When you think back to grade-school history lessons, it’s hard to forget that beautiful notion of the American dream as it was stamped onto our impressionable young minds. Freedom of speech, freedom from persecution and a host of other virtuous maxims were paired with heroic tales of humble countrymen achieving fame and glory through their accomplishments. Jump to the early 20th century, when the rags-to-riches tale inspired native-born hopefuls and optimistic immigrants alike. The ’60s left us with an entirely different vision, encouraging a battle against the Man to improve society.

Today, people are attempting to reinvent their own hybrid of the American dream by playing that system to their advantage via the entertainment industry, spawning an era of reality television.

With major corporations kicking mom-and-pop shops off street corners, a new kind of trailblazer was bound to surface. The last decade has seen an obsession with reality television that has two major precursors in television history – the jackpot game show and, of course, MTV’s “The Real World.”

“The Price Is Right” is the most obvious example, where a lucky seat number could score you a trip to Egypt or a sparkling new dining set. Despite its reputation for matching inherently combatant personalities, “The Real World” retains its 15-year legacy as one of the first reality shows to reach a wide audience. But its brief moments of fame hardly garnered respect; each show was an entertaining spectacle, quickly forgotten.

It’s tempting to dissect the notoriously shameful reality shows of our time – i.e. “The Swan,” “Fear Factor,” “The Girls Next Door,” etc. – but let’s skip ahead to the most recent batch of contest-driven shows: “Project Runway,” “America’s Next Top Model,” “Top Design” and “Top Chef.” Sensing a pattern? We’re always searching for the cream of the crop, and for TV producers, sky-high ratings built around potentially gifted contestants is a win-win situation.

Assuming you can accept the winners as credible recipients of life-altering prizes, the problem remains one of sustainability. Can you recall the name of a single designer to win “Project Runway”? Adrianne Curry has proven to be “ANTM’s” biggest success, but is it because of her unequalled modeling abilities or a puzzling relationship with Christopher Knight? Or the nude spread in Playboy? “Top Design” winners will never reach the ranks of Tom Ford – let alone create a name that Target is willing to commission, which has apparently become the latest benchmark for stylish design.

Then there’s “American Idol,” the No. 1 show in the country, a modern “American-Bandstand” that’s produced genuine stars and increased our tolerance for brutally honest criticism. Though “Idol” falls neatly into the aforementioned category, it’s worth noting it also hails as one of the few exceptions. It’s become a venue where creative talent (or lack thereof) can reach a level of fame faster than any record label. It would be wrong to ignore the blossoming careers of Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson and, of course, Kelly Clarkson.

But the measure of these shows can’t be based on star power alone. While the everyday aspirant trudges through the frustrations of “making it big,” reality-show participants are instantly transported to the peak of an otherwise uphill climb. Even if we believe in the demonstrated talent of a winner, are we willing to grant them more praise for enduring a rigorous auditioning process and unforgiving video surveillance?

The artificial world created by a TV show isn’t a fair substitute for what’s waiting beyond the credits. Not only are they unprepared to tread the waters in the “real world,” but earnings are often less than expected; Curry admits that the guaranteed Revlon contract turned out to be an unpaid sales convention appearance.

Though each modified version of the same formulated contest claims to choose the most eligible candidates, the pool of people participating in a TV show doesn’t compare to the population at large. Many of the ruthless forces acting against the majority are instantly eliminated on set.

The American dream has given this country a vain sense of hope. These shows aren’t just offering a stable income and recognition within a field – they’re promising full-blown stardom. But instead of creating household names, they’re creating an entirely new set of criteria to judge America’s talent. As long as we can keep the cruel judging panels at bay, and we acknowledge reality-show winners separately from those who maneuver their way up through the woodwork, we can expect this new genre of fame to exist only so far as our TV sets allow.

– Hartmann can be reached at carolinh@umich.edu.

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