Jean Baudrillard’s big idea was the simulacrum, ‘the generation of models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.' Simply, he believed that there was no such thing as first-hand reality any more. Instead all we have are copies of copies of copies, perfect replicas without an original. Nothing has an innate essence anymore, everything is purely surface. He conceived of institutions such as
Disneyland as methods of re-imposing the reality principle. That is to say, Americans created the fantasy world of Disneyland so that they could convince themselves through comparison that the rest of has a real existence, when in truth it is equally as fabricated. What I would like to propose is that the pretence of presenting us with snapshots from real lives of real people created by the producers of The Only Way Is Essex proves it is no longer possible to separate out a single original reality from the proliferation of fictions. ‘Essex’ is only as real as ‘ America America’ which is about as real as Disneyland.
In the opening sequence to The Only Way Is Essex, the viewer is informed that ‘the people are all real although some of what they do has been set up purely for your entertainment.' Most of this ‘setting up’ consists of the producers ensuring that certain people are in certain places at certain times, for example arranging for one character’s ex to be having a drink in a bar when that character arrives on a first date with someone else. In these scenarios the situation has been arranged but the reactions of the people involved are real. Other set ups involve having one character ‘acting’, i.e. saying what they’ve been told to by producers (usually passing on gossip), while another reacts sincerely. One has to ask what the difference is between the sequences where ‘what they do’ unfolds naturally and where ‘what they do’ is set up. Whether they are acting of their own volition or whether they are simply doing what they're told, these people really are doing these things and must live with the consequences, so the boundaries between acting and living become blurred. When dealing with the fall out from these set-ups the personalities truly believe they are living these fabrications, so where is the difference? The personalities’ ‘realities’ and their moments in character are impossible to disentangle.
Furthermore, the emotional reactions that the cast of The Only Way Is Essex have are extreme but fleeting, seemingly sincere but very much transient. Being dumped by someone they’ve been dating for three weeks seems like the end of the world, but they manage to find someone new before 48 hours have elapsed. It’s almost as if the ‘cast’ are portraying these emotions because they believe they should be, must be; because they are copying their behaviour from pop culture such as cinema, where love at first sight really does happen and where ‘the one’ exists. These people replicate behaviour from films and television programmes which are themselves fictions, so that The Only Way Is Essex becomes one more link in a series of copies with no origin in reality.
A friend pointed out just how lacking in real sexuality the programme is, which is somewhat surprising considering that lots of the action revolves around the characters’ efforts to make themselves more ‘physically desirable’, and around their relationships with the opposite sex. The perfecting of their appearance becomes an end in itself and the relationships often appear to be more rooted in alliance rather than attraction. One of the characters, Sam Faiers, was already a relatively well-known glamour model before the series began, and several of the others have aspirations that way (and the fake breasts to match). This, however, seems not to be a result of a strong sense of their own sexuality; it is merely a status symbol that they want to grab a part of.
To call these girls stupid would be unfair. No, they aren’t particularly well educated and their grasp on the English language is sometimes rather loose, but they’re well aware of the deal they’re making here. They know that participating in this circus will bring them several steps closer to where they want to be. The fact that this status of celebrity-for-being-a-celebrity is one many of us are morally opposed to is irrelevant: for Amy Childs and co it was a calculated move.
I suppose what I am saying is that we shouldn’t criticise these individuals for ‘bad acting’ or for handing part of their agency over in return for a certain status, because it is something we all do necessarily, just less honestly and overtly. The rest of us still place faith in our ability to separate reality from fiction, whereas the ‘stars’ of The Only Way Is Essex have surrendered to hyperreality. The confusion of reality and fiction, essence and appearance, depth and surface, is what makes programmes such as The Only Way Is Essex and Made In Chelsea such fascinating viewing, and the most compelling evidence of postmodernism available to us today.
By Caitlin Allen