), to those who may be dark or malevolent, or have fallen from grace (such as Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko in Wall Street 1987, or the ex-tribute Haymitch in The Hunger Games, 2012). A good drama usually complicates the relationship in some way, exploring initial reluctance from either party, or instances of tragedy (Vogler 11, 44) which may prevent the relationship achieving its potential. The intriguing twist of a fallen or malevolent mentor additionally invites the audience to morally analyze the ways the hero responds to what the mentor provides, and to question what our teachers or superiors tell us. In television particularly, long running series such as Mad Men have shown how a mentoring relationship can change over time, where “non-rational” characters (Buzzanell and D’Enbeau 707) do not necessarily maintain reciprocity or equality (703) but become subject to intimate, ambivalent and erotic aspects.

As the mentor in fiction has deep cultural roots for audiences today, it is no wonder they are used, in a variety of archetypal capacities, in reality television. The dark Simon Cowell (of Pop Idol, American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent, America’s Got Talent and The X-Factor series) and the ‘villainous’ (Byrnes) Michelin-starred Marco Pierre White (Hell’s Kitchen, The Chopping Block, Marco Pierre White’s Kitchen Wars, MasterChef Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) provide reality writers with much needed antagonism (Rupel, Stradal). Those who have fallen from grace, or allowed their personal lives to play out in tabloid sagas such as Britney Spears (Marikar), or Caitlyn Jenner (Bissinger) provide different sources of conflict and intrigue. They are then counterbalanced with or repackaged as the good mentor. Examples of the nurturer who shows "compassion and empathy" include American Idol’s Paula Abdul (Marche), or the supportive Jennifer Hawkins in Next Top Model (Thompson). These distinctive characters help audiences to understand the ‘reality’ as a story (Crouch; Rupel; Stradal).  

But when we consider the great mentors of screen fiction, it becomes clear how reality television has changed the nature of story. The Karate Kid I (1984) and Good Will Hunting (1998) are two examples where mentoring is almost the exclusive focus, and where the experience of the characters differs greatly. In both films an initially reluctant mentor becomes deeply involved in the mentee’s project. They act as a special companion to the hero in the face of isolation, and, significantly, reveal a tragedy of their own, providing a nexus through which the mentee can access a deeper kind of truth. Not only are they flawed and ordinary people (they are not celebrities within the imagined worlds of the stories) who the mentee must challenge and learn to truly respect, they are “effecting and important” (Maslin) in reminding audiences of those hidden idiosyncrasies that open the barriers to friendship.  Mentors in these stories, and many others, communicate themes of class, culture, talent, jealousy, love and loss which inform ideas about the ethical treatment of the ‘other’ (Gadamer). They ultimately prove pivotal to self worth, human confidence and growth. 

Very little of this thematic substance survives in reality television (see comparison of plots and contrasting modes of human engagement in the example of The Office and Dirty Jobs, Winant 70). Archetypally identifiable as they may be, mean judges and empathetic supermodels as characters are concerned mostly with the embodiment of perfection. They are flawless, untouchable and indeed most powerful when human welfare is at stake, and when the mentee before them faces isolation (see promise to a future ‘Rihanna’, X-Factor USA, Season 2, Episode 1 and Tyra Banks’ Next Top Model tirade at a contestant who had not lived up to her potential, West). If connecting with a mentor in fiction has long signified the importance of understanding of the past, of handing down tradition (Gadamer 354), and of our fascination with the elder, wiser other, then we can see a fundamental shift in narrative representation of mentors in reality television stories. In the past, as we have opened our hearts to such characters, as a facilitator to or companion of the hero, we have rehearsed a sacred respect for the knowledge and fulfillment mentors can provide. In reality television the ‘drama’ may evoke a fleeting rush of excitement at the hero’s success or failure, but the reality belies a pronounced distancing between mentor and mentee. 

The Creative Class: An Aspirational Paradigm

Themes of ascension and potential fulfillment are also central to modern creativity discourse (Runco; Runco 672; United Nations). Seen as the driving force of the 21st century, creativity is now understood as much more than art, capable of bringing economic prosperity (United Nations) and social cohesion to its acme (United Nations xxiii). At the upper end of creative practice, is what Florida called “the creative class: a fast growing, highly educated, and well-paid segment of the workforce” (on whose expertise corporate profits depend), in industries ranging “from technology to entertainment, journalism to finance, high-end manufacturing to the arts” (Florida). Their common ethos is centered on individuality, diversity, and merit; eclipsing previous systems focused on ‘shopping’ and theme park consumerism and social conservatism (Eisinger). 

While doubts have since been raised about the size (Eisinger) and financial practices (Krätke 838) of the creative class (particularly in America), from an entertainment perspective at least, the class can be seen in full action. Extending to rich housewives, celebrity teen mothers and even eccentric duck hunters and swamp people, the creative class has caught up to the more traditional ‘star’ actor or music artist, and is increasingly marketable within world’s most sought after and expensive media spaces. Often reality celebrities make their mark for being the most outrageous, the cruelest (Peyser), or the weirdest (Gallagher; Peyser) personalities in the spotlight. 

Aspiring to the creative class thus, is a very public affair in television. Willing participants scamper for positions on shows, particularly those with long running, heavyweight titles such as Big Brother, The Bachelor, Survivor and the Idol series (Hill 35). The better known formats provide high visibility, with the opportunity to perform in front of millions around the globe (Frere-Jones, Day). Tapping into the deeply ingrained upward-mobility rhetoric of America, and of Western society, shows are aided in large part by 24-hour news, social media, the proliferation of celebrity gossip and the successful correlation between pop culture and an entertainment-style democratic ideal. As some have noted, dramatized reality is closely tied to the rise of individualization, and trans-national capitalism (Darling-Wolf 127). Its creative dynamism indeed delivers multi-lateral benefits: audiences believe the road to fame and fortune is always just within reach, consumerism thrives, and, politically, themes of liberty, egalitarianism and freedom ‘provide a cushioning comfort’ (Peyser; Pinter) from the domestic and international ills that would otherwise dispel such optimism. 

As the trials and tests within the reality genre heighten the seriousness of, and excitement about ascending toward the creative elite, show creators reproduce the same upward-mobility themed narrative across formats all over the world. The artifice is further supported by the festival-like (Grodin 46) symbology of the live audience, mass viewership and the online voting community, which in economic terms, speaks to the creative power of the material. Whether through careful manipulation of extra media space, ‘game strategy’, or other devices, those who break through are even more idolized for the achievement of metamorphosing into a creative hero. For the creative elite however, who wins ‘doesn’t matter much’. Vertical integration is the priority, where the process of making contestants famous is as lucrative as the profits they will earn thereafter; it’s a form of “one-stop shopping” as the makers of Idol put it according to Frere-Jones.    

Furthermore, as Florida’s measures and indicators suggested, the geographically mobile new creative class is driven by lifestyle values, recreation, participatory culture and diversity. Reality shows are the embodiment this idea of creativity, taking us beyond stale police procedural dramas (Hirschorn) and racially typecast family sitcoms, into a world of possibility. From a social equality perspective, while there has been a notable rise in gay and transgender visibility (Gamson) and stories about lower socio-economic groups – fast food workers and machinists for example – are told in a way they never were before, the extent to which shows actually unhinge traditional power structures is, as scholars have noted (Andrejevic and Colby 197; Schroeder) open to question. As boundaries are nonetheless crossed in the age of neoliberal creativity, the aspirational paradigm of joining a new elite in real life is as potent as ever. 

Reality Television’s Mentors: How to Understand Their ‘Role’

Reality television narratives rely heavily on the juxtaposition between celebrity glamour and comfort, and financial instability. As mentees put it ‘all on the line’, storylines about personal suffering are hyped and molded for maximum emotional impact. In the best case scenarios mentors such as Caitlyn Jenner will help a trans mentee discover their true self by directing them in a celebrity-style photo shoot (see episode featuring Caitlyn and Zeam, Logo TV 2015). In more extreme cases the focus will be on an adopted contestant’s hopes that his birth mother will hear him sing (The X Factor USA, Season 2, Episode 11 Part 1), or on a postal clerk’s fear that elimination will mean she has to go back “to selling stamps” (The X Factor US - Season 2 Episode 11 Part 2). In the entrepreneurship format, as Woodward pointed out, it is not ‘help’ that mentees are given, but condescension. “I have to tell you, my friend, that this is the worst idea I’ve ever heard.  You don’t have a clue about how to set up a business or market a product,” Woodward noted as the feedback given by one elite businessman on The Shark Tank (Woodward). “This is a five million dollar contract and I have to know that you can go the distance” (The X Factor US – Season 2 Episode 11, Part 1) Britney Spears warned to a thirteen-year-old contestant before accepting her as part of her team. In each instance the fictitious premise of being either an ‘enabler’ or destroyer of dreams is replayed and slightly adapted for ongoing consumer interest. 

This lack of shared experience and mutual recognition in reality television also highlights the overt, yet rarely analyzed focus on the wealth of mentors as contrasted with their unstable mentees. In the respective cases of The X Factor and I Am Cait, one of the wealthiest moguls in entertainment, Cowell, reportedly contracts mentors for up to $15 million per season (Nair); Jenner’s performance in I Am Cait was also set to significantly boost the Kardashian empire (reportedly already worth $300 million, Pavia). In both series, significant screen time has been dedicated to showing the mentors in luxurious beachside houses, where mentees may visit. Despite the important social messages embedded in Caitlyn’s story (which no doubt nourishes the Kardashian family’s generally more ersatz material), the question, from a moral point of view becomes: would these mentors still interact with that particular mentee without the money? 

Regardless, reality participants insist they are fulfilling their dreams when they appear. Despite the preplanning, possibility of distress (Australia Network News; Bleasby) and even suicide (Schuster), as well as the ferocity of opinion surrounding shows (Marche) the parade of a type of ‘road of trials’ (Vogler 189) is enough to keep a huge fan base interested, and hungry for their turn to experience the fortune of being touched by the creative elite; or in narrative terms, a supernatural aid. 

Conclusion

The key differences between reality television and artistic narrative portrayals of mentors can be found in the use of archetypes for narrative conflict and resolution, in the ways themes are explored and the ways dialogue is put to use, and in the focus on and visibility of material wealth (Frere-Jones; Peyser). These differences highlight the political, cultural and social implications of exchanging stories about potential fulfillment, for stories about ascension to the creative class. Rather than being based on genuine reciprocity, and understanding of human issues, reality shows create drama around the desperation to penetrate the inner sanctum of celebrity fame and fortune. In fiction we see themes based on becoming famous, on gender transformation, and wealth acquisition, such as in the films and series Almost Famous (2000), The Bill Silvers Show (1955-1959), Filthy Rich (1982-1983), and Tootsie (1982), but these stories at least attempt to address a moral question. Critically, in an artistic - rather than commercial context – the actors (who may play mentees) are not at risk of exploitation (Australia Network News; Bleasby; Crouch). Where actors are paid and recognized creatively for their contribution to an artistic work (Rupel), the mentee in reality television has no involvement in the ways action may be set up for maximum voyeuristic enjoyment, or manipulated to enhance scandalous and salacious content which will return show and media profits (“Reality Show Fights”; Skeggs and Wood 64). The emphasis, ironically, from a reality production point of view, is wholly on making the audience believe (Papacharissi and Mendelson 367) that the content is realistic. This perhaps gives some insight as to why themes of personal suffering and instability are increasingly evident across formats.

On an ethical level, unlike the knowledge transferred through complex television plots, or in coming of age films (as cited above) about the ways tradition is handed down, and the ways true mentors provide altruistic help in human experience; in reality television we take away the knowledge that life, under neoliberalism, is most remarkable when one is handpicked to undertake a televised journey featuring their desire for upward mobility. The value of the mentoring in these cases is directly proportionate to the financial objectives of the creative elite.

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Keywords


mentoring; reality television; creativity



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