Every literate American should know what a pseudo-event is, yet not everyone does. Some of my students struggle with the term, and in those cases I like to direct them to the best recurrent 21st-century example I know: the MTV Movie Awards, which aired its 2016 iteration last night. I’d like to spend this blog post explaining what pseudo-events are, why they matter, and why the MTV Movie Awards serve as such a pluperfect example of the type.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel J. Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-event” shortly after John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in a Presidential campaign that often placed style over substance, the sizzle over the steak. (Sound familiar?) Boorstin explains that the pseudo-event has the following characteristics: 1) It is planned, not spontaneous like a trainwreck or earthquake; 2) It is planned for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced; its success is measured in how widely it is reported; 3) Its relation to underlying reality is ambiguous; instead of asking what happened and what are the consequences (as with a real tsunami), we ask whether it really happened as presented, and what are the motives surrounding it; 4) It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – the pseudo-event is important because the pseudo-event says it is.
One might respond to Boorstin, and some have, that almost all reported events are pseudo-events, or have some pseudonymous character, particularly those in politics and show business; everything is filtered, performed, showcased, reappropriated; nothing is “pure.” Sure. But there’s a difference in type and affect – there has to be – between any awards show and the onlooker-shot footage of Walter Scott being murdered by a North Charleston police officer. Even when a news station rebroadcasts the Walter Scott footage, that remediation has a very different relation to truth than rich celebrities giving each other prizes. One purports to show an everyday reality that we should address with protests and signatures and new laws; one shows a “reality” so removed from everyday that it may be wrong, may even be an insult to its producers, to call it any representation of reality.
Awards shows are ostensibly non-fiction events; they’re not marketed to us as soap operas or HBO dramas. On some level, the named participants are mostly using their “real” names and real faces, and some of them are “really” receiving award trophies that will presumably find their way back to their real houses. In this regard they are somewhat like talk shows, or so-called “reality TV” like American Idol or The Voice. It’s not unreasonable to view all awards shows as meeting at least three of Boorstin’s four criteria – as self-fulfilling prophecies of importance that are planned, in essence, to be reported. However, Boorstin’s fourth, the one where we question the nature and probity of the event itself, is truly best evidenced by the MTV Movie Awards, which are so flagrantly fraudulent as to make their viewers question all awards programs, or perhaps all “reality TV.”
Perhaps all awards shows are multi-hour commercials for products; perhaps. I see differences. When we watch the Oscars, the Emmys, the Tonys, the Grammys, the Golden Globes, and even the People’s Choice Awards, we tend to see all, or almost all, of the nominees in the major categories. This is a little less true with the MTV Video Music Awards, but at the MTV Movie Awards, the only actors/celebrities present are those who are performing music, or presenting or winning awards. For example, last night, nominees included Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, John Boyega, Amy Schumer, and Will Ferrell, but because we did not see any of them in the audience, we could be certain they would not win. And the converse is close to true: if you see celebrities in the audience that you know are nominated, you can be fairly sure they will not leave empty-handed. Upsets happen on other awards shows; one thing you never see on the MTV Movie Awards is a genuinely surprised winner saying something like “I had no idea!” Instead, last night, Amy Poehler, in her acceptance speech for Best Virtual Performance for Inside Out, said while laughing: “Thank you guys for voting for this. Did anyone vote? I don’t know.”
This brings up the issue of fairness in our democratic culture. MTV claims that its online fans vote for the winners (after MTV, of course, handpicks the nominee slate, defining what counts as youth-oriented/blockbuster films). Perhaps that’s true, but MTV offers no way for us to check their work, and it certainly seems possible that MTV executives “goose” the results to favor celebrities who actually promise to appear on the broadcast. (Once they have a committed celeb, are the other nominees disinvited? Or does that all happen before the nominee stage, before the fans are summoned to weigh in?) One counter-argument here is that MTV, which is owned by Viacom/Paramount, doesn’t particularly favor Paramount films. A counter to that counter is that Paramount barely provides enough blockbusters to produce whatever thin veneer of ostensive reality the show requires. (Boorstin writes that pseudo-events aren’t “unreal” in the manner of pure fiction; instead they make us ask why apparent reality was presented this way.) A counter to the counter to the counter might be: what, you want to see a celebrity awkwardly accepting for an absent one?
Last night was the 25th MTV Movie Awards, and in the old days, you could almost pretend it wasn’t entirely scripted. Now, the producers don’t care. For example, last night’s hosts, the mostly excellent Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, came out doing a fully costumed pageant tribute to Mad Max: Fury Road, remained in Max-ish costume throughout their monologue, then gave the first award of the night, Best Female Performance, to Charlize Theron for Mad Max, while a dozen or so apocalyptic war-boys from the pageant still lined her stage. (The war-boys left after the commercial.) The whole thing was presented on a Hollywood soundstage, perhaps to emphasize the artificiality. When Star Wars won Best Movie – the one award you might think they’d keep secret until the envelope reading – hundreds of fans raised (and no doubt were instructed to raise) lit lightsabers in triumph. Earlier, after Ryan Reynolds’ name was announced as winner for Deadpool, a phalanx of Deadpool-dressed dancers took the stage, chaperoning Salt-n-Pepa performing “Shoop,” and only after that did Reynolds accept the award. I’ve seen a lot of award shows; I doubt I’ve ever seen more time elapse between winner announcement and winner acceptance. But that’s MTV, a pioneer in pseudo-eventitude.
It’s true that the current generation is, as often said, “branded within an inch of their lives,” Kardashians in training, building their “online presence” with the savvy of publicists, walking around in clothes that are a step away from the dozen labels sewn onto NASCAR driver uniforms. And maybe the MTV Movie Awards is just more of the same or, in a curious twist, more honest for being able to admit its fealty to marketing imperatives. Maybe. Anywhere else I see a crowd gathered and cheering, there’s something they’re cheering for besides a commercial – a talk-show host, a politician they like, a good song. Audiences are gathered for the MTV Movie Awards – they cut to the audience again and again and again, though God only knows if we’re seeing reactions that actually synch with what’s onstage – entirely to cheer marketing. I’m not quite yet cynical enough to write that off as “the same” as a Fallon or Ellen audience; it strikes me as more pseudonymous and a bit more obscene.
Don’t we see MTV Movie Awards-type marketing in other walks of life? Not really, because few other industries can rely on MTV’s appeal to celebrities, or as Boorstin calls them, “human pseudo-events,” “known for their well-known-ness.” In non-MTV contexts, celebrities seem somehow more authentic, singing songs or giving good performances or clapping for their team or cheering Meryl Streep-level acting. At the MTV Movie Awards they appear on stage with almost nothing to offer but bad quips; it’s celebrity with nothing else to animate it, like fast food without the heat. (The celebrities appear for free, for exposure or to help their eventual back-end paydays; the movie clips come as a very small fraction of each film’s $30 million advertising budget.)
Our life is full of pseudo-events; the MTV Movie Awards is just one glaring, obvious example. The overall effect of pseudo-events is to change our expectations, to make us believe that there will always be something fun and celebration-worthy in the news, and even to make us vaguely dissatisfied with less celebratory “real events.” This wouldn’t be the case if pseudo-events were actual fiction, like novels. It’s important to remember that the pseudo-event isn’t putting lipstick on a pig; it’s caking lipstick on what was already a beautiful human without makeup. There was a kernel of normal reality there that we risk losing to cynicism or appreciating only as absurdity.
In today’s example, it’s important to remember that MTV was probably right to originate a more populist award show than the Oscars. Though blockbusters in theory don’t need any help, there’s something very forward-looking about MTV-created categories like Best Kiss, Best Fight, Best Comedic Performance, Best Action Performance, Best Virtual Performance…and the fact that men and women are nominated side by side in all of them. (And I like this year’s new Best True Story category.) And MTV has done and keeps doing a lot for diversity and inclusion, and for that they deserve nothing but praise. You could argue: don’t fans want to see trailers and dumb celebrities? Sure, but they have that all day on youtube, any time they want it. The MTV Movie Awards borrows the prestige inherent to our association with the word “award” (we have similar associations with “gold” and “winner”) and stretches that into the most cynical, fatuous, capitalism-for-capitalism’s-sake-style pseudo-event that gets seen and (very) widely reported every year. I know I must sound like Thoreau daring to take exception to industrialization, but “rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”