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Hobbes Would Love Reality TV

March 26, 2011

In the age of reality TV, there’s a show or competition on just about anything, with everyday people getting their 15 minutes of fame. Excluding any competitive shows, the stereotype reality shows follow “everyday” people around. Examples are Jersey Shore, Real World, and the now defunked Jon and Kate Plus 8.

I’m a reality TV junkie, and when I watch these shows, I can’t help but notice how selfish, cutthroat, and conniving people are. Yes, we know that most of the time “reality TV” isn’t all that real. It’s known to be fake, staged, and sometimes scripted (“The Hills” anyone?). However, after further examination, I think it’s quite realistic. It’s often debated on whether people are as Locke described them, or Hobbes. I argue that by watching reality TV, this question can be answered.

First of all, the amount of reality shows on air is astounding. There’s a show for everything, and it’s clear that a huge portion of the nation wants to be on TV. It’s not just “juiced-up guidos” looking to party on the Jersey Shore. There are chefs who want exposure on Food Network, celebrities trying to boost their career; and regular, yet seemingly unique families trying to open the eyes of Americans (Jon and Kate, Sister Wives). There’s a show out there targeting every type of person and there’s an excess supply of willing participants. (Watching the line outside of a local bar wind into and up a parking structure for Real World auditions proves this). Every person who signs up to be on TV, no matter the show, is proving Hobbes theory about the nature of people. They’re simply looking out for themselves to better their lives.

In Leviathan, Hobbes argues that the lifelong “perpetual and restless desire for power” is a fundamental quality shared by all humans (Wootton 149). Today, many people equate fame with power. Reality TV is seen as the easiest way to achieve said fame, at least initially. Those aspiring chefs on Food Network want fame and exposure for their restaurants and careers, and Real World cast members want fame, and Jon and Kate wanted the money, and perhaps a little exposure. All of this is for wealth and fame. These are both equated with power nowadays.

Once they’re on the show, you see how truly self-absorbed they are. In Hobbes’ state of nature, men are in constant competition with each other, and will do whatever they can to outlast the other in a power struggle. One of Hobbes’ laws is the Right of Nature, “every man’s inborn right to use whatever means available to preserve his own life.”(Wootton 160) On these reality shows, you see people act extreme to get attention so the show is aired, gets an extra season, and they get more exposure and fame, as well as more money.

Take for example, Jersey Shore. In season 2, Snooki and Jwoww started unnecessary drama by writing an anonymous note to their best friend, Sam, about her boyfriend cheating on her. Rather than just telling her what they knew, they caused massive drama around the house as Ron and Sam wondered who in the house would write it. Here’s a clip to show the drama it started. (I suggest watching through 2:10 to see the drama unfold, and skip to 3:30 to watch the fight that ensues)

This kind of drama brings in the ratings for the show, and helped get the cast exposure in magazines, entertainment news reports, and ultimately was used to increase their paychecks exponentially.

Same thing with Jon and Kate Plus 8. If you watched the show closely from the beginning, you’d notice that Kate wasn’t always screaming at Jon and belittling him. She did it occasionally, but when she did, it got major attention. Once the news reports of her being vicious started circulating, she actually got meaner, and on much more frequent basis. She found what brought in ratings, power, and fame, and went along with the act. (I believe she’s actually normal and even on Dancing With the Stars was just acting like a drama queen for the cameras to give the audience what they wanted).

Reality TV puts people in the state of nature, where man has the right “of doing anything, which in his own judgment, and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto” (Wootton 160).

In these examples, the people used whatever means they could to preserve their “power” and fame, even if it meant hurting others in the process. They were being cutthroat, competitive, and showed no compassion for others while they climbed the ladder of success.

You can go into detail on any reality show and easily argue that people on the shows are looking out for themselves. They’re exactly as Hobbes describes people. In the end, they signed up to be on TV for some fame or money. They’ll do whatever they can to get the cameras attention as they enter Hobbes’ state of war, where it’s “every man against every man” (Wootton 159) in the quest for airtime. And what is fame or money used for anyway? It’s treated as a source of power and prestige, which is what Hobbes’ believes we are all ultimately in search for.

What do you think? Is reality TV an example of Hobbes state of nature? Can there be selfless people on reality TV and people who have limits to what they’re willing to do? Or are all reality stars looking out for themselves and will do anything for fame and money?

Works Cited

Wootton, David. Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche.

Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2008. Print.

  1. Anna Gwiazdowski permalink
    March 26, 2011 5:20 PM

    I agree with you that Reality TV can be an example of a Hobbesian State of Nature, however I want to qualify that statement. Many Reality TV shows are crafted in a way to bring out the worst in people, because unfortunately in our society, many TV shows wouldn’t be watched if some sort of drama did not ensue. Also, Hobbes believes that the human race is inherently evil, and because the way many reality TV shows are set up, they, to an extent, represent his state of nature; that is everyone is in it for their own good, or as you stated in the world of reality television, for fame and money.

    To counter this claim however, look at reality TV shows like the Biggest Loser. Although the contestant(s) who lose the most weight win a prize of significant monetary value, their ultimate goal is to lose the weight. From what I’ve seen of this show in particular, the contestants aren’t conniving or out to hurt their opponents. Generally these people are their to help each other lose the weight, because ultimately that’s the most important thing for them, to become healthier and to live longer. It’s reality TV show such as The Biggest Loser that, I believe, dilute the claim that reality TV shows represent a Hobbesian State of Nature.

  2. timkrippner permalink
    March 26, 2011 5:41 PM

    I agree that certain shows can have elements of the selfishness that marks Hobbes’ state of nature, but I also agree with Anna’s qualification. A great deal of the competitive reality shows that exist today have an element of artificiality in bringing out the worst in people. Also, I think that it’s important to realize the incentives that lead people to audition for reality shows – I think your sampling is biased because it’s focused on the people who wanted to audition in the first place, people who have a strong desire for fame or money and who find a perfect outlet in reality tv.

    Also, I think the points you make could actually support Rousseau’s conception of nature more than Hobbes. As you state, the contestants are cruel to each other and selfish because they are looking for fame or money. What does Rousseau claim to be the basic issue with societies? Worrying about what others think (an essential component of most desires for fame) and acquiring property. So I would say that reality tv has elements of Hobbes, but actually points more probably to Rousseau, demonstrating that the property and possibility of fame that society produces can bring out the worst in people.

    • Emily Slaga permalink
      March 26, 2011 7:40 PM

      Tim, and Anna, I think you guys make great points. I agree that the shows may be staged to bring out the worst in people and perhaps are cut in a way to make things seem more intense. I also personally agree that not everyone on reality TV is inherently evil. But at the same time, to bring up Anna’s point, in the end, people on the Biggest Loser still signed up to be on a reality show in order to lose weight as well as win cash. I know they genuinely want to lose weight and better themselves, and may not be out for fame, but they must be motivated by something that TV provides them. There are tons of ways to lose weight, but it seems that by going on the show, they are motivated more, possibly because of the money. Whatever that motivation is, they are doing it for that. Why can’t they lose the weight off camera? I think there is something they want from being on the show.
      And Tim, I actually agree with you completely on the Rousseau point. That’s a great correlation and you’re right! Reality TV definitely has the impression of Rousseau upon it. I think ultimately it fits with both Rousseau and Hobbes because there’s people who will do anything for success and will tear others down to do it(Hobbes) as well as people who just want to acquire fame and wealth (Rousseau). I think I went with Hobbes because his ideas seem more focused on the extreme ruthlessness and selfishness of people, but again, you bring up an excellent point. I appreciate you pointing that out!

  3. timkrippner permalink
    March 26, 2011 5:43 PM

    To whomever is moderating the comments – please edit “artificially” in the first paragraph and change it to “artificiality.” Thanks.

    • Emily Slaga permalink
      March 26, 2011 7:28 PM

      done! No worries!

  4. Natalie Turner permalink
    March 27, 2011 1:53 PM

    This is a really interesting post. As a former reality TV junkie, I definitely agree that these shows thrive off drama. But many people are unaware of the fact that not only do the “actors” create drama, but the shows’ producers force drama upon the contestants. If you read about the episodes in TV that generate the most profit, they are always ones that include big fight scenes, death of a major character, or something of that nature. The shows’ followers become quickly disinterested when a few successive episodes go by without any drama. For this exact reason, producers of reality TV shows provoke the contestants and create scenarios for drama to ensue, thus driving more profit. Additionally, the editing of these shows has an enormous amount to do with the finished product, which exposes the dramatic sides of the contestants. A lot of scenes where the characters fight are pieced together afterwards to create a harsh argument, but in reality, the conversations that take place may not actually play out like how they do in the finished episode. The Hills is notorious for being completely scripted. In fact, one of my older brother’s close friend worked for the show a few years ago and confirmed that it was entirely scripted. And if you really think about it, how is it possible that LC comes into a room (with a microphone already attached to her) and just happens to start bawling and yelling at Heidi? Often times if fight scenes don’t produce enough emotion, or the characters don’t cry enough, the producers will make them re-do the fight, thus defeating the entire purpose of reality TV. It’s a little sick if you really think about it…

    • Emily Slaga permalink
      March 28, 2011 3:47 PM

      I totally agree about the Hills. It’s beyond obvious that it was scripted. And what’s interesting about the Hills and other, wholly scripted reality shows, is that the “actors” (portraying themselves) are willing to do anything they can, agreeing to play out ridiculous fights that they know will reflect poorly in magazines the following week. These stories are not ran assuming they are acting. The public sees them as these crazy chicks. It shows that the producers are willing to do anything, cutting scenes to make their show number 1, bring in the ratings, and get their name out there in the business. In the case of the Hills, and probably other shows(I think Real Housewives is scripted to an extent), it screams Hobbes in a huge way. For a little fame, they AGREE to look stupid in fights; and producers get to play with peoples’ lives for the benefit of their paycheck.

  5. kaycohen23 permalink
    March 27, 2011 2:24 PM

    I agree with you. I think that reality TV is a great way to analyze whether people are as Locke or Hobbes describes them. Although some people argue that reality TV is not so “real”, I believe that in most cases these people can tell us a lot about the true motives of people in our society. For example, you explain the fact that almost everyone wants to be on TV; this is an indication of people’s innate desire to get ahead in life. Hobbes’ discussion of man’s “perpetual and restless desire for power” is a valid explanation of people’s drive towards being featured on a reality show and catching their “15 minutes of fame”. People believe that this type of public exposure will open up previously unattainable opportunities for them. The best example of this is your discussion of shows such as “Top Chef”. These types of reality shows are meant to display the talents of fame and opportunity-seeking aspiring professionals. On shows like “Top Chef”, contestants ruthlessly compete against one another to win notoriety and potential job or other TV program offers. Because the stakes are so high, people are willing to do almost anything to get ahead of their competition, which is why these individuals can be classified under Hobbes’ definition of man.

  6. Rian Handler permalink
    March 27, 2011 3:53 PM

    I completely agree with your post. There are so many fame/money hungry people in America. Reality t.v. gives these people the chance to show their true (or sometimes highly exaggerated) colors. Some shows are like watching a train wreck (Jersey Shore, 16 and Pregnant) while others showcase peoples’ talents (Top Chef). Either way, it is obvious that people become extremely cutthroat to the point where its hard to watch, proving Hobbes’ theory.

  7. Zack Orsini permalink
    March 27, 2011 5:14 PM


    Thank you for this most disturbing post. After watching the video (above), I felt like I had just inhaled a pound of earthworms; they are still writhing around in the pit of my stomach. BLEGH!

    Seriously, I do not like to be condescending towards other people, but these people degrade themselves so much that I don’t think it will be possible for me to speak about them and not be condescending. Where do they find these buffoons / blockheads / nincompoops / clowns / people?

    I agree that many TV shows show some aspects of a Hobbesian state of nature (e.g. everyone is looking out for #1). However, I would also tend to think that the people that you see on TV are not the same people in real life (perhaps I resort too much to wishful thinking, but I’d like to at least give these people this one benefit of the the doubt). I think that with these shows, the stage is set for debauchery, and the expectations for these people to act like idiots are felt by everyone involved with the show (whether it is scripted or not). Thus, I think that “reality TV” doesn’t really reflect reality at all. As such, Hobbes’ ideas (about how people naturally are) are not supported by these shows; in fact, I would argue that his ideas are refuted since it takes a TV show to morph these people from sane and healthy to Hobbesian monsters.

  8. Valerie Van Hulle permalink
    March 29, 2011 11:24 AM

    I think your post pinpointed why reality shows are so successful and addicting.

    After reading your post, it made me think back to something I read about MTV’s Teen Mom:

    The article above talks about how teenage girls are purposefully getting pregnant in order to be on the show and make money.
    The willingness of young women to make such detrimental choices highlights your thoughts on the presence of Hobbes’ ideas.

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