Are You Self-Medicating for the Anxieties du Jour? Anne Kreamer leisure, leisbooks It's easy to dismiss reality TV as junk, but if you look a little deeper, you'll see why it's so popular. It's the same reason why books on Buddhism are selling: We all need some relief from the angst of the moment.
Contrary to conventional cultural criticism, reality television does not represent the end of civilization as we know it. As inspirationally bereft as ABC's Are You Hot, Fox's The Glutton Bowl food show, NBC's Playboy Fear Factor, and the E network's Anna Nicole Smith series are, the frenzied popularity of this programming isn't difficult to understand: It's a way Americans can self-medicate. Obsessing over Michael Jackson's gothic lunacy or zooming in on the sweet pathetic nobodies on American Idol helps distract us from thinking and fretting about terrorism and the messiness of post-Iraqi-liberation all the time.
That's my take on the business-culture intersection. I checked it out with Joni Evans, consummate keeper of the business-culture flame. In her role as agent for Dr. Brian Weiss (author of Many Lives, Many Masters) and as a senior vice president at the William Morris Agency, the outfit responsible for bringing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and The Weakest Link to the United States, Evans has a different view of the market's reaction to these reality offerings. "Reality TV isn't an escape from Iraq," Evans says. "What it illustrates is that people realize that nonfiction is more interesting than fiction." Nonfiction, in Evans's book, spans media offerings as diverse as the surface-only Survivor to below-the-surface chronicles like Bob Woodward's Bush at War. The cocktail-party circuit, Evans says, where real business also gets done, does consist of tough talk about substantive issues. "People are trying to make their own sense of reality," Evans says. "Is what's going on with the world good, or bad?"
My response to Evans: I don't think regular Americans are hearing what she's hearing. People who read Bush at War are also watching I'm A Celebrity — Get Me Out of Here? I doubt it. I think real reality is so complicated and nervous-making right now that TV is giving us spectacularly inconsequential human comedy and calling it "reality." In some postmodern torque of irony, reality TV lets us keep our minds off of reality.
There's a second antianxiety medication that Americans are turning to: behavioral therapy, using techniques like meditation or relaxation. Here our cultural institutions are way ahead of the market. According to Publisher's Weekly, about 560 new spiritual and religious guides will be published this summer. Last December, a Gallup poll found that nearly 25% of all Americans are likely to choose a book about spirituality when selecting a book to read.
According to Evans, the current explosion in spirituality books has been building for a long time — and predates the threat of war, the downward slide of the economy, and the other anxieties du jour. "The rise in spiritual publishing is a direct expression of our contemporary state of existential flux," Evans says. "How do we make sense of it all?"
What I found really interesting about those 560-odd pop-metaphysics summer books is the kinds of titles being released. I expected sanctimonious evangelical tracts. Instead, I was encouraged by many of the titles.
First, more than 60 of the titles were Zen- or Buddhist-related — more than 10% of the books, even though only about 1% of Americans label themselves as Buddhist. As our leaders have hurtled us, for better or for worse, into quasi-permanent war, we are, if the book publishers have got it right, searching for meaning as well as calm. The best-seller status of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones proves that Americans will embrace tough content if it reveals glimmers of heartfelt hopefulness.
Kids have been onto this kind of literary self-therapy way ahead of grown-ups: This month's first printing of 6.8 million hardcover copies of the latest Harry Potter installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, demonstrates how smart kids are. Harry gets to beat Voldemort, the Osama bin Laden of fiction, repeatedly. That feels really good.
So the crazes for reality TV and pop spiritual books are different currents in the same cultural stream — possibly because Americans intuitively understand what Franklin Roosevelt said about Depression-era national panic back in 1933: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror. . . ." And what showed up in the years immediately after FDR's famous exhortation? Fabulous pop-culture confections: all the classic screwball comedies, The Wizard of Oz, and Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
On the other hand, what followed those fanciful offerings was World War II.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.