BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. This week, we examine the notion of manufactured reality from the encroachment of QAnon into the wellness world.
SEANE CORN Where we go one, we go all. Which is very much in alignment with a belief system within yoga. I mean, we believe we all one.
BOB GARFIELD To Paris Hilton.
PARIS HILTON Everyone says I'm the original influencer, but sometimes I feel like I helped create a monster. [END CLIP]
ALEXANDRA DEAN She asked me to find her roommate Jessica, because she remembered creating the Paris Hilton character with her. They had a name for her. She was called Fifi Ducoy.
BOB GARFIELD To reality dating shows,.
ANNETTE HILL Reality TV ages by the next day. It's meant to be consumed, enjoyed - you're meant to be moved by it and then your meant to throw it away.
BOB GARFIELD Travel with us down the rabbit hole, after this.
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In this hour, we consider various permutations of branding. In particular branding and cultural spaces dominated by women. We focus our attention there because those spaces are so often disregarded or dismissed by our cultural curators that they are easy places from which to tunnel into the mainstream. For good or ill. Close listeners may have noticed that we've reported early and often on the conspiracy theory QAnon that imagines the nation in the thrall of a shadowy satanic cabal of billionaire celebrities and Democrats who control the government to facilitate their pedophilia. QAnon views Donald Trump as our sole champion and savior. We follow QAnon because it's unhinged, sometimes violent and increasingly influential. It's also a ceaselessly moving target and now it's burrowing into the mainstream from spaces you would least expect its followers to be. On the Media producer Leah Feder has more.
LEAH FEDER Seane Corn is a yoga teacher and influencer with long, curly hair, a calming presence and over a hundred thousand Instagram followers. Over the past several months, she began seeing a strange phenomenon pop up on her feed.
SEANE CORN I started to get directed to these pages that looked like any wellness branding. Someone young, healthy in the first frame, they were modeling yoga and the second frame, it was some delicious organic meal that they had cooked. In the next frame, it was them running on the beach, perhaps their family, and then there would be a slide pastel beautiful font and it would say COVID is a hoax.
LEAH FEDER And from there, a torrent of conspiracies. QAnon's revelations come in the form of Q-drops. Cryptic dispatches from a mysterious person or persons posting supposedly highly classified and pretty much universally wrong omens about what lies ahead.
Q-DROPPER On to the next Q post. 2232 dated September 20th. Things are moving. And Q Responds: "faster than you know." [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER There are accusations of Democrats harvesting the blood of children. Predictions of the imminent arrests of high-profile politicians and others. Against whom stands the peerless defender of the people, our current president. Suffice it to say, it's nonsense birthed in the dredges of the Internet. But, in this restless lockdown summer, it finds purchase all across the interwebs and the streets, and it's dangerous.
NEWS REPORT Parker police say a far-right conspiracy theorist was planning a kidnaping in Douglas County. Investigators say that she believed her child had been taken by a satanic pedophilia ring of Democrats that is being secretly battled by President Trump. Police say her child had actually been removed by Child Protective Services. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Lawyers for the man accused of killing a reputed mobster on Staten Island say he was trying to make a citizen's arrest. Anthony Comello's legal team, says the 24-year-old was obsessed with the QAnon conspiracy theory. Comello's attorneys say that he thought he was under President Trump's protection. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER Corne had been vaguely familiar with QAnon as a peripheral phenomenon, but when the pandemic started, it moved to the center of her field of vision.
SEANE CORN Colleagues of mine started to reach out and they were circulating information. A lot of deep concern, a lot of talk about a deep state. That there was this great awakening that was happening and that we were all being duped.
LEAH FEDER She knew that the Great Awakening is a QAnon term of art. So is: "do your research," "where we go one, we go all," "calm before the storm," "save our children." All these terms can be found on the pages of Instagram influencers.
INFLUENCER The reality is nothing as we know it is true. Yes, there is good in the world, but our world is being run by evil. [END CLIP]
INFLUENCER If you are unaware at this point that we are at the precipice of the dawning of the ages, like then I don't know what you're doing, but you're still asleep. [END CLIP]
INFLUENCER I'm not here to promote Trump. I'm literally following my gut because I know - I believe - I believe that something is going on. [END CLIP]
INFLUENCER I have been digesting information from my guides about what this light worker in human form looking like the name Donald Trump has been doing for the entire human collective. [END CLIP]
INFLUENCER I mean, like did you see the way he's doing for health care? I think that we're going to see incredible things within the next six weeks. I mean, I think that honestly, we might see a few cures for cancers coming out. [END CLIP]
SEANE CORN I started to push back a little bit among my friends. And the more I push back, the more assertive, aggressive, they were. Just referring to me as, you know, sheeple.
LEAH FEDER The community Corn is a part of is primarily oriented around yoga. So how did a shadowy conspiracy theory initially embraced by the darker reaches of the Internet, and some evangelical Christians make its way into her world?
TRAVIS VIEW You saw people who were perhaps more into spirituality. You saw people who were simply parents who were concerned about children.
LEAH FEDER Travis View is co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast.
TRAVIS VIEW There certainly has been a sort of a general demographic shift.
LEAH FEDER When media cover the spread of conspiracies and disinformation. They tend to focus on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Far less attention has been paid to their slicker sister site, Instagram. But there too, and increasingly, communities are being swept up into QAnon. Mark Andre Argentino, A PhD candidate at Concordia University, coined the term pastel QAnon to describe this shift. Travis View.
TRAVIS VIEW Pastel Q, is a kind of QAnon that's very attractive to lifestyle influencers or mommy pages, fitness influencers or diet pages, alternative healing, meditation, yoga, these sorts of things. You see the soft pastel colors, you see the sunset, very enticing images. Wellness messages are sort of interwoven with the QAnon messages. The original QAnon fixated on the idea that the military was going to sweep in and fix everything. They believe that Q was military intelligence. That the military would round up all of the deep state pedos and send them to Guantanamo Bay. In pastel Q, there is less fixation on those sorts of things and more a general, vague "Save the Children" message. Who doesn't want to help protect children? Of course, in truth, this narrative is really just a pipeline into the broader QAnon world view.
LEAH FEDER A world view that stoked acts of violence, subverted our political landscape, and which can be lucrative for online influencers. In a recent episode of his podcast, Travis View dug into the content of a small-scale influencer with about 5000 Instagram followers.
TRAVIS VIEW Ivy Rose was simply into alternative healing. She had an Instagram page where she talked about meditation and yoga, she had dreadlocks, she seemed like someone who you might find at, you know a, Burning Man or something. But because of QAnon, the benefits it sort of provided to her as a online influencer, it seems like she just fell straight down this rabbit hole.
IVY ROSE Q is teaching us morals and a vision of world humanism. Teaching us patriotism and valuing freedom and integrity and unity and honor and transparency. You know, like Q is teaching us, or reminding us of the energetic and value-based morals, of like the foundation of what we're all going to need as humans going forward. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER What does QAnon potentially offer to somebody like that?
TRAVIS VIEW If you are interested in building up your online presence, then QAnon this kind of like an online cheat code. Because the QAnon community, they will flocked to any online influencers that repeat their narratives. So if you want to build up your following, then it might actually might be a good idea to promote QAnon because it does that for you. Now, of course, the danger is that it promotes extremism and this can lead to dangerous situations and violence. But if you're just interested in pure page views, then it could be quite effective.
LEAH FEDER To understand that effectiveness, it helps to understand the shapeshifting nature of QAnon conspiracism.
SEANE CORN The periphery of that core or all these other beliefs.
LEAH FEDER Corn explains.
SEANE CORN Especially beliefs that are related to concerns in the wellness community. They really appeal to the anti vaxxers within my community, and this paranoia that we're going to be forced into vaccinations.
LEAH FEDER This particular kind of paranoia and the QAnon Rabbit Hole, down which is leading so many in Corn's community, has been dubbed Conspirituality. A term popularized by the podcast of the same name now tracking this phenomenon. The trip down the rabbit hole is greased by the language of QAnon. The phrase "great awakening" suggests an experience you might have after enough meditation retreats. And then, there's the main tagline for the conspiracy movement -.
SEANE CORN "Where we go one we go all," which is very much in alignment with a belief system within yoga. I mean, we believe we are all one.
LEAH FEDER And as the conspiracy theory spreads outward, it's adapting. QAnon convert's use, the language that they're steeped in that works in their communities to spread the message. I hear you, I'm listening.
SEANE CORN Very specific languaging that you would use when you're in conflict as a way to develop relationship and create a sense of just harmony and goodwill. If I was part of a cult, that's what I would do. That's how you bring people in. In my community, not through divisiveness and harsh rhetoric, but through communication and openness.
LEAH FEDER That's especially true in a moment of extreme vulnerability. A global pandemic, a lockdown, an unpredictable election.
SEANE CORN There's a sense of helplessness, a feeling of being out of control. People, because of that fear, their nervous systems are deregulated and they're looking for something to bring them back into homeostasis. Into a sense of calm.
LEAH FEDER Into that vulnerability has stepped a conspiracy theory that gives the illusion of empowering people. Often while urging them to throw what power they do have, away.
SEANE CORN They're being oriented towards what's called hashtag walk away. Inviting people basically just to abandon the system altogether and not vote. At all.
LEAH FEDER It may be hard to understand why members of a supposedly progressive community would fall prey to a worldview that's going all in for the political right, but Corn says that confusion might be based on a false premise.
SEANE CORN It should never be assumed that just because you practice yoga or, you know, organic food, that somehow your Democratic or left leaning in any capacity. When I go to their profiles to see who are these people like, what's their lives like, what do they believe? And I'm seeing a lot of white folks and a lot of white women, with privilege. They actually benefit from their policies.
LEAH FEDER It's clear the Republicans have more successfully capitalized on the QAnon conspiracy, but political scientist Joseph Uscinski says there's nothing in the QAnon ethos that's fundamentally about conservatism, or the Republican Party.
JOSEPH USCIINSKI They're not talking tax policy or anything like that. So the doctrine itself isn't really about left-right politics. There are a lot of people in the Republican Party, the QAnon wants hung for their crimes too. I mean they have misgivings about the entire establishment. That's sort of why they're gravitating towards Trump, because Trump is an outsider. In many of the polls show equal numbers of Republicans, Democrats believe QAnon.
LEAH FEDER And you say that that is people with a propensity toward conspiratorial thinking. What are the signs of that propensity?
JOSEPH USCIINSKI Conspiracy thinking is a worldview which we all have to one degree or another in which conspiracies dictate events and circumstances. So you can imagine someone who has that worldview very strongly. Any event they witness, or any circumstance they want to explain, it's going to be very easy for them to jump to a conspiratorial explanation because it matches what they already believe about how the world works.
TRAVIS VIEW I think it's really more magical thinking, and I think that you can find plenty of magical thinking in these wellness communities.
LEAH FEDER Travis View.
TRAVIS VIEW People might buy into the idea that crystals have healing properties, for example. When you believe something like that then is not that grave a leap to believe that, you know, we're entering into a new, great, more enlightened age and you get to be a part of it simply by posting these hashtags on Instagram.
LEAH FEDER In response to the upswell and QAnon content in the wellness and spirituality world, members of Corn's community drafted a statement that she and others with large followings posted to their Instagram pages. With white capital letters set against a black square background. We care, and we stand against QAnon.
SEANE CORN So I felt it was my responsibility as a leader in the community, as someone that I know people trust, not to be neutral about it because QAnon has its roots in white supremacy culture. They support racial terrorism. They are an anti-science organization. They're fraught with lies, and if we believe that we're all one and that's how we talk about that in the wellness world, that we're all one and that I can't be free unless we're all free, then not to address this makes me complicit.
LEAH FEDER In response, she's gotten some predictable backlash in her comments and her DMs.
SEANE CORN What I did was polarizing and created division, which makes me sad, but it was necessary just to kind of name it for what it is. They are as concerned about the well-being of this community as I. I just think that they are misinformed and had been manipulated. But they think the same thing about me. Now within the wellness community, it's a battle of influencers versus influencers, but alongside the hate, Corn also gets another kind of response.
SEANE CORN She says, I am the girl you were talking about. The newer yoga instructor without a community. Vulnerable to those messages, and was really confused by everything already, then this all came out and I really needed the support. Thank you very much for speaking about this. I have received countless messages like that by people saying that they were slipping or messages saying that their beloved teachers were saying things that really confused them.
LEAH FEDER Corn emphasizes that she's only one of the many people working to combat the disinformation, sweeping her community, working separately and together to create resources to bring clarity to the informational chaos. But in this moment of global uncertainty and fear, the wellness world is far from the only one facing the threat of encroaching conspiracism, courtesy of QAnon. Travis view.
TRAVIS VIEW It's kind of like a cafeteria conspiracy theory in the sense that you can sort of like go out into the broad, complex narrative that is QAnon and sort of focus on the parts that appeal best to you. And I think that's where a lot of people are doing on either side of the political spectrum.
LEAH FEDER Last week, Lily Loofbourow wrote in Slate about an influx of women joining the QAnon fold this summer. Back in July, The Guardian reported on QAnon's perch in the world of mixed martial arts. Seekers flow in through an ever expanding array of entry points. Maybe New Age Awakening's aren't for you. Maybe you're not enticed by the possible arrest of Hillary Clinton. But how about curing disease or saving children? Once you're in, often you stay in. Syracuse University Professor Whitney Phillips wrote in Wired this week about the network effects that make debunking a conspiracy like QAnon on so challenging. Once a person is tuned into the conspiracy, they surf more sites to confirm it. Subjecting them to a media wrap around effect. Everything lines up. Efforts like Corn's to fight bad information with good are laudable, essential even. But until these powerful social media platforms take action to combat the disinformation ecosystem that they've created, Corn and her allies will be left bringing sage bundles to a gunfight. For On the Media, I'm Leah Feder.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, another example of branding that bears no resemblance to reality. In this case, a young woman who got famous building herself as a vapid party girl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And Bob Garfield. Glam icon Paris Hilton may be among the world's most photographed people, but there are two documents that most define her. The first was a sex tape. What we now call revenge porn, that emerged when she was just 19. But it propelled her from routine gossip column fodder to global notoriety. The second media artifact was a reality show that aired from 2003 to 2007 called The Simple Life, in which she appeared as a ditzy young socialite trying to cope with the real world in rural America.
NICOLE RICHIE I've always hears that people hang out at Walmart.
PARIS HILTON Why?
NICOLE RICHIE I don't know
PARIS HILTON What is Walmart? Do they like sell wall stuff? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD So spoiled and clueless - yeah, no. Despite what the show depicted, Paris Hilton knew what Walmart is. And she was also familiar, all too familiar, as it turns out, with such proletarian realities as mopping floors.
PARIS HILTON I feel like the whole world thinks they know me. No one really knows who I am. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That is Hilton herself in the documentary film, This is Paris on YouTube. Establishing the premise which the film gradually, shockingly turns upside down. Alexandra Jean, director of This is Paris, could have made a film about Page Six fame. About glam culture and hyper sexualization, about media manipulation. It could have been about adolescent trauma and PTSD. It could have been a redemption narrative or a business case about mythmaking, or an exposé. So she made all of them.
ALEXANDRA DEAN [Laughs] I think I made a psychological portrait. That's what I set out to do.
BOB GARFIELD Psychological profile, you've also called it a love story in three acts.
ALEXANDRA DEAN Well, every act is structured around a search for love. Paris is a person who has lost and she's looking for that emotional connection in the world. And she tries in the first act to find it from her fans. That's what I saw her doing when I followed her around the world for a year. And she doesn't manage that. And at the end of Act one, you see why. And then the Act two is really trying to go back to her family and reconnect with them and find the love relationship there. And she can't do that because of her past, which we start to unearth. And Act three is really about turning that love narrative on its head. And Paris actually finding some meaning outside of herself, showing some love for some people that have suffered similar trauma to see a path to freedom through that looking outward.
BOB GARFIELD I want to begin with the first part of the film that establishes that as a glam icon and entrepreneur, Paris Hilton leads an insanely grueling lifestyle. A two 275 days a year on the road. Another quickly established point is that she has a number of issues, including insomnia, for fear, we learn, of a recurring nightmare.
PARIS HILTON In bed and these two people come into my room.
[FOOT STEPS AND SCREAM]
PARIS HILTON He said, do you want this to happen the easy way or the hard way?
ALEXANDRA DEAN And they brandished some handcuffs and she runs.
PARIS HILTON I'm trying to just run, and that happens every night. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And in time, we'll understand what is the genesis of this anxiety. Paris has major trust issues. There is a scene where her new boyfriend is going to house sit for her something while she's traveling. And as he about to arrive, we see her setting up spy cams all over the house.
ALEXANDRA DEAN That just was happening when I showed up that day. She says, I want to know what's happening when I'm not here.
BOB GARFIELD This is a woman, of course, one of whose previous boyfriends filmed and then released to the public a tape of an evening of sex.
ALEXANDRA DEAN She wasn't the only one. Pamela Anderson was first, but her sex tape came out at a time when very few people had ever had a sex tape be made public. It went viral and it was a very traumatic experience.
PARIS HILTON That was a private moment with a teenage girl not in her right headspace, but everyone was watching it and laughing like it's something funny. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And we, again, see some of the evidence of the trauma. Her addictive personality, addicted in particular to drama, to attention, to control, and to money.
ALEXANDRA DEAN Yes
BOB GARFIELD Her goal, she says, is to make a billion dollars, even if it means putting off motherhood indefinitely.
PARIS HILTON I will not stop until I make a billion dollars and then I think I can relax. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Driven, huh?
ALEXANDRA DEAN Driven to the point, I would argue, of pathology. We are in her jewelry closet and she's complaining about how she can't find anything. And I really push her and say, well, why do you need to keep going? You've got everything. You can't even find the jewels you have. And she admits that as an issue of control. And then you realize, oh, my God, this is a person who's trying to have control over her own life in a family where people are outsized personalities and, of course, outsized wealth. So in order to have that independence psychologically, she felt like she had to outdo even, I would argue, her great grandfather, Conrad Hilton, the man who started the Hilton hotel chain.
BOB GARFIELD And at this stage, you're hardly disabused of what I think remains a common assumption on the public's part, that the sex tape was an intentional manipulation of a sex and scandal hungry public to launch her as a mega celebrity. It's had that collateral benefit.
ALEXANDRA DEAN It did have a collateral benefit for Paris. I'm sure she will continue to be judged for that. At the same time, when you finished the film, you understand another level of trauma has taken place before the sex tape came out. And in fact, you find out that other women who went through the same trauma as Paris also went on to have abusive relationships and to be abused in much the same way she was by Rick Solomon. So I think another layer, I hope, of reframing happens by the end of the film when you when you cast your mind back to that section about the sex tape.
BOB GARFIELD OK. So now I think it's time to discuss the nub of the story, the provenance of that nightmare, which we know so haunts her. It goes back to when she was an out of control teenager acting out. We know her parents did not know what to do with her. And what they did was enroll her in a series of these sort of outward bound type boot camps to get her back on the rails.
ALEXANDRA DEAN These camps came out of a cult called Sinon, and it was about using these harsh techniques, isolation, punishment to get people over drug addictions. And that evolved into a way to deal with troubled teens over time. And the cult was shut down for its violent practices. But the troubled teen industry kind of never seemed to register that. So there's an entire industry today based around the philosophy of these cults that puts children in isolation, that uses physical intimidation. And I would argue abuse is now an accepted technique for dealing with children who have emotional or sexual problems.
BOB GARFIELD And there's a whole mess of them in Utah for some reason.
ALEXANDRA DEAN Over a hundred.
BOB GARFIELD It's a gulog archipelago of teen treatment, right?
ALEXANDRA DEAN Wow. Yes.
BOB GARFIELD How did she end up at this place called Provo Canyon School?
ALEXANDRA DEAN Paris was kidnaped from her own bed. It was a way of transporting teens that might try and run away to these schools. And not uncommon. It was very common. There's an entire industry around that. There are teams of men who come and take teenage children out of their beds in the middle of the night with their parents sanction to these schools in handcuffs. It's incredibly traumatic. And every single one of the former troubled teens that I've discussed this with, has the same recurring nightmare as Paris.
BOB GARFIELD Am I correct that you think it was her trauma's that really unleashed the tremendous will behind what has become the Paris Hilton we know?
ALEXANDRA DEAN Not entirely. She had a drive as a child that came out of these conversations with her grandmother who wanted to be a star maker. Right. Her mother and her aunt were both child actors and models. So there was this force in her life and her grandmother that was pushing her to be the next Marilyn Monroe, and Paris really responded to that. So that drive was there. The form it took was definitely shaped by this trauma and the pathology of her drive, which doesn't always follow reason was shaped by that trauma in my mind.
BOB GARFIELD Oh, and she really got off on the fun, the attention.
ALEXANDRA DEAN Oh, yeah.
BOB GARFIELD The endless love from total strangers.
ALEXANDRA DEAN Yes. There's a huge hit to it. Right. We all get it when we just get somebody to like one of our little vacation photos on our cell phones. She gets it from hundreds of thousands of people. And she still has masses of fans around the world. And is she addicted to that sea of likes? Yes. Does it lead to a sort of a narcissistic trap? Yes. She is really trying to think about those things now. It doesn't mean she's free of them. It just means she's noticing that it is a kind of a sickness sometimes.
PARIS HILTON Everyone says I'm the original influencer, but sometimes I feel like I helped create a monster. [END CLIP]
ALEXANDRA DEAN The reason I was so interested in this film is because I think so many of us now have to manufacture or feel like we have to manufacture a second identity online. And to some small extent, have that second persona function as us out in the world. And what does that mean for all of us as we go out and try and have meaningful relationships? Of course, it trips us up sometimes. For Paris, its catastrophic.
BOB GARFIELD And taking on the role as a spokesman for this group of what they call themselves survivors of the Utah archipelago to redeem perhaps a life of superficiality.
ALEXANDRA DEAN People kind of lay at my feet that I may have set that up. But when I was trying to just as a journalist, verify what she was telling me, she asked me to find her roommate, Jessica, because she remembered actually creating the Paris Hilton character with her. They had a name for her back in the day. She was called Fifi Ducoy, and she was this ridiculous, over-the-top, sparkly character. And Paris said to me, Find Jessica. And so that's how actually we began going back and finding all of these survivors. But it was coming from Paris. And I will tell you something else. Since filming has ended, Paris has been very involved in talking to different senators about what they can do with breaking her silence. Gathering those group of survivors has already plugged into it, making sure that their movement continues. So she's driving it still. So to me, that is really genuine.
BOB GARFIELD Did you as a filmmaker know like from the outset that this story is much more complicated and Paris Hilton is even a victim?
ALEXANDRA DEAN The reason that I understood that this trauma was there in her and that there was a path to finding out is a strange one. And it has to do with my own sister, who was institutionalized as a kid, who was extremely beautiful, who was scandalous, and who was nearly broken by an institution that wasn't too different from Provo Canyon School where Paris went. And I think that's part of what drew me to this film, because I I saw that with my sister, these very powerful young women that are a little bit out of control. You know, they scare us on this level that almost doesn't make any sense. And I saw my sister be broken by this institution she went to. And I think Paris was broken in the same way. And I I just wanted to look at that. Why do we do that? Is it because we want to save them and keep them pure or we want to keep them safe? What is it? And are we breaking people who could be extraordinarily powerful if they were left to be who they are?
BOB GARFIELD It occurs to me now that at the very beginning of the film, we hear her saying that she is astonished about her own transformation during the making of the film itself. Is it possible that it actually did begin as a sort of cynical, manipulative exercise of rebranding and turned out to be a transformational experience for Paris having to relive the trauma and begin to get a grip on how it had informed her life?
ALEXANDRA DEAN Yeah, and certainly that's what I saw. And you know what? It changed me, too, because I went through a lot as a child. What I realized is she could never go to therapy because she had actually been abused by therapists at the school she went to. So therapy was part of her PTSD. And what I think you see in this film is a woman going through therapy. And the reason that she's able to do it with me is because I went through something similar as a kid. I think we're both kind of finding our way back to what happened to us and looking at a world where that happened and asking questions about it. I think what happens in this film is very unusual. And to me, it felt very real.
BOB GARFIELD Well, I must say, I feel better about her as a figure in American 21st century history. But I didn't leave the film with any sense that she's going to be OK. Is Paris Hilton going to be OK?
ALEXANDRA DEAN Yeah, I. I didn't want to answer that for the viewer at the end of the film because I really didn't know. And I still don't know if she'll find the strength to leave the brand behind.
BOB GARFIELD Well, you know what? You asked her that as a very direct question.
ALEXANDRA DEAN Can you and the brand have a divorce now?
PARIS HILTON No. [Laughs] It'll be an expensive divorce. [END CLIP]
ALEXANDRA DEAN She has a lot of contracts. You know, she owes that brand a lot. It's a two way street. I don't know what happens next. I will say I've been really impressed at her drive to keep this movement to close the schools. Her drive has only intensified since the phone came out. And that, to me, is a sign that she may be OK.
BOB GARFIELD Alex, thank you so much.
ALEXANDRA DEAN Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Alexandra Dean is the director of This is Paris.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, reality shows are ludicrously fake. But that doesn't mean they can't be seriously educational.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. It's almost a cliche of think piece journalism nowadays to point out that much of the vivid unreality of the Trump era stems from the fact that the president has himself a reality TV character. It seems to say everything about his tendency to, as they say, go low in his pitches to the so-called unwashed masses. His reality TV past is a perfect metaphor for the tawdry present, at least for pundits who almost invariably hate reality TV. But OTM producer Xandra Ellin has spent years following the genre, especially one subset of the genre. And lately she's discovered that reality dating shows may offer us some deeper truths. If we're willing to look for them.
XANDRA ELLIN I'm excited to share with a national listenership that I have spent the past six months in my apartment falling deeply, madly in love with reality dating shows.
DATING SHOW HOST Your perfect match is here, and it's your job to figure out who it is. [END CLIP]
GUEST I'm going on three dates with three moms to find out as much as I can about their daughter.
HOST This is Dating Naked. [LAUGHS]
XANDRA ELLIN Certain shows have helped me navigate this challenging moment.
HOST Here, you will choose someone to marry. Without ever seeing them. [END CLIP]
XANDRA ELLIN Love Is Blind, which premiered in February on Netflix, followed a group of singles who agreed to marry people based on personality alone. It was an incredibly ambitious matchmaking experiment. After the pandemic lockdown, it also became a useful guide to navigating a disembodied kind of romance. Same thing goes for another Netflix scorcher: Too Hot to Handle in which hot people spend a summer trying not to touch each other.
HOST There are conditions to your stay here. You will have to abstain from sexual practices for the entirety of your stay. [SCREAMS ENSUE] [END CLIP]
XANDRA ELLIN And rounding out my Coronavirus, reality dating trifecta, Love Island, USA on CBS, which filmed over the summer and airs seven nights a week and is not set on an island, but on a rooftop in Vegas that producers have promised is routinely disinfected.
HOST So by now, you guys have all been in quarantine for weeks, COVID tested multiple times, and you guys are all finally ready to jump into the safe waters of Love Island. [CHEERS] [END CLIP]
XANDRA ELLIN Pandemic be damned. We see that reality dating can overcome virtually any obstacle. But after devoting more than 10 years of my life to the reality genre, I began to wonder if these shows offered more than simple comfort. After many months of incessant viewing, now I know. I admit that some listeners may find it peculiar to be expanding public radio airtime on programing so low brow, but I suspect that the reflex to condemn or dismiss is based on the fact that the cultural conversation around reality TV, especially the dating shows, is shaped almost entirely by the very people who hate it.
ANNETTE HILL The negative story about reality television as trash as causing the end of good taste. Those are the most dominant voices that we hear.
XANDRA ELLIN That's Annette Hill, a professor of media and communication studies at Lund University in Sweden. She's been writing about reality TV for a long time, and she calls these critics the ones policing the terms of this particular conversation - reality refuseniks. I'm partial to the terms haters, losers and snobs - eh, to each their own.
ANNETTE HILL They've been around since the very beginning of the genre. I never watch reality television. There's nothing you can learn from it, and people should be ashamed of watching that kind of car crash television.
CLAIRE FALLON Not everything that we consume has to be difficult.
XANDRA ELLIN Claire Fallon is a Huffington Post culture critic and co-host of the podcast - Here to Make Friends with Huff Post senior reporter Emma Gray, in which they, quote, lovingly snark on the bachelor and bachelor adjacent shows. They routinely apply feminist theory to their recaps, ending each podcast with a list of feminism fails.
CLAIRE FALLON Just a recap, We have Colton asking four different fathers for their specific fatherly permission to propose to their daughters. As we discussed, this is a relic of a system in which women were treated as chattel.
XANDRA ELLIN How do they respond to the refusenik discourse?
CLAIRE FALLON I think that there is a lot of sexism in the labor we look at. Reality TV is similar to soap operas that we understand things that women find pleasurable.
EMMA GRAY There is like a soft part of all of us, a very human part of all of us that desires love and connection. And reality shows are a sort of gamifying of those very human instincts.
XANDRA ELLIN According to a morning console Hollywood Reporter poll from 2018, reality TV had the lowest net favorability of any television genre, but its viewership remains high. Hundreds of millions and growing. I mean, look, there have been plenty of words written about these shows, potentially harmful impact on society. But taking the genre seriously does not mean denying its problems. I'm prepared to argue that there are lessons useful, sometimes challenging lessons we can learn from reality dating shows. Here's one. Reality dating shows reflect the most normative cultural understanding of the politics of romance at a very particular moment. Annette Hill.
ANNETTE HILL It's meant to be consumed, enjoyed you, meant to be moved by it, and then you meant to throw it away.
XANDRA ELLIN Like an old Polaroid you find at the back of a drawer in a childhood dresser. These shows capture a fleeting moment, nostalgia tinged but slightly crunchy. Consider the old favorite. Flavor of Love. VH1's ones mid-aught celeb-reality dating show starring Public Enemy hype-man Flava Flav.
FLAVA FLAV Sometimes Flava Flav gets lonely, so here's what I'm gonna do. I gonna to talk twenty girls and I'm going to put them to the test. I'm going see which one of these girls loves Flava Flav the best. [END CLIP]
XANDRA ELLIN I mean, Flav literally gives all the women a nickname because he doesn't plan to remember any of their names. It's a text that just screams 2006 from the low rise distressed jeans to the heavy black eyeliner to the slang. Same thing goes for another show that came out around that time. MTV's Next.
NEXT SUITOR I won't even notice that this girl's good personality, because I'm going to be stoned at her boobs. [END CLIP]
XANDRA ELLIN Or recall the 2003 series Average Joe, in which NBC gets a former NFL cheerleader to date, a cohort of really average guys - just because.
HOST They are average Joes, and they don't look or act like any of the eligible bachelors you've ever seen on TV. [END CLIP]
XANDRA ELLIN Truly difficult to watch, but it is my solemn duty to do so. Because since they age so poorly by design, reality dating shows are rich cultural artifacts.
CLAIRE FALLON You look at The Bachelor, it's a funhouse version of messages we're all receiving all the time.
XANDRA ELLIN Huff Post, Claire Fallon.
CLAIRE FALLON That does make it in some ways a great opportunity to notice those messages that we're receiving and to unpack them.
XANDRA ELLIN Besides reflecting the cultural values of the day. These shows also depict pretty explicitly who the show deems entitled to the romantic fairy tale.
BACHELOR HOST Welcome back to this exciting new season of The Bachelor. [END CLIP]
XANDRA ELLIN In the 20 odd years since it launched, The Bachelor franchise remains one of the genre's biggest juggernauts. Not the first reality dating show, but in many ways, the urtext of the genre. Every season is basically identical, an eligible bachelor or bachelorette dates give her take 30 cloyingly earnest suitors all at the same time. This week, the leading man or woman narrows the pack down to the final. The only one.
BACHELOR Will you accept this rose?
BACHELOR Thank you. [Kiss] [END CLIP]
XANDRA ELLIN The ultimate goal is simple - forever love. But I'm certainly not the first to observe that love on The Bachelor isn't for everyone. Emma Gray.
EMMA GRAY Those people tend to be white, able bodied, straight sized, heterosexual. I think that there is this very clear sort of white Cinderella-esque vision. And those are the people that a franchise like The Bachelor has decided are the most worthy of love.
XANDRA ELLIN The franchise has spent years under the gun over this issue, until this June, when the Black Lives Matter protests made blatant resistance to racial diversity, unfashionable, for a moment at least. And they finally capitulated to the longtime demands of viewers.
NEWS REPORT A black man will lead the franchise, choosing 28-year-old Matt James, originally cast as a suitor. [END CLIP]
XANDRA ELLIN The Bachelor franchise has had one, just one, nonwhite lead in its almost two decade history. That was in 2017 when Rachel Lindsay was named The Bachelorette.
RACHEL LINDSAY I'm sweet, I'm also sour. I'm sassy, yet classy. [Laughs] [END CLIP]
JAZZY COLLINS We were hoping that since we had a black bachelorette lead that we would continue to have casting just as diverse as she is.
XANDRA ELLIN Jazzy Collins was a casting producer on five seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, starting with Rachel Lindsay's season. As a black woman herself. She was committed to opening the franchise to a wider array of love interests.
JAZZY COLLINS I think it's really important that everyone that's watching a reality television show should have the opportunity to see themselves in that show.
XANDRA ELLIN But she didn't get to choose how the people she cast were represented.
JAZZY COLLINS Once you put these types of people on television, producers on the other end are enforcing these stereotypes. How you edit these people and how you're showcasing these people is what the world is seeing.
XANDRA ELLIN So reality dating shows not only portray our cultural conventions, they also police them. That's one of the genre's big lessons. Here's another. This one's a little tricky, so to illustrate this point, I want to tell you about one of the dumbest things I've ever witnessed on The Bachelor. We in the community call it champagne gate. Let me set the scene. Peter Webber, a.k.a. Pilot Pete, the 24th bachelor whose only distinguishing characteristic is that he flies airplanes, is at the very beginning of his process, eh excuse me, his journey of finding a mate. He pulls one contender, Hannah Ann, aside for a conversation. They stumble across a bottle of champagne, pop it open. Little did they know that another contestant, Kelsey, had lugged this very bottle, from her hometown, to the bachelor mansion to drink with Peter.
KELSEY I'm excited to share a bottle champagne with him that I've been saving for a really special moment. [END CLIP]
XANDRA ELLIN After she discovers what happened, Kelsey confronts Hannah Ann.
KELSEY And hey, I have to say something. It's OK what you did. I brought this model from DesMoines. Don't don't try to play dumb.
HANNAH I didn't know. [END CLIP]
XANDRA ELLIN The furor over the calamitous uncorking of the champagne, whether Hannah Ann is or is not a snake. Whether Kelsey's justly offended or just being dramatic, lasts not for five minutes. Oh no, this argument spans two, two hour episodes. So why bring this up? Because it perfectly illustrates the glorious balance between the genuine and the dramatized.
When you watch a lot of reality dating shows, you get comfortable in the liminal space between fact and fiction. You're at ease with the fact that Kelsey is a real person in the real world, experiencing real emotions. And at the same time, you know that her narrative arc is constructed in the edit suite. Viewers are always lambasted with the idea that what they love is fake. But I argue that we are not bamboozled. We know. Here's Emma Gray, on her podcast discussing champagne gate.
EMMA GRAY It is just like the most obvious setup I've ever seen on this show. Productions like, yeah, there's a real romantic bottle champagne for you somewhere. Maybe walk around that way. We've got two glasses for you. [END CLIP]
XANDRA ELLIN Reality dating show viewers are forensic in their analysis of these characters. They interrogate what they've seen, argue about it with friends, family and strangers. And the real people who populate these shows weigh in. They have a real social media presence. They make podcasts and write bestsellers about their real experiences. The show doesn't end when it ends. Claire Fallon.
CLAIRE FALLON It does become, in a way, a tool for understanding that you can't know everything about another person. You don't know what played into their behavior on a certain day. You know, we have a biased version presented to us and we have to try to decode what's actually going on. But that is the challenge is like how do you make judgments that are productive and also recognize people's humanity? And that's all just the way that we all have to go about the world. Not having all the information, but still having to try to make choices. As we heard in Bob's interview, no one knows that better than Paris Hilton.
PARIS HILTON I feel like the whole world thinks they know. I mean, no one really knows who I am. [END CLIP]
XANDRA ELLIN It's worth recalling that Hilton had her own variation of a reality dating show. MTV's 2008 venture, My new BFF. In which, contestants competed for Paris's platonic love following the heiress' is very public breakup with longtime best friend Nicole Richie.
PARIS HILTON I don't know if I can have a boy BFF.
BFF CANDIDATE It's Okay.
PARIS HILTON I think it should be a girl.
BFF CANDIDATE It's Okay [END CLIP]
XANDRA ELLIN Many were dumbstruck by the portrait painted of Paris in the new documentary, shocked by how thoroughly the real person differed from the ditzy glam girl she portrayed. But I wasn't. I was conditioned by reality dating shows to approach stories like hers, understanding that I'm being supplied with just a partial rendering of a human life. They've taught me that life in the public eye is all about wearing a mask, whether it's self-imposed or crafted by a producer for dramatic effect. And if you watch these shows closely enough and often enough, you will find clues about how to assemble that jigsaw puzzle that makes a human being. By giving us practice in suspending judgment, or even extending empathy to the unrelatable. Because, like Emma said, we're all just out here searching for the same thing: love. For On the Media, I'm Xandra Ellin.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On the Media produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess. Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Xandra Ellin and Eloise Blondiau. And our show was edited by Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.
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