‘Reality’ of Television

By Natalie Moronta

David Foster Wallace writes E Unibus Pluram in 1990 explaining that television has become efficient at demonstrating ironic self-consciousness. The original phrase, “E Pluribus Unum” means “out of many, one”, which is the central idea of democracy. With Wallace’s transition of the phrase, it becomes “out of one, many”, referring to the change that television has had on viewers. Instead of uniting as one,  we have become a loosely connected audience. Wallace begins with the discussion of literary fiction in television and brings forth the critical question: Why do we watch such a tremendous amount of television? If Wallace were to ask this question presently… I think we’d all agree to respond with “because Gossip Girl is on television”.

Wallace immediately incorporates the statistical evidence that Americans watch over six hours of television a day. He describes the culture of television as ironic which links from the writers to the actors and all the way to the audience.

Why do we spend so much time “…unwinding before a piece of furniture”? As viewers, we use television as a distraction from the real world. We watch other people’s drama on television to escape from ours and the reality of it. American television is a reflection of American life. It shows us what we want to see ourselves as which is the “normality” of our lives.

This irony is not far behind within the actors of a show also. “Acting natural” is what makes an actor, the ability to appear unwatched while being watched. The irony lies in the fact that acting natural on television is very unnatural. For the audience, it is both medicine and poison, and some would say that our notion of watching television is not sane. TV meets the needs of viewers by using this actor method as well as using real life situations. As viewers, we love the intimacy of Gossip Girl and how we manufacture these television situations for ourselves. We stare, for hours, at these people who have been to acting schools and are trained to act. We begin to build connections with these characters. But, that is exactly the problem. They are characters. The actual performers are usually very different from their character, yet we seem to not make that distinction.


She is not…



David Foster Wallace’s description of television and American culture still holds true today, to a certain extent. Gossip Girl fits Wallace’s description of an ironic television show because of its display of what is the “high-class” American lifestyle. The show is altered to meet the needs of the expected viewers which in this case is the group of teenage females. It demonstrates enough teen drama therefore, these young females connect with it and it leads to assistance in any of the drama they are currently facing. Gossip Girl also creates the illusion that David Foster Wallace refers to. The situations that these girls see on this show are not real; they are just fictional dramatic situations that are made up to catch the audience’s attention. It also creates an illusion in that it portrays to teenagers the lavish & comfortable lifestyle that we wish we had. Wallace talks about the distinction between the characters and the performers. He writes “… but the performers are beyond strangers, they’re images, demigods, and they move in a different sphere, hang out with and marry only each other, seem even as actors accessible to Audience only via the mediation of tabloids, talk show, EM signal”. This demonstrates the lack of connection between the characters and the audience that we as viewers cannot usually tell the distinction between. Gossip Girl fits appropriately with this quote because the protagonist, Blake Lively, is married to another celebrity in reality.

Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”. Review of Contemporary Fiction 13 (2): 151–194.

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