The Reality TV Myth

It is a myth that Aleister Crowley received the inspiration of the entity, Aiwass, and that from their Cairo channeling sessions in the year 1904 came the fundamental holy text of the Thelemic religion.

And, it is true.

It is a myth that the Irish Goddess, my patron, Brighid, inspired the hearts of all her faithful poets, and continues to do so to this very day.

And, it is true.

It is a myth that the fairies–a magical, invisible race of beings who still lend aid to openhearted seekers–helped to craft this post.

And, it is true.

Yes, but…

Throw “factual” to the wind for a moment. Suspend your need for scientific accuracy. That isn’t the discussion I’m opening up here. Talk of the literal existence of Gods, or the literal nature of spirits is not what this post is about. Literalism can be such a drag. I’m bored of everything having to be accurate in order to be true.

This post is about myth, specifically the role that myth-making has in the modern world. How do we consume myths? Who’s selling them to us, and why are they valuable? How are we using myth, or misusing it? And, how is it being used against us to keep us from creating new myths of our own?

We Were The Music Makers

Last night I had the terrible misfortune of watching a competition reality show. I was asked to participate in an online chat with an acquaintance of mine that would take place during the broadcast. I’m not a big TV watcher, in general, and I’ve never before seen a complete episode from the “hustle for fleeting fame” genre. But, I reluctantly agreed. What harm could it do me?

Let me tell you…

For the better part of 2 hours, I witnessed the most vile, embarrassing, ugly show of distaste I’d ever been privy to. And I’m not talking about the program. The episode was fine – boring and formulaic, mostly forgettable. No – the nastiness I witnessed was coming from everyone in the chat-room.

It. was. horrible.

Who dresses her?! Did you see how fat her legs were?… Uh, he should totally put his glasses back on… Time for that one to go home — she sounds like a chainsaw….

People were mean. Like, YouTube Comment Mean, but in real time.

I left the experience feeling utterly gross for having taken part. Could I please take a shower on the inside, I asked when I got home.

This morning, however, I came to understand the experience in a different light. The ugly typists were doing more than just showing humanities scuzzy underbelly, slinging insults through a computer screen. They were consuming mass-marketed, mass-produced myth, American style, and they were engaging with it in exactly the way it’s creators had intended them to.

We Were The Dreamers Of Dreams

Who are the modern myth-makers? The producers, writers, and the occasional savvy celebrity, herself, who create the shows, the ad campaigns, the centerfolds sold for our consumption. Myths are made by crafty marketers; tabloid bards. And we can’t get enough of it.

Our culture feasts on competition reality shows — and all entertainment media for that matter — because we have a myth deficiency in our spiritual diet.

It is an entertainment-industry created myth that the contestants of these reality TV competitions will go on to do brilliant things with their lives; that they will become celebrated, or that their innate gifts will one day become widely seen and fully appreciated. This myth is dangled in front of every singer, dancer, actor, comedian, or any other artist in the audience.

And this myth is neither accurate nor true.

The contestants may experience either a brief moment of celebrity worship, or widespread disdain. Either way, the victors and the losers will become the newest canvas for our individual and cultural projections of hope, desire, fear of success and fear of failure. Real as they may be in the flesh, they will be transformed into symbols; heroes, villains, deities.

This is the truth behind the myth.

Celebrities Make Lousy Gods And Are Rarely Heroes

We need symbols. They are important. When we hold up a figure from a myth in our imagination – when we examine it, celebrate it, critique it, seek to understand it’s relevance – we engage in a deeply human act. We re-enchant the ordinary world by fusing it with that of the mythological. This act of imaginative transformation makes for a rich, fulfilling, spiritual life.

The rub comes when the object of our attention is not a mythological deity, or a hero of old, or a created character of the imagination; but rather a flesh-and-blood person. Or, more accurately, a two dimensional version of one. This is where I think we make a mistake.

Turning an ordinary person into the stuff of myth – in real time, in front of us, behind the TV screen – requires us to ignore something essential about her; mainly, her humanity. Or, if we don’t ignore it, we participate in it’s distortion.

Be Your Own Myth-Maker

Consuming mass-marketed myth is not only a disservice to the human beings on the other side of the channel-changer; it also disempowers us from becoming our own myth-makers. The format subjugates our imagination and sets the standards for our desires and aspirations. It tells us what we want, who we should be, and then it politely reminds us that we are neither of those things. [Insert commercial here]

Honestly, I think we deserve better than that.

Our imagination – our own, personal myth-making machine – is in need of exercising. Its become atrophied from lack of use. I’ve said it before, and I believe it even more strongly now – your imagination is your greatest tool for living a magical life.

So I decline from participating in this cultural practice of myth-consumption; of celebrity worship followed by celebrity bashing. I’d rather worship an ancient Celtic Goddess, or an invisible magical creature, or the fire burning on my altar candle than to consume a manufactured myth, crafted to make me feel inferior; a myth that is simply untrue.

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11 responses to “The Reality TV Myth”

  1. Jess Avatar

    Well, I agree with you in some senses but in others you and I are completely at odds, it seems. I like to watch television, partly for the sake of seeing what is going on in the sociology of this country, partly for entertainment, and partly for story ideas. For my part, I’ve found myself inwardly moaning “why can’t they make good movies anymore like I can find on TCM”, and “where in hell is a good science fiction movie??” Do I think American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance are crap? Oh yeah. They’re the two reality competitions I watch, with an occasional Food Network-related one. Why? All are topics I’m interested in, and all can give me story ideas; there are some amazing characters out there.

    At the same time, I believe you’ve missed the point with regards to what the new American mythos is. A hero is someone a person looks up to, idolizes. However that happens – whether you like it or I do – that’s irrelevant, especially to the worshipper. There are people who have idolized heroes in movies, and also people who idolize Frankenstein, Jackie Robinson, or Charlemagne. One of those three is a made-up character but by the process of the human mind, all three were blown up over time so they’ve become larger than life. The word “frankenstein” has even made it into the English language, as a colloquialism that means somebody’s a monster, a freak. But… he started out as a myth, a story. Charlemagne started as a warrior, Jackie Robinson a baseball player determined to get by. I agree with you that at least at the moment television reality shows are helping to shape who we call “hero”, and that it’s basically because we don’t have a lot other than that to do that with. At the same time, in ten years will those shows still exist? I doubt it. Reality tv, I’ve noticed, has pretty short life spans. Shows come and go; the ones with staying power can go for awhile but they do peter out eventually.

    Now, as a writer who specifically deals in “myth” – I do science fiction and fantasy – I’ve myself noticed some things about that field that drive me personally batty. Like I said earlier, I keep wondering “where’s the good science fiction” when I see an ad for a movie most of the time. But the idea of doing things for just a sliver of fame is not a new one, nor is the concept of people mud-slinging in public. Writers have for ages written for the sake of fame and fortune, as well as just for the fact that it’s in our blood. Charles Dickens was himself notorious for getting paid by the word, and the teenage writers who agents or the “NY Times Bestseller List” insist are fantastic writers are not – but they get movie deals and a ton of money because they happen to have good agents. They’re my competition, yeah, and you could say I’m bitter, but there are also sf and fantasy writers I love. As for public mud-slinging, that’s nothing new either. The Marquis de Sade wrote some of the most lurid stories of all time, and was jailed for them, and that was waaaay back in history. Some people liked his stuff, just like there are American Idol fans today – other people hated it, thought it was disgusting. Is he famous? You bet. The word “sadism” comes from him, in fact. It’s a common word even two hundred years after he existed.

    You know what I love about myth? It changes constantly. It reflects who and what we are at this moment in time. I don’t like a lot of reality television, nor do I watch a ton of it. But it does reflect a human consciousness – reality tv is not just American; “Wipeout” is based on a Japanese program from several years ago, and “American Idol” is from a British one – of this period in history. Snarkiness has and will always exist, I think; right now it’s just much more public and available, so you see it more and run into it more. Fame in all its forms comes with a price – always has, always will. Sure, the owners of those reality contest programs on tv right now are promising fame and fortune to the young, but actually like I said, the idea of seeking that is nothing new at all.

    I think, personally, that the myth here is that this IS a new idea.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks, Jess, for the thoughtful and thorough comment. You’ve brought up a lot of interesting points and I appreciate you sharing your insights.

  2. Monica Chase Avatar

    Very thought provoking. Perhaps this vacuum has accrued due to (in America) the large diversity of our society. While a melting pot is a great thing in it’s first few generations, after a while it all becomes homogeneous and generally mush. As a country and society we do have a mythology (honest Abe, George’s cherry tree, etc.) but they are tied to our history and that is a subject that very little time is spent on until a child reaches middle school or even highschool while they are watching reality tv almost every day.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for your comment, Monica. I’m glad to see you joining in the conversation.

      I wonder if our diversity may also be a solution to the problem of myth-less-ness. Perhaps that “American-as-big-salad” is a better metaphor than the melting pot. By reclaiming some traditions and ways of older cultures we might get in touch with our own myth-making abilities. Just a thought.

      Its an interesting point you bring up about our historical American myths. I’m not sure those mythologies really united us – at least, not all of us. There are underlying historical truths in this country, such as our reliance – in the past & in the present – on slavery, oppression of women, a standard of inequality, and those truths don’t get factored in to our national narrative. But I think you are right that there isn’t much attention paid to educating about history, full or partial, and that TV ends up playing a more central role in young people’s lives.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comment.

      1. The Traveler Avatar

        I completely agree with your assessment of the melting pot/ salad metaphor. One of the great attributes of our society is that we have so many traditions that we can draw on and make part of our cultural subconscious. So many different cultures meeting and touching each other should lead to a greater sense of sharing understanding , but unfortunately our society has not been united in fostering that.
        I don’t think I said what I meant to say about our myths very well though. What I meant to say is that as a culture we have many of the stories that traditionally would rise to the status of myths in the traditional sense. Look at the sagas and bardic tales of the Norse and the Celts. They are not just stories of superhuman feats and triumphs, they are stories of adversity and hurdles to overcome. Give me a Rosa Parks, give me a Martin Luther King Jr, Give me a Rosie the Riveter. Any one of them would be a better choice to build our cultural mythology around than Snookies latest spray on tan. We have the people and stories that are truly mythic already in our history and just need to reconnect our cultural awareness to them.

        1. Teo Bishop Avatar

          That’s a great point. “Give me a Rosa Parks…” — I see exactly what you mean there. How or whether those myths take on religious significance for us is worthy of an entirely new post (i.e. a religion of an ancient past v.s. a religion of the present). Perhaps I’ll chew on that idea for a moment.

          Thanks for the clarification, and for contributing these ideas to the conversation. I like where you’re coming from, very much.

          Blessings to you!

  3. Drew Jacob Avatar

    Great post Teo. It reminded me of talking to Matt Langdon this past weekend, who runs The Hero Construction Company (, an in-school learning program which teaches children how to be heroes.

    Something he said that gives me a lot of hope is that children know the difference between celebrities and heroes. Whether middle and high school, when he asks them that question they always know the difference. I think that’s a very bright point, and your post made me think of it.

    Thanks again for very thoughtful writing.

    1. Matt Langdon Avatar

      Thanks for the mention Drew.

      I do think we all know the difference, but it is easy to fall into the trap of the myth-making Teo is talking about. Our old myths struggle to match the magnetic effect TV has. Reality TV asks us to put ourselves into the story and it’s a tough invitation to turn down. Ultimately these stories are mere episodes though – we need to think of our long-form stories.

      1. Teo Bishop Avatar

        Thanks for the comment, Matt. Glad to see you here.

        I think there’s a value to holding up our own personal examples of – what – heroism, frailty, courage, indecision… whatever it may be that we create out of our lives. Storytelling is sacred, I think, and necessary to building and sharing culture. My issue with Reality TV is the medium through which these stories are told, and the ways in which they’re manipulated to create better TV. Ultimately, the medium betrays the message.

      2. Teo Bishop Avatar

        ….What does “long-form stories” mean to you?

    2. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks, Drew. I’ll give Matt’s page a visit. Seems really interesting. I think the “What Is A Hero” subject warrants more inquiry on my part. While the distinction between celebrity and hero seems obvious, I’m not sure I could adequately describe what makes a hero a hero.

      Thanks again for the comment.