On how 'reality' TV changes reality
NEW YORK — Some of you may have heard that there's currently a vacancy on the Supreme Court. True, the president has already suggested a candidate to fill the breach, as is his constitutional right; but if for whatever reason things don't work out with Judge Roberts, I have a humble suggestion for a replacement: Kathy Hilton, Paris' and Nicky's mom and the host of "I Want to Be a Hilton" on NBC.
Admittedly, my regular readers on the Senate Judiciary Committee may be somewhat taken aback by the suggestion. It is true, for one thing, that the paper trail on Mrs. Hilton's positions on matters of judicial moment is somewhat slight, although in this she may not be so different from other candidates for the position. It may well also be the case that her most important and widely recognized opinions concern couture. But in her favor, Mrs. Hilton is the repository of all virtue - intelligence, wisdom, taste, tact, elegance, beauty, and more.
Or so one is led to believe from the contestants on the show, who gush about her like they were Texas oil wells. Which brings me to the subject of this column.
Say what you want about Donald Trump, Tommy Hilfiger, or Martha Stewart, the past, present, and future of celebrity-based reality television. Whatever your opinion of their performances on the shows - and judging from Hilfiger's curiously affectless presence, I tend to imagine that he believes he's on the set of one of this summer's zombie movies - it's not hard to understand why the contestants might actually respect them.
Yes, the downtown fashionista types who are the contestants on "The Cut" may seem, as a group, like they'd rather have their swatches stuffed down their throats than wear Tommy Hilfiger's jeans - but they know they're talking to a man who created one of the biggest and most prominent fashion businesses in the world pretty much out of nothing. And though I'll eat my home-monitoring ankle bracelet if Stewart's current legal troubles get major airtime on her show, it's fair to show a little love to anyone who managed to create a billion dollar business pretty much from scratch. And as for Trump - well, even if his finances have been somewhat up and down over the years, he's still managed to make quite a name for himself in the real estate business. (I know, becase I see it plastered everywhere I go all over New York.)
But when it comes to Kathy Hilton, I'm sort of drawing a blank.
Please don't get me wrong: I have no particular animus against Mrs. Hilton; she seems like a nice enough person, and the way she puts up with some of the, shall we say, more obstreperous behavior from some of the contestants clearly displays a certain fortitude. (Perhaps a fortitude learned from dealing with her daughters, whose behavior couldn't have been quite as demure as she'd have liked it to be, to put it mildly.) But it's hard to see what's inspired the kind of encomia the contestants come up with on a weekly basis - paeans of praise that, as the season continues, seem increasingly at odds with the perfectly nice, but hardly extraordinary, Kathy Hilton we see on screen.
You could understand it if the contestants simply engaged in this sort of hagiography in front of Hilton herself - sucking up is a tried and true method of success when it comes to reality television - but the fact is that they seem this convinced, this bright and shiny eyed, when they're by themselves or having their quiet one-on-ones with the camera.
So what's going on? The obvious answer would be to simply cast this as another example of a contemporary American tendency to confuse celebrity and wealth with moral virtue and with accomplishment, but I think there's more to it than that. (Besides, Tom Cruise told me that was wrong, and whatever Tom says goes.) I think that it has more to do with the nature of reality television itself.
There's something about the sheer, weighty fact of the creation of the show itself that tends to warp people's judgment: the cameras, producers, tech people, editors, and the like don't only measure value, but confirm it by their very presence. That's true for the viewers, and it must go double for the contestants, who are constantly aware of the way all these people on the production focus around Hilton.
When you add to that the fact that Hilton is the arbiter of the contestants' fate, of course, she takes on an almost godlike role for them. (Watch all of these reality television figures' entrance and exits: they practically have the tenor of annunciations.) The groups of contestants become little worshippers at the Cult of Kathy (or Tommy, or Donald), and there's something eerily worshipful about their comments, something true believer-like about their feelings towards someone who (in Hilton's case, at least) they probably had only the haziest knowledge of before the show began.
I can't say for sure how this plays with viewers in general; but I'm guessing all this praise can't be terrible for Hilton's own reputation. The success in changing public perceptions of Donald Trump has been remarkable; but Trump was a known public figure. It's precisely Hilton's unknown quality that makes the contestants' behavior so bizarre in theory; and it's precisely the way reality television works that makes it so understandable in practice.
After writing this, I think maybe it's best to withdraw my suggestion about Kathy Hilton for the Supreme Court. Maybe, instead, the president should have John Roberts star in a reality show between now and the hearings; each week he could eliminate one appellate lawyer who doesn't quite measure up to his exacting legal standards. The lawyers could give the same kind of breathless testimonials to his judicial acumen that we now read in all the papers, thus ensuring the same kind of public support for his nomination that we now give to Mrs. Hilton or Mr. Trump. Plus Roberts could develop a catchphrase like "You're overruled!" which, if he gets confirmed to the High Court, could make his dealings with Justice Scalia a lot more interesting. Just a thought.