Netflix’s first-ever Australian docu-soap series, Byron Baes, follows a group of young and handsome Instagram influencers in the NSW seaside town of Byron Bay.
As a reality TV series, it ticks all the boxes for compelling content: fashionable scenic location, conventionally attractive (and slightly egocentric) young actors, and a rotating schedule of whimsical parties, fashion shows, of product launches and competing love interests that let emotions boil over.
Throw in a side of alternative health and wellness, crystals, and performative environmental awareness that comes with Bryon and you’ve got a cringe-worthy but binge-worthy watch.
But while the show might be easy to watch, it’s worth considering what exactly happens in this Instagram-perfect “reality” TV.
The ordinary celebrity
Discovering the “ordinary” person behind the big movie star has always fueled tales of fame. That’s why magazines are doing exclusive in-depth interviews with Nicole Kidman and asking about her marriage, kids and cake recipes — to give us a behind-the-scenes look at who she “really” is.
It’s been happening since the Golden Age of Hollywood. During the first half of the 20th century, fan magazines worked with studios to provide upbeat coverage of the “ordinary” lifestyles, hairstyles, and love lives of Hollywood stars.
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In recent years, social media has encouraged ordinary people to engage in celebrity practices online. Everyone who posts on Instagram is consciously aware of an audience and curates their content for their followers the same way a celebrity would for their fans.
Instagram influencers – like most actors in Byron Baes – have made it an economic model. Influencers build a brand and an audience (Jade’s 1.2 million Instagram followers are huge) and then get paid by companies for sponsored posts or collaborations.
Byron Bay is home to big movie stars like the Hemsworth brothers, but it’s also believed to have more social influencers per capita than any other city in Australia.
The fact that many Australian viewers have visited Byron Bay (or at least know of it) and certainly know someone who can be a little “extra” on Instagram adds another layer of familiarity.
Craft the story
Reality TV is, as the name suggests, sold on the basis of a portrayal of “reality”.
The new forms of stardom and stardom created in reality TV and social media rely on the performance of “authenticity”: the idea that we somehow see “real” people and access their true authentic selves.
In Byron Baesthis is facilitated by the fact that many of these influencers are in wellness and spirituality – spheres where authenticity and being true to oneself are highly valued.
The fact is, of course, that Instagram and reality TV shows are just as manipulated, scripted and filtered as any fictional series or doctored photographic image.
Reality TV builds the illusion of authenticity through the idea that it offers immediacy, intimacy and closeness. We often see reality TV stars in extreme displays of emotion: losing their temper, rolling their eyes, bitching behind someone’s back, or confessing their secret love.
We are invited into their homes and businesses. We see photos of them as children, meet their parents, and hear their struggles with bullying, loneliness, and self-doubt.
The low-fi, casual nature of the handheld camera footage and direct one-on-one interviews where actors speak directly to the camera appeal to notions of “real” associated with documentary genres. These one-on-ones are the show‘s attempt to convince audiences that these are real moments of real emotion behind the scenes – and not staged for the camera.
But even casting is an act of manipulation. There are types that producers tend to choose: those who cause drama and move the pot (Alex, Jade); those who bring energy, move the story forward and are natural on camera (Jess, Nathan, Saskia); those that are a bit wacky and add flavor (Cai, Heather, Simba); villains (Elle) and heroes (Sarah) — and models (Elias) who look really, really good on camera.
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Manipulate our perceptions
The beauty of reality TV is that everything someone says is filmed. When Elle denies calling Sarah fake, the show can easily jump back to when it happened.
Of course, that never happens in real life, so viewers revel in the delicious justice of a “real life” person caught in the act of lying.
The producers can also manipulate our own perceptions of Elle by showing us one-on-one interviews where she describes herself as “one of the most generous, loving and open people I know”, then continues with “if anyone dishonors me , I certainly wouldn’t want to be them.
For viewers, while these fabricated stories of conflict create dramatic content (there is also a practical feud between Nathan and Elias on Sarah, and Jade and Alex on Instagram followers), the real appeal lies in the illusion that these people are “like us”. .
Despite community backlash during filming and mixed reviews, Netflix’s gamble on a Byron reality show paid off.
But while getting carried away with this “reality”, it’s worth remembering that, much like an Instagram filter, just because something is presented as real doesn’t make it “authentic” – a notion that is it. -same, just as built .
Phoebe Macrossan, Senior Lecturer in Screen Media, University of the Sunshine Coast, first published this article on The Conversation.