Presidential Politics As Reality TV and Realist Fiction
The election came as a reality check. It’s time for a new genre.
This essay originally appears in the Winter 2017 issue of The Point.
When, during the final debate of the 2016 presidential campaign, Chris Wallace asked Donald Trump whether he would promise to accept the election results and Trump responded that he would rather “keep you in suspense,” and when, at a campaign rally later that week, Trump announced dramatically, “I will totally accept the results of this great and historical presidential election—if I win,” commentators were quick to point out that his remarks were like something out of reality TV. This was a common refrain throughout a campaign that featured a contest between a former First Lady with a complicated backstory and a celebrity real-estate developer best known for firing aspiring entrepreneurs on a successful reality show. Trump especially, it was often said, was a master at leveraging our desire for conflict and suspense to keep the spotlight on himself. On November 8th, we were waiting for the results of the vote, but we were also waiting to find out what Trump would do if he lost.
Perhaps because I have long loved reality TV—though it has taken me some time, as a literary scholar and psychoanalyst-in-training, to grow comfortable admitting it—the comparisons struck me as flat-footed. In the strict sense, presidential campaigns have been a kind of reality TV since the first televised presidential debate in 1960, and in recent election cycles we have become increasingly accustomed to the camera catching candidates in private or “unscripted” moments (as in reality TV, just how unscripted they are tends to be a matter of controversy). What was distinctive in this case, for those of us familiar with the genre, was not that Trump knew how to take advantage of generic narrative devices like suspense and shock, it was that the contest between Trump and Hillary mimicked in so many ways the dynamics—including but not limited to gender dynamics—that we have grown accustomed to seeing on our favorite shows. Our focus on Trump as an actual reality star—and our submission to his demand for that singular attention—risks obscuring the extent to which reality TV can also help us understand our response to Hillary, and the relationship between the two candidates.
The Apprentice casts Trump as the consummate winner, and the most important advantage he was able bring to his presidential bid from his stint on reality TV was his reputation as a man who could not lose. Yet reality TV has been defined as a genre not only by competition shows like The Apprentice but also by shows about groups of women, which generate drama by staging an almost continuous confrontation with loss. The demand that women reckon with loss is part of what allows us to classify shows like Teen Mom and The Real Housewives of Orange County as specimens of “realism,” in that they share many of their conceits and conventions with the 19th-century novels that were the earliest exemplars of the genre. and it is precisely such a reckoning that we have demanded of Hillary again and again.
Realism is always about the politics of social life. As such, it is about acts of looking. By this I mean that realist narratives place their subjects in a field of vision. Tolstoy did this repeatedly, writing scenes—the opera in War and Peace, the horse race in Anna Karenina—in which audience members are pictured staring at each other as much as, or rather than, the spectacle before them. In the latter scene we witness Vronsky exchanging glances with some of his fellow riders, Vronsky failing to see other riders and Karenin in the stands watching his wife as she watches Vronsky fall, realizing from her reaction that he has been made a cuckold. In the realist novel, “all the world’s a stage”—but what creates the drama is not the author calling the shots from the sky, but merely all the other sets of eyes.
These eyes bring with them a new kind of moral imperative. When I am seen by another, I am forced to acknowledge that I am, for others, an object. Having a sense of myself as an object can be variably exciting or degrading, but either way it tends to mitigate grand pretensions. Before the advent of the novel, literature was most often about heroes and great deeds: the feats of Achilles and Odysseus, the fates of King Lear or Prince Hamlet. Realism by contrast dethrones the royal predominance of any individual, picturing instead a wide array of characters—not only noblemen and kings but also children, commoners and criminals—as worthy of interest in their own right. Indeed, for the modern realist protagonist, grand aspirations often get in the way of prosaic achievements. We suspect from the beginning that Pip will eventually be divested of his “great expectations,” just as Balzac alerts us in his title that Lucien de Rubemprés will “lose” his illusions. Tolstoy’s Napoleon is no Achilles, because he is a character not of the epic, but of the novel—he may not know it at the beginning of War and Peace, but he will by the end.
This is not to say that other forms of literature do not picture their heroes’ defeats: tragedy of course revolves around failure, but there is a magnificence to tragic pain that ennobles its subjects even as it humbles them. Realism on the other hand has little patience for megalomania, whether in the form of the actual French invader (as in War and Peace and many other novels) or in the glimmerings of his ambition that hibernate, as Tolstoy put it, inside all of us “little napoleons.”
Although the realist novel’s “realism” is usually evaluated in terms of its verisimilitude, the most important strand in the genre’s DNA is its staging of the confrontation, as Freud might say, between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. In his essay “Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning,” Freud describes two dialectically opposed currents that interact within the human psyche. The pleasure principle fantasizes about past pleasures in order to secure maximum enjoyment, while at the same time guarding against the incursion of pain. But, says Freud, when fantasy proves incapable of ensuring the satisfaction of real needs, another psychic principle develops: the reality principle. Associated with the civilizing effects of experience and education, this is the mental tendency that requires us to recognize we exist among others, thereby helping us to acknowledge our own limitations and accept the possibility of loss.
It is no accident that early realist literature pictured women’s losses more insistently than they did men’s. The rise of the novel in late 18th-century Europe coincided with the entry of women into the marketplace and their emergence as both public subjects and readers. These developments account for the genre’s focus on the tensions between interiority, private life, domesticity (the marriage plot) and the trauma of being seen in public. They are also related to one of its most common trajectories, whereby a female character was forced to pay the ultimate price for failing to adhere to “reality,” which usually meant getting married, having babies, and playing the part of the good housewife. In the early realist novel, women who transgress the bounds of the marriage plot are almost always penalized: if they are not killed off for sexual misbehavior then the marriage bond is shown to subsume whatever ambition might have exceeded it. While Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary wind up dead for seeking something outside of their marriages, Dorothea Brooke starts off in Middlemarch as an intellectual powerhouse but ends up “absorbed into the life” of her husband and “only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother.”
In novels split between men and women—Anna Karenina, Daniel Deronda—the men invariably come out on top (Levin and Daniel end up happy while Anna and Gwendolen end up either dead or depressed), in large part because being a happy-enough woman in that historical moment was a difficult proposition, but also because of the assumption that women were particularly vulnerable to the consequences of public disapproval. Yet men also have their brushes with failure. What realism calls disenchantment—and what psychoanalysis might describe as coming to terms with castration—is experienced by both sexes. Like the cities they are often set in, the novels of Balzac and Dickens are overpopulated with bodies, often dramatizing the thinness of the line between the haves and the have-nots—and therefore, from a psychoanalytic perspective, between men and women (the embodiments of having and not having, at least in fantasy). What a woman never has, a man can always lose. Like a psychoanalytic cure, a realist novel requires a reckoning with such disappointments for us all.
Reality television, though seemingly so distant from Tolstoy and Eliot, is a form of “realism” nonetheless, and it plays on these same tropes and crosscurrents. Certainly it trains our attention on the dramatics of everyday life, as part and parcel of a social-media culture that deems our choice of dessert to be a subject worthy of mass dissemination. The democratization of realism is apparent in the way reality TV brings attention to variously underappreciated subcultures—not only the rich and famous of LA but also antique collectors in New England, duck hunters in Louisiana, truck drivers, little people, what have you. Above all, reality TV takes the narrative motor of Tolstoy’s and Flaubert’s novels—the interplay between seeing and being seen—and literalizes it, making it the basis for the whole show.
As such, a concern with sexuality and femininity is central to the genre: the Real Housewives franchise, Wives and Girlfriends, Teen Mom, Basketball Wives, the Kardashians empire, and countless other series all revolve around female desire and the related topics of domesticity and the nuclear family. Most conspicuously, these shows allow us to look at women’s bodies in their various postures: sometimes beautifully made up, perfectly clothed, manicured and surgically altered; sometimes (though less often) at home, in sweatpants and eating; sometimes pregnant in either of these states. Our reactions to these bodies are unpredictable: sometimes we want to look like them, sometimes we want to fuck them, sometimes we want to be them, sometimes we want to kill them. But among these various forms of excitement, what is it we’re trying to see?
If the early realist novel’s exploration of feminine interiors and states of dispossession made such a question somewhat complicated to answer, reality TV gets down to brass tacks: vaginas are everywhere on these shows. The Kardashian women, for instance, regularly discuss their lady bits’ appearance, their urinary habits, and the “rearrangement” of their genitalia following childbirth. After the birth of her daughter, Kim made sure to reassure her sister—and the public—that her vagina was “better looking than before!” In an episode of The Real Housewives of Orange County, Tamra, having recently separated from a controlling spouse and begun an affair (well documented in supporting footage) with a younger man, mentioned to Vicki, facetiously, that she was thinking of undergoing vaginal rejuvenation: she had pushed out four babies, after all. Vicki, who didn’t like to talk about sex and whose own marriage was going downhill fast, responded that because she had undergone two C-sections, her own female organ was still as good as new. (Whether the editors were aware of the joke—what good is a pristine vagina if it’s not going to use?—was unclear.)
Similarly, in the most recent season of The Real Housewives of New York, Jules visited her plastic surgeon to discuss a wound to her vagina, complaining that the resulting swelling made it look like a “ball sack.” Sexual difference was thus evoked, reversed, and reasserted in one and the same gesture, as the wounded vagina came to resemble the male genitalia and medical aid was enlisted in returning it to its properly modest state: “My perfect little pistachio.” In fact the entire eighth season of RHONY revolved around vaginas; Jules’s accident coincided with Bethenny’s medical scare involving the removal of uterine fibroids and copious bleeding. That most of these encounters involved a surgery—whether to remove something that shouldn’t be there, to remove something that was supposed to be there for nine months but shouldn’t be there any longer, or to remedy a deformation as a result of something passing through—may reveal what is at stake. As women’s lives are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from men’s, it has apparently become important to, so to speak, grab onto the one thing that seems to define femininity with any certainty. Realism has always revolved in one way or another around questions of gender and sexual difference—of who has what—but in reality TV they become explicit, and explicitly competitive: it’s like a perpetual game of “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine.”
At the same time, the vaginas on reality TV are usually located in the context of the nuclear family, and in this sense the racy exposures are reined in by social and generic conventions. The prevalence of the marriage plot in 19th-century Europe—when holy union was the surest route to economic security and social acceptance—is hardly surprising. What is surprising is the extent to which such a plot has persisted in the similarly marriage-obsessed 21st-century reality TV. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, The Millionaire Matchmaker, Bridezillas, Get Married, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?—the list goes on and on—all depend on assumptions similar to those that informed the traditional novel: that single men and women represent problems in need of a solution; that the solution (“Get married!”) doubles as a social imperative; that marriage also means the acquisition of property and social capital (the millionaire shows); or, as in the Real Housewives franchise, that our interest in witnessing a woman’s desire is compounded if she is identified as a housewife, no matter her actual marital status or independent successes—because housewives, as private figures, have secrets.
To some extent, the continuities between reality TV and the early realist novel, despite the historical gap separating them, speak to how powerful the narrative motor of the marriage plot is. At the same time, they also testify to the extent to which, even and perhaps especially today, we count on realist genres to restrict the very things we get a voyeuristic pleasure from witnessing. Despite the fact that almost half of the women in the franchise are single, we still insist on calling them the “Real Housewives,” no doubt because housewives are desperate and this is sexy, but also because there is some comfort in this designation, given the ways in which the housewives often prioritize fame or business over their husbands and children. Such tradeoffs are related to the forms of punishment that awaited the heroines of realist novels when they became too focused on themselves. Many of the Real Housewives shows (and especially the reunion specials, in which the women look back on the season as a group) revolve around the question of who is “supportive” enough of the others in their various ventures, and whether a given cast member is willing to “own” her mistakes and “work on” herself.
These shows require of their stars a perpetual negotiation with the reality principle, in updated form. You may get to star on a reality show, where you’ll be watched by millions, but you have to share this space with seven other women and be a good, supportive friend to them. You have to be willing to concede your failures and reckon with the consequences of your pursuit of your desires. You have to be willing to apologize for what you do in private. You have to promise to reform.
At the height of the reign of reality television, the country’s most important political contest was for the first time between a man and a woman. The split screen during the televised campaign debates—Hillary on one side, Trump on the other—hearkens to the gender war at the center of many realist narratives. If split novels like Anna Karenina and Daniel Deronda implicitly stage a competition between the sexes, then in the debates this contest was given visual form.
An indication of this dynamic was the persistent conflation of Hillary’s physical integrity with her ethical integrity. The trouble for Hillary with the email scandal, writes Victoria Malkin, was that it tells us “what we always suspected, that she advocates holding a private position.” As opposed to Trump’s bluster for the camera, Hillary maintained something on the inside. Women’s privacy, and especially getting to see what it conceals, is terribly exciting; this is part of the pleasure that the realist novel and reality television are founded on. But that private position also “evokes dread” precisely by remaining hidden. In this sense there could have been no more perfect representation of the unconscious foundation of the election than the opposition between—and interdependence of—Anthony Weiner’s public member and Hillary Clinton’s private server. Weiner availed himself of social media to make even more visible something that was already visible enough. But with Hillary’s server, we must break in—what fun!
Of course Trump does not respect women. But the more important thing to see is how Trump benefitted from a culture whose various (realist) conventions encourage a simultaneous fascination with and horror at femininity. Apparently vaginas are everywhere for Trump, as well. The one-liners aimed at women throughout the campaign—ranging from “That’s good legs” and “Two fat thighs, two small breasts, left wing” to “Lock her up” and “execute her”—reflected the aggression provoked by women with whom he had to share a stage, a screen and then a presidential campaign. The English novel as a genre started out with a rape—Clarissa’s—and to the extent that realism is about our precarious positioning as both subjects and objects, it is fitting that it was founded on the degradation of the female body. The common liberal lament (alongside “I want to see a woman elected, just not this particular woman”) that there was nothing exciting about Hillary has always seemed to me a bit disingenuous: in one way or another many of us—not just men or misogynists or republicans—were excited at the prospect of seeing Hillary . . . beaten. Politicians fall off of stages all the time, but there was something especially thrilling about the prospect of seeing Hillary—a woman, but also this particular woman—fall.
What might the 19th-century novel have done with or to Hillary Clinton? A woman with big ambitions, she withdrew from her early achievements in Washington, D.C. to marry Bill and live in Arkansas. She changed her name, dress ,and hairstyle to get her husband votes and stuck by him when he strayed; after decades in and around public office, she sought to rule the nation. During bill’s first presidential campaign she said she never wanted to stay home baking cookies and then, to make up for the “gaffe,” agreed to submit a recipe to a contest with Barbara Bush; her cookies line was then repurposed (or re-repurposed) as a bid for female empowerment as it flashed behind Beyoncé at Hillary’s final rally in Cleveland. Much like the housewives, she both submits to and reaches far beyond her marital designation—but unlike them, she is reluctant to apologize for either her private or her public stances.
None of this is to say that Hillary didn’t have her faults. She was, as everyone knows, a flawed candidate. What interests me is the extent to which the woman’s “flaw” was both overdetermined and arousing in its own way. For better or worse, Hillary, in her very flaws—her privacy, her secrecy, her guardedness, her position as wife—was woman. And perhaps, with her hawkishness and her wealth, she was, in alternation with this castrated position, the phallic woman—the scariest kind. She was an establishment insider, and though inside is traditionally where we like our women, this position also became the source of our complaint against her. We call her “Hillary” in part to cement her in this place, and in part to mark the impossibility of her public emergence from it. We like her best when she is crying—in new Hampshire in 2008—or conceding. We prefer her to be making manifest her position of loss, her state of not-having. After it was over in 2016, the question became whether a man would either prosecute or pardon her for her sins.
Trump on the other hand is, as we know, a winner; much like Weiner, his family name announces his preoccupations and motivations. He also tells us about his winnings in various ways: he speaks in the superlative mode; everything in his orbit is the most, the best, the biggest. Hillary was not the only one whose private investments were at stake in this election, but men’s appurtenances are easier to grasp as public fodder: thus all the talk about the size of Trump’s hands. In this sense his rather blunt and unstudied use of language is merely a verbal substitute for all the big things he shows us: his big buildings, his enormous facilities and franchises.
In contrast to the documentary-based reality series like Real Housewives, unabashed and unrepentant winning really is the whole point of the competition-based shows. Even more so for Trump, who, as the star and host of his own competition show, never had to give anything up. In the coterie of aspiring entrepreneurs featured on The Apprentice, he was the only one truly incapable of losing. And unlike the injunctions of the realist novel, there is nothing in his genre of choice necessarily requiring him to submit to being divested of anything: there is no requisite institution of the reality principle. Whereas 19th-century European novelists adopted napoleon as a character because his real fall was interesting to them as both an ethical conceit and a historical touchstone, Trump has ridden his delusions of grandeur into the oval office.
The contrast demonstrates how, in 21st-century America, a man can acquire power not despite but because of his lack of genuine interest in social responsibilities or democratic norms. If the realist novel insisted that all its characters come to terms with losses and disappointments, it appears that reality television may only demand these submissions of its women. Trump is reported to have particularly mistreated the women on his show, rating the female contestants according to their physical attributes. It is only appropriate that the host of The New Celebrity Apprentice is former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who performs a further iteration of the celebrity-politician-celebrity exchange—and who is another famous harasser of women.
In these ways Trump presents himself as something like the mythical figure that Freud called the “primal father.” In Totem and Taboo, this is the man who has all the women and who is not subject to the limitations of castration or the (psychoanalytically related) incest taboo: he is a man who can grab all the pussies he wants and call his own daughter a nice piece of ass. Maybe Trump finds this kind of self-assertion necessary to supersede his own father, whose middle name was Christ. In any case he has so far managed to disavow the extent to which he himself might ever be the object of unfavorable ratings—in other words, he strenuously represses what is unavoidable in the position of someone so insistently seen.
But if Trump’s brand of reality TV does not require him to confront loss, its status as a visual medium determines the direction from which he has always perceived the greatest threat. In a series of interviews conducted in 2014 with the biographer Michael D’Antonio, Trump confesses that the thing he fears most is not being invited on television anymore—a condition he equates, in reference to the former talk-show host Arsenio Hall, to being “dead as dog meat.” His ascension to the presidency likely guarantees that he will never have to suffer Arsenio’s sad fate, at least until he is forced to confront the inevitability of that final loss that faces us all. In the meantime we can only hope that, earlier than this, reality itself will deliver unto him his own form of napoleonic comeuppance.
Like a good speaking subject, Freud tended to undo his own assertions, and by the end of his essay on the reality principle he advances the conclusion that the pleasure and reality principles are in fact mutually reinforcing, as opposed to competitive in their purposes. It is not so much that the individual sacrifices her own pleasure in service of, say, the public good, but rather that she determines that the best way to preserve her own fun is to wait for it, and to get real.
Realism is full of ladies in waiting—unfulfilled housewives, for example—and certainly Hillary knew that for her to become the first female president it would take a lot of time; maybe that’s why she got the marriage plot out of the way first. That her public service was as much for the benefit of her private pleasures as it is for any other politician is a fact we have trouble with but need to get used to, especially since that difficulty may be part of what determined her brand of—sometimes disappointing—political realism. writing in the New York Times, the columnist Mark Leibovich said of Clinton:
She told me that her primary objective as president would be to encourage connectedness, to have actual conversations. Clinton has always preferred to build narratives from a granular level: start with details and allow a message to emerge more slowly. In college in the late 1960s, she resisted revolutionary change in favor of grinding out incremental progress inside the system. She has no patience for messianic rhetoric and hyperbolic slogans and grandiose speeches. It can make her an awkward fit in this campaign environment, harder to break through and determinedly not dazzling.
This description sounds rather similar to Eliot’s closing lines about Dorothea in Middlemarch:
Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. . . . a new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone. . . . but the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Eliot was talking about the anti-heroics of the democratic era, the time of realism, in which the grand gestures are foreclosed, individual ambition bows to collective demand, revolutions are hard to come by, and change happens incrementally. But she was also talking about what was realistic in her time for women in particular, who tended to live hidden lives. Hillary spent the better part of her life in the public arena, and women in today’s realistic genres are as visible as anyone. Yet the assumption that Hillary’s refusal of messianic rhetoric was merely a personal characteristic or a political strategy may be misguided. Female heroics are still hard to come by. We still demand that the woman’s public presence be wedded to something of the personal. We still stand aghast when she reveals, instead, a gap between her public position and her private one.
For my part, somewhere in the course of writing this article, I became so appalled that I decided to throw out my television. I dismantled the whole structure, including the enormous IKEA stand that I have always hated, and dragged it out to the curb. It was right after the final debate, and also in the middle of The Real Housewives of Orange County season, just as things were beginning to heat up between Kelly and Tamra. But I haven’t looked back. For me, as for many of us, I suspect, the election came as a reality check. It’s time for a new genre.