“Oh no, it’s Real Housewives.”
“What, the British version?”
“No, that’s definitely Real Housewives of Orange County.”
While flipping through various programs of the UK in our London hotel room this past weekend, the girls and I were very surprised to find this US guilty pleasure. At first we laughed about the upstanding American image this show must impress upon the English. However, in the back of my mind, I assumed our foreign friends must know that reality television in the United States is about as realistic as Snooki actually becoming a licensed veterinarian. ( "They're alive when you kill it.")
But then I began to consider my own perceptions of the British. To be honest, I didn’t fully understand delineations of the United Kingdom versus Great Britain versus England before this trip. I’d grouped all these distinct people groups into convenient stereotypes that I’d based solely on entertainment media-Alfred from Batman, Jude Law, and the Spice Girls. I’m a Psychology major; I should know better than to take those mental shortcuts. I should have realized the Americanized portrayals of the English would be fraught with misconstructions and arrived in England with no assumptions whatsoever.
But I didn’t.
Applying George Gerbner’s “Cultivation Theory,” we understand that television shapes our perceptions of reality and the world around us by affecting our attitudes and cognitive processes. It is then plausible to suppose that British audiences will presume the Real Housewives of Orange County must provide adequate depictions of Americans. By extension of agenda setting theory, English audiences may believe the outrageous, exaggerated behavior of the show’s cast must also be important to people in the United States. Thus we have Europe’s frequently employed archetype-the loud, obnoxious, and greedy American.
Is this prototype at all accurate? Do audiences in the United Kingdom really believe many Americans act that way or put stock in certain characteristics of that lifestyle? Or, do they, like some of us, realize reality television’s blatant lack of actual reality and just find the show supremely entertaining?