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Socially Conscious: Does Life Really Imitate Art

Courtney Eckerle | Friday, October 1, 2010

What do you want to do before you die? How would your life be different if you were a teenage mom? Would I like that person if I really knew them? What would it be like to spend a week in the life of a rapper, boxer or homeless girl?

All of these questions are asked by shows currently on the air — “The Buried Life”, “Teen Mom”, “If You Really Knew Me” and “World of Jenks”, respectively. And those are just the ones on MTV. What they have in common is being reality-based shows that promote socially conscious behavior — helping the world, each other … and so on. The watcher has to think in a scope beyond who is using the “smush room” (that’s a “Jersey Shore” reference).

MTV, in its quest to be on the forefront of our generations’ social pulse, is leading the charge on this rebel yell, against their own programming in years past, which produced such bottom dwelling shows as “Room Raiders,” “Next” and “Parental Control.” An embarrassing representation for sure. Our parents had “Happy Days” and we have “Pimp My Ride?”

Now they are airing shows like “The Buried Life,” a reality documentary that chronicles four (very good-looking) guys in their mid-twenties as they trek across the continent in a quest to complete a list of 100 things they want to do before they die. For every item on the list they cross off, they help a stranger do something on their list.

 The hugely popular “Teen Mom,” a spin-off of “16 and Pregnant,” shows the struggles of young girls raising their toddlers in the face of numerous obstacles. The girls on the show have become celebrities in their own right and were recently featured on covers of magazines such as “Us Weekly” and “Life and Style.”

Jorie Lagerway, a visiting assistant professor in Film, Television and Theater, described the new shows as “quite different” from sponsored shows such as “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”

 “Over the years, MTV has tried to cultivate various reputations,” Lagerway said. When it started ‘The Real World,’ it actually dealt with real social tensions young people face with story lines about race, sex, abortion and AIDS. Then it lost any edge or credibility it had and became a bastion for marketing artificial pop and sleazy sex-and-drinking style reality TV.  I think its recent batch of documentary style programs … are motivated by MTV trying to re-brand itself.”

Whatever the motivation, do these shows actually help the world? Are there more people out there suddenly drawn to a “carpe diem” attitude, or doing the opposite in the case of “Teen Mom” and looking before they leap?

USA Today published an article on Sept. 22 questioning if documentary films are effective in changing society in the current “golden age” of documentaries. Possibly the popularity of documentaries such as Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me,” or any of Michael Moore’s films, have sparked the change to add programming that asks an audience to think farther than a show’s O.C.-esque dramatics (“Dear Sister,” anyone?).

Their conclusion was that it is impossible to tell, and Lagerway agrees.

“It’s often difficult for a TV show to provide the outlet for someone to go directly from watching the show to getting up, going outside and doing something. That said, TV reflects what’s going on in the world and helps shape the way people react to it.  So can MTV create an image of young people dealing responsibly with difficult circumstances or being nice to people even though they’re in a different clique, absolutely.”

Stephanie Cherpak, a junior who has worked at NDtv for three years, and produces two shows, said that she could “definitely see NDtv heading in that direction” if someone had the idea and drive to produce it for the Notre Dame community.

So do we accept this as our generation’s representation in media history?

“I would say it’s a positive change,” Cherpak said. “Sometimes it’s hard to draw the line between exploitation and the service to other kids who the show might strike a chord with.

“You have to be careful not to make a showcase of it, because it’s actually somebody’s life.”

Only time will tell if we’ll come off as socially conscious or manipulative, but isn’t striving for something better half the battle?