The Magic Substance “Authenticity”

Lara Bingle being “made up”, so her skin will look “Authentic”, Channel Ten publicity shot

What is real, and what is “real”? The average person’s thirst for Authenticity, a protean and magical substance, or perhaps quality, can be sad and funny. See my earlier posting “Beware the Shibboleth” [here] where I am bemused by the desperate and mistaken reverence that literary judges show for the idol Authenticity.

The problem with Authenticity is that it’s hard to tell which is genuine, real, authentic Authenticity and which is fake Authenticity masquerading as the real thing.

“Authenticity as a Discursive Effect” is the ironic title of a paper by Melbourne (Australia) academic Ken Ruthven. The concept bears thinking about. And please be careful when you talk about Mr Ruthven: there are two equally “Authentic” and quite different ways to pronounce his Scottish surname, just as there are with the surname (also Scottish) of the late Australian Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies.

Menzies was known by the sobriquet “Ming the Merciless” before the Second World War, and finding out why is an interesting excursion in itself, involving the various pronunciations of British surnames and the history of the American comic strip «Flash Gordon» through the 1930s.

It’s not just Literature whose wheels are greased by that magic lubricant. Common television shows thrive on it too, where it acts like a super tonic and an inflationary gas, puffing up audience numbers and managerial profit.

Journalist Paul Sheehan writes about Television and Authenticity — a tricky pairing — in the «Sydney Morning Herald» today (2012-007-19). Here are some excerpts:

One of Australia’s free-to-air TV networks is pioneering new ways to be seedy, dubious and disingenuous. It is blurring ethical boundaries. It is manipulating the truth. It is subtly breaching broadcast standards on the amount of advertising it can force into an hour of television … That network is [Sydney’s Channel] Ten […] Exhibit one: «The Shire» […] Ten presents the series as being driven by “real people, no actors”, about a real place, Cronulla, and the surrounding Sutherland Shire. This is nonsense. It is a kernel of authenticity wrapped in a package of artifice. The genesis of this series is pure plastic: it is a copy of an American faux reality series, «Laguna Beach», with a dash of the grotesquery of another American reality show, «Jersey Shore», and the dramatic story line of yet another American show, «The O.C.»

This Australian knock-off draws its drama by fixating on several carefully chosen young women who represent the quintessence of puerile narcissism. They are the only people who don’t get the joke — that they are the joke — cast for their combination of vanity, vapidity and plastic surgery […]

«Being Lara Bingle» […] is a series that combines irredeemable vacuousness with faux documentary realism. It is supposed to be reality TV but everything is for the cameras and nothing is really real. In the entire series there was not a single idea or a single reference to anything wider than Lara’s apparently incurable self-absorption […]

[T]he primary responsibility would flow to Ten’s chief programming officer, David Mott, who has been in charge of the network’s programming for 15 years.

If the regulator were interested, I think Ten has a case to answer.

A lesser person might have written “If the regulator was interested…” but Mr Sheehan cares about his subjunctives. As always, his article is worth reading in full.