JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 51, spring 2009

Postmodern marketing, Generation Y
and the multiplatform viewing experience
of MTV’s The Hills

by Amanda Klein

In an April 20th New Yorker editorial, Nancy Franklin pondered the overwhelming success of MTV’s The Hills, an “unscripted drama” that has become MTV’s and basic cable’s highest rated program.[1][open endnotes in new window] During the course of any given Hills episode very little happens: Lauren has lunch with Audrina, Heidi wonders where Lauren and Audrina are having lunch, and Whitney goes to work. Indeed, take away their money, their fabulous apartments and the constant presence of a television camera, and Lauren, Whitney, Audrina and Heidi — the show’s “stars” — are not too different from the average twenty-something living in the United States. So what is the draw of this highly successful program? Franklin muses:

“For younger viewers — who are the intended audience for the series — it may be a soothing fantasy about coming of age, and give them the sense that even after they leave their parents’ house they will still be the center of attention, the way these girls are.”(Franklin 137)

The Hills, she concludes “makes adulthood seem like a piece of cake.”

Like Franklin, I also see The Hills’ appeal as strongly tied to the illusions it paints: about adulthood, about working and about what life might be like for a twenty-something living in Los Angeles. In this way the show is the ultimate example of “lifestyle television” or what Chuck Kleinhans has called “projective drama,” that is

“the dramatic presentation of a situation that the core audience views in anticipation that they will be in a similar situation sometime in the future.”(Kleinhans)

The Hills provides its viewers with a fantasy model of adulthood, in which work is easy, every night is “girls night out!” and everyone is filmed amidst the golden, romantic hues of a Southern California sunset. The girls never express concerns over paying their rents, finding employment in today’s dreary economic climate, or even engaging in the world that (presumably) exists beyond the borders of Los Angeles’ club circuit.[2] Rolling Stone writer Jason Gray admits:

“When the cheery theme song, Natasha Bedingfield’s girly-power anthem ‘Unwritten,’ kicks in…you can sense the serotonin releasing inside your brain. The Hills is Wellbutrin on TV” (44).

Multiplatform viewing experience

I also argue that The Hills has succeeded in part because it has found inventive and interactive ways to market itself to its target youth audience. But who are these viewers/consumers, and why has it been necessary to develop new marketing strategies in order to catch their attention? Generation Y has been described as “the most diverse generation in U.S. history” as well as the largest generation since the Baby Boomers (Rikleen). Members of Generation Y, alternately called the Millennial Generation, Echo Boomers, the Net Generation, the Tethered Generation, and the Everybody Gets a Trophy Generation, are generally defined as U.S. children born between 1979 and 1994 [3] who are both adept with and dependent on technology, including cell phones, wireless hand held devices, MP3 players, computers and the Internet.

As a result of this increased facility with information databases and modes of mass communication (theirs was the first generation to grow up using personal computers and later, the Internet), Generation Y’s “digital natives” have proved to be a marketing challenge (Yeaton 69). Market research reveals that the advertising campaigns based on image and slogan that worked so well with Baby Boomers and Generation X, such as Michael Jordan’s endorsement of Nikes, is ineffective with this new generation:

“…[Generation Y] respond to ads differently, and they prefer to encounter those ads in different places. The marketers that capture Gen Y's attention do so by bringing their messages to the places these kids congregate, whether it's the Internet, a snowboarding tournament, or cable TV” (Neuborne and Kerwin).

In order to capture this elusive demographic, The Hills relies on tabloid weeklies, entertainment news programs, Internet discussion boards and even the casts’ own side projects to promote the show. These platforms also serve as alternative venues for consuming the show’s content (i.e., the characters, their storylines and the goods they purchase and promote). For example, MTV recently conducted an online survey to determine how a viewers’ perception of a corporate sponsor, in this case, Pepsi, changed in relationship to the amount of “content” with which they came into contact. Those Hills fans who watched the program and then went online to participate in The Hills virtual world — spaces where Pepsi runs spots, banners and even offers Pepsi-themed clothing for avatars — were more likely to have a positive opinion of Pepsi and its products. The researchers discovered that digital platform extensions increase a viewer’s engagement with both a television show and its sponsors (McClellan).

The article interviews Henry Jenkins to explain this phenomenon of “engagement”:

"Engagement is the term we use to refer not to just regular TV viewership but to a more passion-driven and more socially driven mode of watching television and connecting pieces together…One could argue that the modern television viewer is a kind of hunter and gatherer who collects pieces of entertainment information that they care about across as many different platforms as possible." (qtd. in McClellan)

It is precisely this kind of viewer engagement that MTV is hoping to capitalize upon in its marketing of The Hills. Fans find content — not just within the narrow parameters of the thirty minute program — but online, on the newsstands and even when watching other, non-MTV programming, such as Access Hollywood or Entertainment Tonight.

This kind of engagement does not, on the surface, appear to be unlike the elaborate lengths that certain television series with media savvy fan bases have gone to feed viewer demands for content during the long stretches between seasons. Lost, to name one such program, launched intricate websites for the fictional Oceanic airlines, home of the doomed flight 815, and put up billboards for the airline in several cities in January of 2008. The show’s producers even hired actors to attend the 2007 ComiCon in order to disrupt the Lost panel with outrageous conspiracy theories about the Hanso foundation. The Hills’ creators, however, only need to release their cast members into the wilds of Hollywood’s paparazzi-laden streets in order to generate and maintain viewer interest in the off seasons. The extradiegetic news stories and scandals circulating around The Hills’ cast serves not just to remind viewers that the show is on the air. These stories become an integral component of the show’s highly contrived plotlines, seamlessly integrating reality television, media scandal and fan adoration/outrage into one glossy, interactive package.

This narrative practice assumes — or rather, demands — that the show’s fans keep up with the cast members’ off-camera antics. Of course, to speak of a true “off- camera” moment is impossible since The Hills’ cast members live in front of an ever-present camera, transforming them into beautiful, blank slates onto which plotlines can be constructed. In The Hills, every facial expression, outfit choice, or dance club outing — whether filmed by MTV’s cameras or those of the ever-present paparazzi — becomes fodder for future plotlines on The Hills and cover stories in the tabloids.

Several critics have made comparisons between The Hills and auteurs like Michelangelo Antonioni,[4] arguing that the series’ reliance on stripped down dialogue, plotless narratives and focus on the anomie of the idle classes are quite similar to those of the lauded art cinema of the 1950s and 1960s. This comparison is most accurate in terms of the show’s lack of traditional plotlines. When European films were screened in U.S. art houses in the 1950s and 1960s, audiences were were intrigued and annoyed by their violation of one of the most fundamental rules of Classical Hollywood cinema — namely the clear transmission of a cause and effect narrative driven by characters with defined goals. While the plotless, meandering narratives of films like A bout de soufflé  (1959, Jean-Luc Godard) and L’ Avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) eventually made it acceptable for more mainstream directors to occasionally forgo cause and effect driven narratives, this tendency has yet to filter into U.S. television (or at least not successfully).[5] Thus, the plotlessness of The Hills, the fact that it is essentially “a show about nothing,” only further underscores that its appeal is the complete accessibility of its characters.

Blogger Henry Wolfe accurately describes The Hills as:

"…the narrative of our casually exhibitionist moment, of facebook, where the minutiae of the everyday becomes elevated because it’s selected and exhibited and viewed by an audience; all those scenes where lauren talks at whitney or heidi talks at elodie or audrina talks at chiara, those one-sided dialogues, they’re the televisual equivalent of facebook status updates (“heidi is feeling sad.” “lauren doesn’t know what to do anymore.” “audrina is done with him.”) (sic)."

Before social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, we never would have expected to know what our friends, or in many cases, complete strangers, were doing on an hourly basis. But because Facebook provides this luxury such information becomes both interesting and necessary. Lauren, Heidi and Audrina need only to exist — and to allow others to watch — to be entertaining. The Hills therefore is very much a show of today’s cultural moment. In particular, it is a show keyed into the way that Generation Y experiences the world.

Offscreen storylines

The Hills’ cast courted the press from the start, but it was not until after Season Two finished airing that the series’ unconventional approach to marketing became clear. In the interim between Season Two’s finale in April of 2007 and the premiere of Season Three in August 2007, it was reported that the show’s protagonist and narrator, Lauren Conrad, and her ex-boyfriend, Jason Wahler, known primarily for bouts of public drunkenness and racist rants,[6] had made a sex tape together. Although the story was quickly discredited, rumors spread that it was concocted by Lauren’s former roommate (during Seasons One and Two), Heidi Montag, and her new boyfriend, Spencer Pratt. In the lazy summer weeks leading up to the Season Three premiere, when tabloid magazines make for excellent poolside reading, much was made of the acrimony between Heidi and Lauren. Both women allegedly refused to appear together in publicity photographs promoting the new season and asked that their storylines be filmed separately (Armstrong). Given this buzz, it is not surprising that the Season Three premiere of The Hills, entitled “You Know What You Did,”was the most watched show, on both network television and cable, in the key demographic of 12 to 34 year olds. It was also the highest rated cable telecast of 2008 (“Hills Premiere”).

“You Know What You Did” opens with one of the series’ signature “recap” conversations in which characters are expected to have an on camera conversation (which they have likely already had, off camera) about key plot points. Lauren enters the Teen Vogue offices, cooing over her co-worker, Whitney Port’s, new promotion and the changes to their work space (“They’ve organized the dresses!”). The light tone of this conversation abruptly shifts as Whitney dutifully asks Lauren “How are you doing?” and slips into her customary role of “monologue catcher” a term Henry Wolfe has coined to describe this signature convention of the series. Despite the fact that this conversation is taking place for the benefit of the show’s viewers (we can only assume that Whitney and Lauren discussed the sex tape scandal at some point during the summer), Lauren’s recap is vague and confusing:

Not only does Lauren avoid discussing the nature of the alleged tape’s contents (she calls them “inappropriate videotapes”), she also refrains from conjecturing on the source of the rumor. Instead, Whitney asks, just a beat after before the show’s opening credits begin, “Have you heard from Heidi lately?” followed by a blank shot of Lauren’s face, otherwise known as an “egg.”[7] Lacking a full discourse, viewers are asked to substitute their own, extradiegetic knowledge for what Lauren refuses to articulate[8] : that Heidi and Spencer are (allegedly) responsible for our heroine’s pain. Within the diegesis of the show the sex tape scandal is framed as a rumor that circulated among Lauren’s relatively small, onscreen circle of family and friends and on the Internet, but not as the media scandal that it was in “real life.”[9]  

Lauren does not explicitly accuse Heidi of starting the sex tape rumor. Instead, this recap conversation is used to facilitate a forward movement in the narrative, namely to preface the show down between Lauren and Heidi promised by the episode’s tantalizing title. The confrontation occurs at one of the show’s go to hang outs, Les Deux, when the girls attend a birthday party for a mutual friend. After Heidi attempts to reconnect with Lauren (she assumes that they have lost contact due to her decision to move in with Spencer), they begin to feud outside of the club. But as with the previous conversation, the confrontation between the two women is vague:

Lauren: Do you know why I’m mad at you?
Heidi: Why Lauren?
Lauren: You know why I’m mad at you.
Heidi: Why?
Lauren: You know what you did!
Heidi: What? What did I do?
Lauren: You know what you did!
Heidi: What did I do? What?
Lauren: Come on.
Heidi: What? You guys are crazy. What did I do? What did I do?
Lauren: You guys are sick people.
Heidi: What did we do?
Lauren: [incredulous] What did you do?
Heidi: Yeah.
Lauren: What did you do? You started a sick little rumor about me.
Heidi: I didn’t start any rumor about you.
Lauren: Really? Nothing? Really?
Heidi: No. No.
Lauren: You’re a sad, pathetic person.
[Lauren exits screen right]

I cite this interaction at length because it is both highly tense and yet devoid of any useful information for the viewer, beyond the pleasures to be gained from watching two former friends scream at each other in a public space while donning designer dresses. Heidi feigns ignorance over Lauren’s accusation, but instead of serving the typical role of “monologue catcher” (that is, asking a question she already knows the answer to for the benefit of the audience), her repeated questioning of Lauren reveals almost nothing new to the audience. Those familiar with this scandal from the tabloids are frustrated by the vagueness of the accusations (why won’t Lauren use the word “sex tape”?). Similarly, those unfamiliar with the tabloid-fueled assumption that Heidi and her boyfriend started the sex tape rumors are baffled by Lauren’s confidence that her ex-roommate is the source.

But why not indulge the sex tape story? After all, it makes for a great storyline and would certainly help to accentuate and define the rift that had formed between Lauren and Heidi, the series’ dueling divas, in the interim between Season Two and Season Three. Without this extradiegetic knowledge it is unclear why Lauren and Heidi are no longer friends at the beginning of Season Three. [10] According to the show’s creator Avi Di Santo, the answer is simple:

“We want viewers to watch Lauren and the girls as the characters we know instead of in a show about being the stars of The Hills” (qtd. in Armstrong).

Di Santo’s distinction is key. Rather than allowing the tabloids and the cult of celebrity to dominate and eventually overtake the show — as it did with other successful MTV reality programs like The Newlyweds and The Osbournes — Di Santo wants the plotlines of his show to work in concert with the tabloids. The show’s producers do not wallow in the sex tape scandal or explicitly discuss Heidi or Spencer’s alleged role in creating it. To do so would be — to use Di Santo’s terms — transforming the series into a show about what it is like to be a star of The Hills.[11] To this end, cast members never mention the fact that they are being filmed, or that they are engaged in or affected by activities resulting from their involvement in an immensely popular television show.

But this strategy begs the question: Why can’t this show be about “what it’s like to be a star of The Hills”? Blogger and media studies scholar Michael Newman offers one possible explanation:

“If Lauren or Heidi ever mentioned the existence of a program on television on which they regularly appear, the effect would be like a rupture in the space-time continuum. The first rule of The Hills is, you do not talk about The Hills.”

In other words, in order to maintain this illusion of a self-contained narrative world, of a show about regular (albeit fabulously wealthy and good-looking) twenty-somethings living in Los Angeles, the onscreen world can make little mention of the offscreen world.  If the show did acknowledge the celebrity surrounding its characters — Lauren’s fashion line, Heidi’s singing “career,” Spencer’s love affair with US Weekly — then the show would likely collapse into itself, becoming just another venue for promoting the star texts of Lauren, Audrina, Heidi, Whitney and Spencer. The Hills, as a series, provides these individuals with their raison d’etre. Acknowledging this within the text would likely diminish the appeal of both.

Postmodern marketing

Furthermore, it is unnecessary for The Hills cast to mention the MTV cameras and paparazzi lenses hovering just outside the borders of the television frame[12] because the producers know that their target audience is in fact reading the tabloids (or the Internet gossip sites or the show’s discussion boards).  The argument between Lauren and Heidi, in which the accusation proper (“You spread the rumor that I made a sex tape!”) is absent, can be easily reconstructed by the “engaged” Hills viewer.  In this way, tabloid stories, both in print and online, conveniently function as a seamless narrative bridge from season to season and even from episode to episode. Brian Graden, the president of entertainment at MTV describes the phenomenon this way:

“We have this six-month commercial for the show that doesn't give away the narrative in full. It's a kind of postmodern marketing. We're living in an age of TMZ and Perez Hilton  —  The Hills indulges that” (qtd. in Armstrong).

This so-called “postmodern” marketing practice became even more pronounced after the finale of Season Three when the camera-ready relationship between Heidi and Spencer became a regular feature in US Weekly, Perez Hilton, and other print and online gossip sources. For example, in the weeks leading up to the premiere of the second half of Season Three on March 26th, US Weekly printed several cover stories about the Hills’ cast. During the week of March 17th, for example, the magazine featured an exclusive interview with Heidi and her allegedly ex-fiancé entitled “I was Betrayed by Spencer.” Rather than a steamy tell-all with the young starlet, the article is a dissection of a trailer for the upcoming Hills premiere and the couple’s reaction to it. Although it is not unusual for magazines to interview television stars about their upcoming projects, it is unusual for the stars to discuss themselves and their real lives as a television series. For example, when US Weekly asked Heidi how angry she was at Spencer, on a scale of one to ten, she replied,

“A seven or an eight. I mean, you see my reaction in the trailer” (qtd. in Reinstein 56)

Here, it is difficult for Heidi to describe her own emotions, separate from their documentation on television. Later in the interview Heidi is asked if she overreacted to Spencer’s alleged cheating:

“We have different definitions of relationship boundaries. The viewers will have to see who they agree with” (qtd. in Reinstein 57).

Again, Heidi’s responses are calibrated to and defined by their eventual broadcast to a television audience.

While Lauren is also frequently featured in the tabloids, these pieces are usually lifestyle-oriented: Lauren offers her fans diet and dating tips, or models seasonal fashions. However, Heidi and Spencer, perhaps in a bid to secure their roles on the show (since Lauren reportedly wanted both of them kicked off), have deftly used the media to their advantage by propagating several compelling narratives during the long weeks between seasons of The Hills: Heidi’s attempts to become a pop singer, Heidi’s reactions to the fan’s reactions to her attempts to become a pop singer, Heidi’s grotesque plastic surgery, Heidi’s reactions to the fan’s reactions to her grotesque plastic surgery, and of course, the couple’s on again/off again relationship. For example, after the music video for Heidi’s pop single, “Higher,” was “leaked” online in January 2008 fans and critics were appropriately delighted by its awfulness. When the video was posted on the gossip site PerezHilton.com it received over 2,000 comments. The video was dissected endlessly by pop culture recap shows like Best Week Ever and The Soup and spawned countless parodies on You Tube.  Heidi’s initial response to this intensely negative fan feedback was accepting: “You really have to have a lot of passion and thought to write any comment. So thank you for any comment” she told Perez Hilton in an interview in early February. By the end of the month, however, Heidi had changed her story, perhaps correctly surmising that maturity does not generate tabloid headlines.

In a February 25th issue of US Weekly, complete with staged photographs of Heidi crying while clutching a CD (presumably hers) the aspiring pop star admitted,

“I cried myself to sleep that first night after my video came out…I just couldn't understand why people I didn't even know felt the need to be so cruel and hurtful toward me… I am just a 21-year-old from a small town in Colorado trying to follow her dreams” (qtd. in Guarente 73).

This cover story afforded the couple an opportunity not just to plug Heidi’s singing career and the next season of The Hills, which would premiere in a month, but also the feuding couple’s storyline on the show. When asked, “So are you two good now after calling off your engagement in December?” Heidi responded,

“Spencer and I are just starting over with our relationship, as you will see in the upcoming episodes of The Hills” (qtd. in Guarente 75).

 As a result of their unabashed courting of the media, Heidi and Spencer have built an offscreen (or should I say an onscreen offscreen?) career out of being “Heidi and Spencer” from The Hills. Spencer directly addressed the couple’s approach to self promotion in an L.A. Times interview:

“Janice Min at Us Weekly is like a family member to us…We love her. If my mom and her are e-mailing me at the same time, I'm like, ‘Uh, Janice or my mom?’” (qtd. in Arthur).

Spencer and Heidi not only admit to the fakeness of The Hills in these interviews, they also admit to the fakeness of their offscreen lives — the part of their lives that we presume to be more “real” than that other less real (but purportedly real) world of The Hills. There is no attempt to uphold the illusion of some form of “reality” in the face of the audience. Spencer and, to a lesser extent, Heidi, freely admit that they are putting on a show. Spencer, who has referred to himself and Heidi as a “brand” and as “improv TV personalities” (qtd. in Arthur) sees his existence as a never ending performance for whichever camera — that of The Hills crew, the paparazzi, or the interviewer — might be present at any given moment. Therefore it is not surprising that Spencer, just after he eloped with Heidi in November of 2008, described his wedding [12a] in this way:

“…when I saw Heidi walk down the aisle, it really hit me. I was like, This is real, she is so beautiful…It was like I was dreaming, to be honest. I’ll have to watch the video to have it sink in” (qtd. in O’Leary 50).

Like Heidi, Spencer conceives of his life in terms of its televisual documentation. Events that he has experienced become real to him only after he has consumed them as recorded images.

Spencer and Heidi’s approach to television stardom leads to a strong cognitive dissonance on the part of The Hills fan. If the viewer wishes to buy into the fantasy of the show — to see the diegetic narratives as coherent and real and the extradiegetic narratives as coherent and real (and even to believe that there is a distinction between the diegetic and the extradiegetic in The Hills world) — then s/he is straddled with an impossible task. After seeing images of Spencer embracing Heidi as she weeps over the poor reception of her “Higher” single on the pages of US Weekly in February, it is pointless to wonder whether they will get back together within the diegesis of the show (filmed months prior). In many ways then, Speidi’s tabloid antics act as the ultimate “spoiler” for the show — they revealed the conclusion to their own character arcs months before The Hills’ season finale. This practice serves as a marked contrast from other reality programs — like Survivor or The Bachelor — which demand that participants sign non-disclosure agreements ensuring that they will not reveal the final results of the competition in the interim between the end of filming and the airing of the show. Few people would want to watch The Bachelor if they knew from the beginning which lucky lady the bachelor ultimately chose. Yet no such muzzle is put on Heidi and Spencer — they are free to speak to the media whenever and wherever they like. Thus, The Hills has the peculiar effect of becoming more and more incoherent as the viewer becomes more “engaged” in the show and its alternative content platforms.

This multiplatform strategy again highlights the unique viewing experience of The Hills. Its media savvy audience is likely aware of the characters’ offscreen lives and yet they continue to tune in (in record numbers) to see what transpires onscreen each week. In fact, this drive to see these characters, rather than to see “what happens next,” is actively cultivated by MTV with its Remote Control website. This site describes itself as:

“… MTV's official TV blog. We are the people you see on MTV, the producers of the shows and the fans. Exclusive photos, interviews, videos and recaps of all our favorite television shows are here for you in a matter of clicks.”

Here viewers can see the Hills’ cast members (and the casts of other MTV reality shows) in their various talk show interviews, media appearances and photo opportunities.

Viewers are not turning into The Hills merely for the 30 minute narrative; rather they tune in for “The Hills experience,” which includes reading about the cast in the tabloids, watching their “candid” interviews on talk shows ranging from The David Letterman Show to Tyra to Regis & Kelly, reading their personal pages on MySpace,[13] discussing the show with fellow fans on MTV.com and other sites, listening to Heidi’s music and yes, even wearing the clothing designed by Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag. Indeed, Lauren’s agent, Max Stubblefield, describes his client as a “global brand,” citing her endorsement deals with Mark cosmetics, AT&T, a book deal and a possible production company (Stack 30). The Hills series is simply one venue for consuming the Lauren Conrad brand.

Generation Y and the workplace

Beyond this expansive multiplatform engagement, I believe that viewers are tuning into The Hills for another reason: It plays into the kind of worldview that has been cultivated in Generation Y since birth, namely that success is available to everyone, no matter their skill level or work ethic. Lauren, Whitney, Audrina and Heidi have limited educations and poorly articulated life goals, yet they are famous, wealthy and involved in exciting careers in fashion design, styling, music production/promotion and event planning. Growing up in the so-called “culture of praise,” in which every milestone was documented on film and every accomplishment, however small, was commemorated with a trophy, Generation Y must surely find some validation in the effortless success experienced by The Hills’ young, photogenic cast. Social critics argue that Generation Y was insulated from criticism and disappointment at early age by anxious Baby Boomer parents who wanted their children’s academic and extracurricular experiences to be collaborative rather than exclusionary, positive rather than ego-bruising:

“From their early days of shared rewards, constant media stimulation, and technology savvy, they have become a generation accustomed to quick answers, a constant flow of information and new ideas and immediate gratification” (Rikleen).

Indeed, a prevailing belief among today’s employers is that Generation Y, cultivated to be the ultimate “me generation,” have been imbued with a “false self-confidence” (Erickson). According to a CNN report, 87% percent of hiring managers and human resources professionals say Generation Y exhibits a sense of entitlement that older generations do not (Balderrama).

Although today’s youth were raised during the greatest period of wealth creation in modern history, they will have to struggle even more than their parents did to pay for college tuition, housing and health insurance. They face the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, reduced salaries and benefits, degree inflation and rising unemployment (Conlin 32). And yet there is a false confidence cultivated among Generation Y that wealth and fame are available to everyone who is willing to place himself or herself before the camera’s eager but indiscriminate lens. David Morrison, of the Philadelphia-based research firm Twentysomething Inc, explains the phenomenon in this way:

“People being themselves can be incredibly famous and get sponsorship deals, and they can become celebrities…It's a completely new development in entertainment, and it's having a crossover effect on attitudes and behavior” (qtd. in Jayson).

One Newsweek reporter, Jennie Yabroff, dubbed Generation Y the “Look at Me Generation” because of their utter unselfconsciousness when faced with the probing camera of the documentary filmmaker and their willingness to post the most intimate details of their daily lives on blogs and social networking sites.

Indeed, psychology professor Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled  —  and More Miserable than Ever Before, a study of generational differences based on data culled from 1.3 million Americans over the course of 14 years, found that the gap between expectation and reality is far greater for today’s youth than it has been for previous generations. After years of being told that simply “believing in yourself” was all that was needed to succeed, Generation Y has, in general, unrealistic expectations about what it can achieve and it what it will take to achieve it. While these hypotheses are likely exaggerated by the media, this paper argues that there is a link between the success of The Hills and its reliance on narratives which appear, on the surface, to mirror the fantasies of its target youth demographic. Namely, this generation fantasizes that an exciting, lucrative career in the field of one’s choice is attained, not so much through hard work and perseverance (the American Dream), but through the vocalization of desire (the Millennial American Dream).

For example, during Season 3, after one year of working at Bolthouse Productions (a job she obtained without the benefit of a college degree or any real world experience), Heidi decided to apply for the newly available events director position. She is called into the office of her boss, Brent Bolthouse, and the following interview (recounted below in its entirety) takes place:

Heidi: Well, I feel like I’ve been here a long time and I’ve worked really hard and I’d definitely be up to the task if I’d be able to be considered.
Brent: It’s a lot bigger of a position.
Heidi: [nodding] Yeah. I know.
Brent: Well, interesting idea. Let me think about it.

According to the show’s narrative Heidi is awarded the position over Elodie, a co-worker who has been at the company twice as long, based solely on this “interview.” Furthermore, the viewer is not privy to Bolthouse’s decision-making process — the next time the audience sees Heidi she is already seated at her desk in her new office. Here, The Hills effectively mystifies the entire process of interviewing and vetting a candidate for a new job. Heidi merely needed to vocalize her desire for the job in order to acquire it.

Similarly, when Whitney — who is depicted as being the most capable and hard-working of The Hills cast — decides that she would like to leave her current position at Teen Vogue in order to pursue “styling,” the move is effortless. Once again the audience is privy to Whitney’s interview — this time at the People’s Revolution, a “full service branding company” for designers. As in Heidi’s interview, the exchange between employer, Kelly Cutrone, and prospective employee, Whitney, is brief and vague:

Kelly: Why do you want to work on this side of [the fashion industry]?
Whitney: I think that the more opportunities I have and the more opportunities I put myself out there for, I should take advantage. I just think that working at Vogue was an unbelievable experience, I just wanted a job that, ummm, I could do more.
Kelly: What are your strengths? Why should I let you come work here?
Whitney: I could probably be very helpful in terms of whether, you know, its stylists who come in here and pulling for photo shoots or styling for look books, or styling for runway shows.

In an interview situation, Whitney, like Heidi, is only capable of articulating her desires for upward mobility. She wants to “do more,” to have better “opportunities” with her vaguely defined skill set. Whitney knows that she is capable of “styling” things, but she neither offers specifics nor is requested to be more specific in describing her abilities. Nevertheless, as soon as Whitney finishes speaking, Cutrone offers her the job. While it is likely that both Heidi and Whitney’s interviews were edited down for time and interest, they are presented to the viewer as complete events. In other words, there are no ellipses in the editing to indicate that story time has somehow exceeded screen time. This tactic creates the impression that both young women were awarded their new jobs based on the proclamation of their desires before a present camera.

In this way The Hills functions to promote aspirational lifestyle models to its viewers, creating a world in which minimal effort combined with strong consumer desires yields impressive and glamorous career rewards. In other television series which depict young, professional female protagonists, like the title characters in Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ally McBeal or even the female leads of Sex and the City,[14] winning a promotion is depicted as a challenge that must be surmounted by the eager, determined heroine. We value the protagonists’ achievements in the workplace because they labored to attain them. Furthermore, because they are women we understand that they are likely facing a gender bias that must be overcome. By contrast, in The Hills winning a promotion at work or obtaining a new job boils down to little more than the applicant’s enthusiasm for the position.[15]

Finally, in the world of The Hills work looks very similar partying: Heidi literally works at parties. Likewise, in the luminescent offices of Teen Vogue, Whitney and Lauren tap listlessly on their pristine Macintoshes, steam racks of candy-colored dresses, and have one-sided conversations about Lauren’s love life. This illusion of work — in which successfully picking up a pair of shoes from a top French design house earns the girls heaps of praise from their successful, hardworking boss, Lisa Love,[16] plays into Generation Y’s presumed fantasies about the workplace. For example, after Whitney begins her position at The People’s Revolution, she meets Lauren for a lunch date. In a reversal of Hills conventions, it is Lauren who acts as “monologue catcher” while Whitney describes her new job for the benefit of The Hills’ audience:

Whitney: So the day I was there we were working on the Sass and Bide show…
Lauren: So fun!
Whitney: SO fun…
Lauren: Wait did you get to work backstage…
Whitney: YES.  My job during the show was to, uh, call the models, like, Kelly would be like “Okay next model out” and I’d be like “Go go go!”
Lauren: That’s like my ideal job…
Whitney: I know. I mean while I was doing it I was thinking “Lauren would be loving this right now.”
Lauren: [deflated] Yeah.
           

Beyond learning that both Lauren’s and Whitney’s dream job can be described as telling models to “go go go” at a runway show, this scene also offers our heroine a new object of desire: a job at The People’s Revolution. This teaser segment, which occurs just before the show’s credit sequence, is ostensibly about Whitney and her new job, but it becomes, like everything else in the show, about Lauren and her desires. The scene closes on an egg or rather a series of eggs: a medium close up of Whitney reveals that she is uncomfortable with Lauren’s overt envy followed by a reverse shot of Lauren, offering one of her signature looks of dismay. Here again it is not necessary for Lauren to vocalize her desires (i.e., “I really want a job identical to your job, Whitney”). Rather, her wistful expression, which occurs just before the show’s title song begins to play, indicates as much. In the world of The Hills, characters do not even need to engage in the work emoting; the audience does that work for them.

As viewers have learned from previous Hills viewing experiences, Lauren’s ambitions will likely bear sweet fruit. Indeed, by the end of the episode Kelly Cutrone has offered Lauren a position with The People’s Revolution. What is especially interesting about this particular plotline, however, is Lauren’s desire and assumption that she should continue to work alongside her friend, Whitney. According to a research conducted by the consulting firm, Deloitte (to investigate why so many of their young employees left the firm), Generation Y workers will often choose a job based on whether or not they have a friend working there (Trunk), an employment expectation that would have appeared unnecessary or indulgent to previous generations. The Hills thus tweaks the already destructive American Dream even further by telling its youthful audience that hard work and determination are no longer a prerequisite for success in the workplace. Simply having the wherewithal to decide definitively what you would like to do with your career is enough. Furthermore, upon obtaining their dream jobs, The Hills cast members get to chat with their friends, attend glamorous parties and receive glowing praise for their minimal efforts.[16b]

Despite the fact that this generation will have to struggle even more than their parents did to pay for college tuition, housing and health insurance, The Hills offers young women misleading models of success and happiness based on unrealistic expectations of continuous validation and a willingness to expose one’s personal traumas to a community of anonymous observers.[17] Furthermore, the show’s replication and encouragement of the audience’s complex relationship with the increasingly collapsed world of entertainment, news and product consumption offers a simulacrum for their current experiences of the world.  Viewers are encouraged to engage with the program both on screen and within their daily lives as they surf the Internet, read a magazine, or go shopping for low-end party clothes. As a result, The Hills bridges the gap between advertising content and narrative content, effectively rendering these scripts interchangeable.

Notes

I owe many thanks to Teresa Howell, my graduate research assistant in the Fall of 2007, for her help in gathering research for this article.

1. During the final weeks of Season 3, The Hills was also ranked as the top cable “time-shifted” show; The Hills was most frequently recorded by a digital video recorder, like TiVo (Gorman).

2. For a discussion of the links between the restaurants and clubs that appear in the series and MTV’s corporate partnerships, see Elizabeth Affuso’s article in JC 50 (2009).

3. These parameters shift depending on the text being consulted. Yabroff’s Newsweek article defined members of Generation Y as anyone born after 1982 and an article in International Journal of Consumer Studies dates the generation to those born between1977 and 1994. Still others define this generation as anyone born after 1970.

4. See, for example, Gina Bellafante’s “Career Climbing, With Claws Bared” and Karina Logworth’s “5 Ways In Which The Hills is JUST LIKE An Antonioni Film.”

5. Seinfeld was famously described as a show about “nothing.” However, each episode did, in fact, center around defined (albeit silly) character goals, and plots were structured through cause and effect relationships.

6. See Ken Lee’s “Jail Time for Jason Wahler of The Hills” in People magazine.

7. Elana Levine defines the egg as “the shot at the end of many daytime soap scenes in which an actor holds an expression for several beats until the scene fades out. The egg is an effective technique in soaps because viewers spend so much time with the characters that they learn to read into their faces…”

8. Levine has described this phenomenon as “meaning-without-meaning”: “We get [for example] that Lauren is unsure about getting back together with Jason, her philandering ex-boyfriend, because the music and her smile-free face communicate it. But we understand this not so much because we understand who Lauren is but because we’ve seen enough music videos and soap-like scripted drama to read the codes.”

9. While the story was not covered by mainstream news sources, it was a fixture on gossip sites like Perez Hilton, US Magazine, The Superficial and Gawker throughout the summer of 2007.

10. In the finale of Season Two, Heidi moved out of Lauren’s apartment to move in with Spencer. However, the women are still friends when the episode concludes.

11. In another interview with Entertainment Weekly just one year later Avi Di Santo recognizes that his creations are now out of his control and worries that soon there will be very little “reality” left for his cameras to film: “We have a hard line because we really enjoy the world of The Hills we’ve created…[but] as they get more and more famous, their non-fame lives get smaller and smaller” (qtd. in Stack 31).

12. In 2008 MTV’s film crew had to strike up an alliance with lurking paparazzi in order to shoot footage for Season 4. Lauren Conrad explains “We’ll be filming at a restaurant and it will be us at a table, three cameras, and then a row of photographers behind the cameras” (qtd. in Stack 31).

12a. In the weeks following Spencer and Heidi’s elopement, it was revealed that their Mexican wedding ceremony was merely “symbolic” since the couple never went through the procedures necessary to make their Mexican wedding ceremony legally binding. As a result, the couple was able to further milk this storyline on The Hills as audiences wondered whether they would go through with a legal marriage ceremony in California.

13. For example, after Us Weekly published a cover story on Lauren Conrad, with the headline “How I Was Stabbed in the Back” (one of the few salacious stories about Lauren to appear in the media), she fired back with a post on her MySpace page explaining her side of the story “Hey! I just wanted to take a moment to clear something up. I recently did an interview to talk about the show coming back on and what everyone had to look forward to. Unfortunately it was turned into yet another ‘poor me’ story. The article itself is a nice one but it follows headlines that, in no way, represent my words or feelings. I do not feel betrayed by Audrina or Brody. I love them both and said nothing to contradict this. I understand that headlines sell magazines, but I value my friendships above magazine sales any day.”

14. Jason Gay also notes the similarities between Lauren and television’s other “career women”: “Like with Mary Tyler Moore or Carrie Bradshaw, viewers relate to Lauren because she’s a searcher — for true love, the perfect job and friends that never let her down.” (46).

15. Indeed, in Episode 4.18 “Dream Boy, Dream Job” Whitney is informed by her new boss, Kelly Cutrone, that she will be interviewing for a job with designer Diane von Furstenberg in New York City. Once again, she is awarded this position despite a lackluster interview. This particular job opportunity is arranged so that Whitney can star in her own Hills spin off, The City.

16. See Episode 3.19 “Paris Changes Everything.”

16b. This approach to the depiction of the work place shifts somewhat in the fifth and final season of The Hills, which premiered in April 2009. In the episode entitled “Crazy in Love,” Lauren arranges for Stephanie Pratt to have an internship at The People’s Revolution. Stephanie, however, proves to be an inept intern, incurring the wrath of boss Kelly Cutrone on several occasions. After Stephanie makes a mistake counting inventory, Lauren starts to explain the importance of professionalism. But Stephanie begins doodling mid-lecture: “I think maybe, when you come here, its important just to kind of...focus. I think it’s just balancing that...Are you listening to me? Why are you, like, doodling? Stop.” I believe that the show is increasingly invested in displaying Lauren’s professionalism since, once The Hills is over, she will be expanding her “brand” to writing young adult books and producing, among other ventures.

17. When Lauren was featured on the August 8, 2008 cover of Entertainment Weekly she admitted “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I think I’m being filmed” (qtd. in Stack 31).

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