Recently, I had cause to revisit Roland Barthes’ book of essays, Mythologies. Barthes examines how seemingly simple thing – a Roman hairdo, for instance, in Julius Caesar – can refer to a bigger idea – that is Roman-ness. Despite the passage of sixty years, Barthes’ approach can be utilized to examine popular cultural products that he would never have dreamed of.
In his first essay, “The World of Wrestling,” Barthes says that wrestling is not a sport but a spectacle and that “[t]he public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not.” This is also true of Reality TV. Regardless of article after article “revealing” that Reality isn’t – well – real, audiences just keep watching. In fact, it is quite possible to extend Barthes’ wrestling analysis even further in terms of Reality TV and, in light of the fact that I’m presently unemployed, that is precisely what I intend to do in this piece – specifically by applying Barthes analysis to VH1’s new show Cartel Crew: a shameless attempt to appeal to the profoundly underserved Latinx audience by presenting them with dangerous stereotypes, but I digress …
Cartel Crew is a docusoap following a group of twentysomethings whose parents were part of the Colombian Medellín Cartel. There’s Michael Blanco (son of infamous Cocaine Queen Griselda Blanco); Marie (his boo and baby mama, whose father also worked for the Cartel); Kat Tatu Baby (a tattoo artist whose father was assassinated by the Cartel); Stephanie (a singer signed to Young Money whose father went to jail for Cartel-related crimes); and Nicole (an instagram model with questionable Cartel connections). The first episode shows Michael and Marie pursuing their dream of making it in the straight world by selling a Cartel-themed clothing line called Pure Blanco. As is the norm on Reality TV, this required a fashion show. Enter their friends Kat and Stephanie, who agree to model, and a stranger Nicole, famous only for having over a hundred thousand Instagram followers, who also agrees to walk for Pure Blanco. One thing leads to another and it’s everyone against Nicole by the end of episode one.
The first and most obvious similarity between wrestling and Reality TV is that both types of entertainment use archetypes. Barthes compares wrestling to ancient theatre i.e. instead of complex characters, cast members represent ideas: like Good and Evil. Cartel Crew‘s characterization are similarly simplistic as we see in episode two of the series: Kat Tatu Baby is a Good Girl/Good Friend who accompanies Striver Stephanie to her concert in New Orleans, meanwhile Marie, the Matriarch of the Cartel Crew – her man is the son of Griselda Blancho after all – takes on Outlaw Nicole – who isn’t Cartel related, who has the effrontery to question Striver Steph’s father, and who possesses the fakest of the fake bodies in the show.
As Barthes presents in “The World of Wrestling,”signification of Evil is not limited to actions and words: it is also situated in the flesh. Barthes argues that the “bad guy” in wrestling situates–in his flesh–a kind of “amorphous baseness,” and the same can be applied to Nicole with her excessive enhancements. While all of the female cast members of Cartel Crew have had plastic surgery, Nicole’s surgery is by far the most extreme. Not only is her surgery extreme, but Nicole is happy to admit as much in interview; she thus bears the signifier of falsity (more commonly referred to as “fake-ass ho”) and also embraces it. Similarly the body of any Instagram model is always somewhat tainted, the suggestion being either that these women are prostitutes (the horror!) or in any event making their living by their bodies and thereby a form of prostitute by extension. She is thus doubly identified as the Big Bad who has to – somehow – be taken down for Justice to prevail.
To Barthes, wrestling is a demonstration of Justice (or what is right). The Bad Guy in wrestling flouts the rules, and it’s this that makes people most outraged. The lack of Justice! Reality is equally preoccupied with community rules and, by extension, Justice. On Cartel Crew each episode focuses on an ethical question within the Cartel community. Episode two concerns itself with snitching: you don’t snitch, you don’t accuse someone else of snitching, and you definitely don’t align with the cops; viewers are, moreover, consistently reminded by the cast that Nicole is in violation of these rules. Thus, when Marie attacks Nicole (with a Caesar salad!) it feels as though we are witnessing Justice enacted. After all, since Marie and Michael are trying to make it in the straight world, one can infer that the Justice of a larger society is also in play, yet here they are being thwarted by an [inherently shady] Instagram model.
Barthes points out that wrestlers are less preoccupied with winning than with enacting the algebraic formula of Justice. Post producers in Reality dealing with a fight scene are similarly preoccupied with the algebra of their fights. Cast fights are seldom planned by production (which is not to say we’re opposed to them) and as a result they seldom make sense within the world of our story. Thus it falls to post producers to retroactively “make sense” of the fight. These post-producers do so by having the cast consistently repeat the rules of their community both in interview and verité during the episode in which the fight occurs; and producers then make clear who’s in violation of said rules and, finally, present the resulting fight. The fight, which would ordinarily be considered an excessive reaction to a friend’s father being badmouthed, is an appropriate response when viewed within the larger context of Justice.
Of course, not all Reality fights end Justly; the rule breaker might be punished, or the rule breaker might actually win (in which case Justice is promised down the line, thereby ensuring ongoing viewership). This time around, rule-breaker Nicole got her just desserts (or salad as the case may be).
Justice isn’t only connected to fights, however. Reality also deals with a more everyday kind of Justice: Striver Stephanie works at her craft and wins the audience over (although, personally, I would have made her fail a bit more before succeeding because it raises the stakes) and Kat, while being a Good Friend to Steph, learns that her ex-boyfriend still thinks she’s pretty! Much like wrestling, though, Reality tends to evolve over time. Thus it may well be that down the line someone other than Nicole will wear the mark of Evil, and someone other than Marie will wear the mark of Good. Episode three sees a shift when Steph and Nicole make up, leaving Marie feeling betrayed. Whereas Snitching was the issue in episode two, now the issues become Loyalty vs. Maturity/Wisdom, with Steph (according to Marie) lacking the former and Marie (according to Steph) lacking the latter. Obviously, such evolutions ensure that viewers stay tuned for more.
Whereas wrestling has an arena, the arena audience for Reality TV is Twitter. And a word to the viewers out there, this Reality producer enjoys the tweets far more than the shows themselves. What happens on Twitter is basically a public debate about the ethical melodramas performed onscreen. And while producers push some readings, for example they reinforce Nicole being a bubblehead by including her reference to Cartel “affilaration” …
… and eliminate others by exclusion, editing out behavior not consistent with how they want a character perceived, the audience reacts, well, as it reacts. Thus some feel Marie’s betrayal …
… others feel she needs to grow the fuck up …
There’s no way to absolutely control how someone responds to a piece, and yay to that!
My obsession with reading Twitter feeds about Reality shows stems from a pleasure in seeing people fully engaged in processing ethical issues like what’s more important, Loyalty or Maturity/Wisdom? What do Loyalty and Maturity/Wisdom mean, anyway? While “bitches is devious” (seem above) hits below the belt on the age issue, at the same time she implying that Maturity trumps Marie’s notion of Loyalty. “Elle Ayy Woman“, by contrast, views Loyalty as a primary virtue (based, we assume, on her own experience).
I’m often blown away by how things are interpreted on Twitter, not because viewer reactions are wrong per se, but because viewers bring issues to light that I haven’t considered. I would have assumed that complaints would arise from Latinx being portrayed, in one of the only Reality shows exclusively dedicated to such a cast, as criminal; however, one of the earliest tweets I read about the show – which I can now no longer find – was one asserting it was a sign of privilege that Latinx got a show celebrating a criminal lifestyle, that such a program would never be made about African Americans. This is some pretty heavy truth arising from such a silly show. And while Twitter is often (rightly) lambasted for users’ predisposition to forming virtual lynch mobs, it may well be argued that Twitterers tweeting about Reality are engaging in ethical discussions neither valued or engaged in in everyday life and that Reality, like wrestling, holds the promise of Justice, if not now, then somewhere in a later episode! Very much unlike life. Which is why both wrestling and Reality are cathartic, if only and especially because they unveil “a form of Justice which is at last intelligible.”