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True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us (Paperback)
Named a Best Nonfiction Book of 2022 by Esquire
A sociological study of reality TV that explores its rise as a culture-dominating medium—and what the genre reveals about our attitudes toward race, gender, class, and sexuality.
What do we see when we watch reality television?
In True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us, the sociologist and TV lover Danielle J. Lindemann takes a long, hard look in the “funhouse mirror” of this genre, from countless rose ceremonies on The Bachelor to the White House and more (so much more!). Beginning with the first episodes of The Real World, reality TV has not only remade our entertainment and cultural landscape—it also uniquely refracts our everyday experiences and social topography.
By taking reality TV seriously, we can better understand key institutions (such as families, schools, and prisons) and broad social categories (such as gender, race, class, and sexuality). These shows have the ability to unveil the major circuits of power that organize our lives and the extent to which our own realities are, in fact, socially constructed.
Whether we’re watching conniving Survivor contestants or three-year-old beauty queens, these “guilty pleasures” underscore how conservative our society remains, and how steadfastly we cling to our notions about what counts as legitimate or “real.” At once an entertaining chronicle of reality TV obsession and a pioneering work of sociology, True Story reflects our society back to us: what we see in the looking glass may not always be pretty, but we can’t stop watching.
About the Author
Danielle J. Lindemann is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Lehigh University interested in gender, sexuality, the family, and culture. She is the author of Commuter Spouses: New Families in a Changing World and Dominatrix: Gender, Eroticism and Control in the Dungeon. Her research has been featured in media outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Billboard, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She has spoken about her work on National Public Radio and has written op-eds for CNN, Newsweek, Salon, Fortune, and Quartz.
"Exhaustively researched . . . Lindemann is instructive on the power differential between men and women in reality TV, how differently they’re regarded and rewarded for their antics and facial calisthenics."
—James Wolcott, The New York Times
"Lindemann makes a compelling case for the seriousness of reality television, which she considers 'a fun house mirror of our dominant, heteronormative culture' and also the site of that culture’s potential subversion . . . [she] marshals a great deal of evidence that to treat these shows as mere guilty pleasures is to understate their utility as agents of harmful or, alternatively, progressive ideas."
—Jake Nevins, The Nation
"Lindemann argues quite convincingly that despite people’s knee-jerk mockery of reality TV or reflexive embarrassment at being 'caught' as a viewer, studying the genre gives us a better understanding of our world and ourselves . . . [her] academic expertise, as well as her enormous amount of research . . . gives readers a more thorough understanding of what this genre exposes about society."—Emily Yahr, The Washington Post
"Fascinating . . . [Lindemann] brings an analytic eye to the guilty pleasure of reality TV."—The National Book Review
"Lindemann breaks down concepts deftly and lightly . . . [She] combines foundational sociology texts with pop-culture references, and there’s a visceral delight to seeing Émile Durkheim paired with My Strange Addiction."—The Chicago Review of Books
"[An] insightful study . . . [Lindemann] makes astute points by tracing the history of the genre all the way back to MTV’s The Real World in 1992, and offering analysis of popular shows such as Survivor, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and the Real Housewives franchise . . . [True Story] takes the guilt out of a popular guilty pleasure."
"True Story is not only an amazing dissection of the true meaning of the reality TV genre, it's also an adept exploration of sociology through the accessible lens of all of our favorite shows. A must read for any true fan of the reality television arts and sciences."
—Brian Moylan, author of The Housewives: The Real Story Behind the Real Housewives
"Danielle Lindemann writes with deep curiosity about reality TV — both its faults and its promises — and what it says about our social world. She moves expertly between the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo as well as social constructs like the family, class, and gender, showing how the genre poses fundamental theoretical questions about ourselves and authenticity. True Story is an important guide for both pop culture enthusiasts and readers who want to learn more about sociology. There is surprising wisdom here, and sharp insights into the reality of social life."
—Ashley Mears, author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model
"Don't be all, like, uncool. Be sure you read True Story. Lindemann has written the definitive sociological interpretation of reality television, using a variety of shows to define major concepts and our field. After reading this book you will know how to defend your favorite 'guilty pleasure' to friends and family.”
—Hilary Levey Friedman, sociologist and author of Here She Is and Playing to Win