Alissa Nutting

Alissa Nutting is author of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls and an Assistant Professor of Fiction Writing at John Carroll University. Her work has or will appear in publications such as The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Literature, the New York Times, Tin House, Bomb, and Fence. She recently edited The Grey Issue of Fairy Tale Review.

Dreams Can Come True: TV and Reality in Kate Durbin’s E! Entertainment

Kate Durbin:: E! Entertainment:: Insert Press

The title of this chapbook references E! Entertainment Television, a channel devoted to “entertainment.” From its programming line-up, one can infer that it mainly defines “entertainment” as celebrity news and reality TV. From its popularity and influence on the program lineup of other cable and network channels, one can infer that a good many viewers (roughly 88 million in America, 600 million abroad) agree.

For those who do not agree, it’s easy to insist on a divorce-agreement-style cultural polarity: E! and reality TV and bubblegum-pop music can go live with rich executive dad; PBS and NPR and Nick Drake will stay at mom’s plus take on her shifts at the food co-op when needed so she can successfully finish her masters degree in social activism. It’s easy to let the crossovers that remind us we once lived in the same house (the English-version Steig Larsson movie, the Kanye West/Bon Iver collaboration, Jason Wu for Target clothing) be our only form of conversation with one another, and ignore the rest. To ensure all visitations are still supervised by commerce, our governing form of identity, for what we buy and like is given context by what we do not buy and like. David Sedaris is not Larry the Cable Guy. Taylor Swift is not Willie Nelson. And Downton Abbey is not Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

And yet. Things are also not that divided nor pure. Monsanto’s GE crops have crossbred with organic counterparts miles away, lo, for they are under the same sky and subject to the same pollinating winds, as are our cultural and artistic hierarchies: Angelina Jolie is a Louis Vuitton spokesmodel, a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, and her kids love Cheetos. Colson Whitehead writeth of zombies. One can visibly see the Philip Glass/Justin Bieber radio single and Happy Meal conductor baton/vibrating toothbrush toy on the smog-filled technicolor horizon.

In other words—and this is the fundamental truth that reality TV depends upon (and simultaneously depends upon denying)—no one is that special (except celebrities). We’re all pretty much the same on most of the levels that matter. Like a good cult leader, reality TV convinces viewers that it is the key to transformation and a higher realm. You are just like the people on this show, it says. Except for not being famous and rich. You laugh and cry and get in fights with your mom. But if you laughed and cried and got into fights with your mom on a reality TV show, you would be famous and rich.

Durbin’s text masterfully troubles these siren-song waters, engaging the allure and the artificiality of the celebrity women depicted. A quatrain of female personae, the chapbook has four sections, the first of which, “The Hills,” opens to a color picture of Lauren Conrad playing Lauren Conrad on The Hills. It’s a still from a computer screen, a clip excerpted in what appears to be a YouTube video, and a small reflection from real life, sunlight pouring through vertical blinds, appears in the left-hand corner of the photo. Lauren is crying, a single tear drawing mascara down her cheek in a cinematic way that one can look at and say definitively, “that moment was created for film.”

Durbin’s narrator begins the chapter describing a scene from The Hills in a befitting prose-poem style, blocks of uniform text that are not broken into paragraphs. This effect radically minimizes the impact of the dialogue between the characters: the quotes are part of a uniform mass, another detail, another prop like the “necklace with large gold balls” and “garment rack of designer dresses” that the narrator points out. We see Lauren and Whitney as talking and stylized mannequins. The narrator describes only their exterior and words, the things a camera can see and hear, and like a camera, does so without analysis, for the details being given to the reader—what is being included (looks, material items, status symbols) and what is being left out (critical thought, emotion, deeper meaning)—instead say it all. The women are characterized by their bodies and what they’re wearing. What’s important about Heidi is that “Her legs are tan and she has a French manicure”.

The numbered sections of this chapter correspond to the show’s commercial breaks, and we enter each one in true linear form: readers are told what song is playing when the action starts again, what shots establish the setting. The choices Durbin makes in relaying information highlight the scene being constructed on The Hills in a way the show does not: the narrator spends several lines talking about the Guess by Marciano billboard, the woman on the billboard (whose description is fittingly close to the women on the show), the backdrop of the billboard (whose setting is fittingly close to ocean-side California where The Hills is filmed). Since this is text and not a flash on the screen, the comparison is allowed to linger: we see the ways that these actresses are selling things and how photographers/camera men are instructing them, the proximity between the show and its commercial break.

Next we move to another chapter bearing the same title as the show it concerns, Dynasty. Here the text comes after seven color still-shots of character Alexis throwing a vase at Krystle. Contexualizing The Hills’s reality TV by juxtaposing it with what it supposedly isn’t (a scripted soap opera) allows the parallels to show: again, we have rich women in designer clothing fighting with one another. As with the billboard in The Hills, here the narrator zeroes in on a detail that adds poignancy: “On the wall is a gilded portrait. It shows two ladies in bustled green velvet dresses carrying parasols” (23). Just like The Hills, we have scenes of wealthy women doing what they’ve been taught to do: dress nicely and compete fiercely. The text’s details also illustrate the ways advertising is targeted to audience; she points out the “flat ass” and “granny flats” on the actresses (23), the “yellow” teeth that were acceptable to middle-aged female viewers in the 1980s but wouldn’t fly with ZOOM-whitening Pilates-crazed stiletto youth of The Hills.

Setting up these two shows in dialogue, Durbin engages the comparison between Joan Collins and Lauren Conrad. I think about the requirements of an idealized mainstream female TV character in the early 1980s (white, rich, thin, beautiful, fights with other women) and apply it to MTV’s LC: she’s all of the above, but is even younger, even thinner. More scantily clad and much tamer, further shaved of emotional nuance. Reading Durbin’s “The Hills” chapter, one finds oneself quickly skimming over the characters’ empty dialogue lines. What they’re saying doesn’t matter; it isn’t supposed to. The gossip is there to distract viewers from realizing what they’re really getting hooked on is the backdrop. Lauren and Whitney need to stay empty ciphers that young girls can imagine themselves filling, stepping into shoes and handbags that cost more than the operating budget lines of some of the Red Cross’s more vital activities. Going to work at Vogue or Epic Records and texting your friends, eating nondescript green leaves at fancy restaurants. I’m allured too: it all looks beautiful. Even (perhaps especially) when she’s crying, Lauren looks very beautiful. Her pain will be gone by commercial break. And have you seen her car?

The third chapter, “Lindsay Lohan Arrives At Court,” describes the narrative behind her court appearance amidst a description and photo montage of Lohan, then goes into “UPDATE” mode, giving readers seven obsessive updates on Lohan’s court appearance between the hours of 1:12 to 3:08 PT. Three of the seven include descriptions of her fashion. There is only one description of her emotional state, a quotation that she “looks stressed,” looks being the operative word—this is what the camera and the viewers can capture, guess at. We get a colorful still from Entertainment Tonight HD, an exclusive, depicting not the courtroom but Lindsay at the place of the alleged crime—a necklace theft.

There is also a “Breaking News” excerpt featuring Lohan’s posted statement. She talks about a time that she was on the phone with her sister and “heard my voice which was odd”; her sister was watching a movie, and in the movie a character was watching a movie with Lohan acting in it. Here again, we return to questions of representation and authenticity, and also the ways that women are set up to compete. My mind immediately remembers that the dress Lindsay wore to this court appearance, “her white dress” as the text calls it, sold out the same day she appeared in TV on it. I also have to think about how she wore white for a reason, and wonder. Would it have still sold out if it were another color? Would Lohan have gotten to leave on bail if she had worn red?

The last section is called “Anna Nicole Show.” The Anna Nicole Show was a reality TV sitcom that did in fact appear on E!, but that’s not what this chapter concerns. Instead we’re given a description of a video that was shown in a courtroom by prosecutors hoping to convince the jury that Anna’s partner at the time of her death, Howard K. Stern, “conspired to keep Anna Nicole Smith in a drug stupor”. There are four voices in the video: Howard, Anna, a 7 year-old-girl, and a mechanical baby. In this final section, Durbin separates out the lines of each person, removing them from conversational context. We get all of Howard’s lines, then all of the girl’s lines, then all of Anna’s, then all of the mechanical baby’s. Like separating a vocal track from its instrumentation, the essence of each one is distilled, and we see an exploitative Howard directing, a confused Anna embarrassing herself (she confuses her pregnancy for gas and the doll for the baby she’s pregnant with), and the seven-year-old child growing scared, all while the mechanical baby cries. In court, Stern claimed Anna was acting; the CNN article Durbin excerpts for the chapter’s introduction later asks, “Real or pretend?” and also wonders if Smith knew Stern’s seeming intentions to profit from the video.

This video seems lascivious to the extreme: a man directing a clearly impaired and drugged woman to make a fool of herself on camera so he’ll have profitable footage. But Durbin’s set-up in this chapbook—these four videos laid together in proximity, and their differences—also allows the similarities to come through. How Lauren and her friends often get drunk on The Hills (Wikiquote cites Lauren as saying to Whitney, “Tell me if you think he’s cute ‘cause I’m drunk” in Season 3, Episode 1). How these young women starring in The Hills aren’t the ones editing the footage or constructing the story. How none of these women are. How what’s sold as relevant is what they’re wearing, what they look like. How Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Smith became a celebrity and then an addict, and the whole world watched. How their behavior, their roles, their lives on or off drugs, was all used as entertainment.

Fittingly, the chapbook’s dedication is to Josie Stevens (wife of guitarist Steve Stevens), who is on the E! reality show Married to Rock—Josie also supplies the chapbook’s sole blurb:

“I think it’s really cool that you write books about pop culture. I read your chapters on Lindsay Lohan & Anna Nicole Smith—love them both.”

The ambiguous pronoun “them” makes it unclear if Josie is saying she loved the chapters or loves Lohan and Smith (probably both). But this incertitude makes for a fun surface parallel: here is a blurb that, in one interpretation, compliments not the text itself but simply the celebrities the text engages. Here is yet another example of Durbin flexing her directorial composition skills; like any episodic TV show on its best behavior, the text comes full-circle, the contrived end intentionally referencing the contrived beginning to give audiences a false sense of journey: we’ve come so far that we ended up right back where we began. But in this book, the journey is real. We move through the socially prized well-bathed young women on The Hills to competitive female rage to trouble with the law to death by overdose. If it seems like these events are connected—if it seems like there’s a link and a path between these tales, it’s because there is, and Durbin draws out these common threads of excess between representation and destruction. Much has been written about the superficiality of reality TV, but not enough is out there about its complexity. Durbin’s book is a welcome reminder of just how bottomless, nuanced, and entrenched all the elements of reality TV are in society; how we cannot ignore or escape them because they’re pervasive to the extreme. But in the words of Lauren Conrad, “It looks good though.”

Kate Durbin:: E! Entertainment:: Insert Press
(Note: a full-length, hardcover, Diamond Edition of the book will be released by Blanc Press in 2012).