“My first reality-TV death — the first that stung — was Frankie, from The Real World. Some of you may remember the sister. Punk-goth from Wisconsin. Twenty-two, but seemed much younger: defensive and chirpy, suddenly happy or sleepy. Hair a deep chemical russet. She was a cutter, too; she cut herself with a kitchen knife. Her mother later identified this as her legacy, that she brought attention to cutting. Also, she was pathologically fearful of ships. If one came into sight (it was San Diego; they lived on water), her cast mates knew to throw a jacket over her head, to stop her seizing up.”
–John Jeremiah Sullivan, New York Times Magazine, December 25, 2011
Sullivan, the author of essays ranging from David Foster Wallace, Michael Jackson and the aftershocks of Hurricane Katrina, now giving us his take on the year past: 2011. According to him, it is the year of the fallen reality-TV star. His essay part-elegy, part-commentary, as he writes of the people we have known through the television screen, those we will no longer see, those who have passed. The title of Sullivan’s essay (“Reality-TV”) might be tongue-in-cheek, as he tells us about shows such as “Celebrity Rehab” and “Jackass,” and how it is sad — really — that an overwhelming number of reality stars died this year alone.
Or maybe he is not being crass.
What he is really saying, possibly, is that despite its tendency to seem an arms-length away, even devised and constructed, reality-TV is, in fact, a mirror.
We are the stuff of it after all. We create it. It is, supposedly, not only an emulation of us, but us exactly. We are what we see on the screen. We are The Real World’s Frankie, afraid of the world. (Is her “fear of ships” not somehow beautiful? Does her fear, somehow, not make her all the more human? Can’t we sympathize? What are we to make of how her cast mates threw a jacket over her head? Of seizing up? Don’t we have our own fears and burdens? Don’t we understand?)
We watch it — “reality-TV” — continually. Perhaps because we like to think there are people out there like us, or not at all like us. Or maybe because, at our core, we like to watch the lives of others unfold in a way that is unpredictable, if not riveting, or else dull and mundane, or else scripted.
Whatever the reason, this is not an essay about reality-TV. Instead, this is a brief note about legacy, about how we already have reality here in front of us (on the news, for example) as we see and read it each day, as we do battle with our fears, as we celebrate what comes to us. In other words, 2011 has been a bear. It’s been packed with motion and blown circuitry and buzz. It’s been remarkable.
A Radically Attenuated History of 2011 (By Month):
January 16, 2011: The Social Network wins Best Picture.
February 1, 2011: Protests in Egypt continue; 2 million gather in Tahrir Square, Cairo.
March 11, 2011: A tsunami hits Japan.
April 29, 2011: Prince William and Kate Middleton marry.
May 1, 2011: Osama Bin Laden pronounced dead.
June 22, 2011: Whitey Bulger arrested in Santa Monica, California.
July 22, 2011: Terrorist attacks in Norway, one in the city of Oslo and another at a youth camp.
August 4, 2011: A collective bargaining agreement reached in the National Football League.
September 17, 2011: Occupy Wall Street begins.
October 20, 2011: In Libya, Gaddafi killed.
November 16, 2011: In New Delhi, activists call attention to the suicides of Tibetan monks.
December 15, 2011: The United States declares the end of the War in Iraq.
All the new thinking is about loss, says Robert Hass. In this it resembles all the old thinking. This from his poem “Meditations at Lagunitas,” published in 1979. Then, did he know, somehow, that this year would come? Did he know he would turn 70? That he would participate in what 2011 had to offer? That he would be a part of a movement called Occupy? That on the streets of Berkley he would be beaten? A word is elegy to what it signifies, he wrote, as if he knew we would need time to understand all that has happened, more time, more of it now coming.
If John Sullivan wrote for Frankie then I am writing for now. I am thinking of our legacy. I am thinking that with the bad there always comes good, that with a storm there is hope. I am thinking of “our”: our nation, our world, our year, ourselves. I am wondering what comes next.