Frère Shock

If the French are so blasé, why are they scandalized by reality television?

On April 24 France got its first taste of reality television: the weekly program Loft Story, which automatically became the hottest thing on French television. The first episode drew an audience of 6 million—some 10 percent of the population—and shot up to 10 million for last Thursday’s installment. The show also set off a storm of public debate and commentary, much of it on Web sites and in chat rooms; widespread media condemnation; a public rebuke from the minister of communications over the offense to “human dignity”; and even a smattering of organized protest.

The hue and cry over Loft Story might make one think at first glance that the birthplace of Sade, Genet, and Story of O had suddenly become Europe’s prudish old aunt. Loft Story is, after all, about sex—and sex with strangers at that. The show is a libidinal variation on the Big Brother concept. The cast members, originally six men and five women, are isolated in a loft in a Paris suburb, where—monitored 24/seven by an all-intrusive surveillance arsenal of 26 cameras and 50 mikes—they are encouraged to get it on. Various activities have been scripted in to stimulate romantic action, most of which could be charitably called dumb (sporting condoms on noses). Over the 10 episodes the residents are winnowed down by viewer-voting to one couple. The winning “lovers” get a half-million dollar house, as long as they stay together a required six months (sex is optional). 

The participants have already become national celebrities, their characters and motives endlessly analyzed. The first scandalous moment came in the first episode, when Loana, a former go-go dancer and arguably the program’s resident babe, removed her top during a romantic clinch with Jean-Edouard. But the camera coyly turned away at that point, as it’s obliged to do if things on Loft Story get beyond what ze Americans call first base. To get the full uncensored skinny on what’s going on in the house, viewers are invited to tune in to a sister station and Web site, where the cameras and mikes are always on, and you can see everything—for a fee.

It is not, however, the graphicness that has prompted all the hue and cry. After all, compared to the torrid stuff (right up to and including XXX) available on any number of other French cable channels, Loft Story is, erotically speaking, a pretty limp noodle. 

It’s the affront that the spectacle presents to traditional French norms of individual and familial privacy. The national media discussion of the show is awash in metaphors of intrusion, invasion, and desecration. “They will soon be among us … these reality shows with a voyeuristic premise,” warned one newspaper darkly. “The Triumph of Voyeurism,” blared the cover of L’Express, under the image of the huge single eye that serves as the show’s logo. The president of the Association Francaise de Psychiatrie called the show a “perverse exhibition,” and other psychoanalysts have warned of potential psychological harm to the cast members. A Paris law professor has parsed the contract that the participants have signed and declared the whole enterprise legally suspect, opining that they’ve illegally given up “their right to come and go as they please, to express themselves … and to the respect of their privacy.”

Voyeurism is a particularly touchy subject in a society where “le privé,” one’s relationships, sex life, personal problems, and emotional states, have yet to become the stuff of party or office conversation, let alone afternoon talk shows. Ventilating your issues outside the confines of home and the analyst’s couch is considered vulgaire, if not simply inconcevable. It’s no accident that a French artist, Sophie Calle, has made an entire career over the last couple of decades out of snooping and spying—following people during their daily routines and then exhibiting the surveillance journals and photos, for example. Calle has adapted the venerable avant-garde notion of transgressing bourgeois conventions and turned it into a provocation of her native culture’s jealously guarded sense of privacy.

If the punditrati and the experts are busy denouncing the breach of this French sanctity, the 4 million to 5 million who continue to watch the show seem to have other things on their minds. Not only are they watching, they’re talking about it, big time. And that may be the crux of the fascination with Loft Story—the opportunity it gives the country to indulge in a huge gossip-fest. Just on the show’s various fan sites and live chats that have cropped up on the Web, countless followers are expressing their views in tones that range from cattiness and ironic amusement to gleeful fascination, disdain, and contempt. The show has given France a virtual neighbor whose domestic tribulations everyone can freely poke their nose in on and gossip about, without incurring the stigma of actually meddling in somebody’s private affairs.

Loft Story’s creators are playing off some of the culture’s most sacred taboos by providing an outlet for the return of the socially repressed. It’s hard to imagine a show like this becoming the focus of so much rapt attention in the United States, if only because the opportunity to look into somebody else’s private matters has long been routine and widely dispersed. Indeed, for sheer prurience value, the American version of Big Brother couldn’t hold a candle to a single afternoon of Jerry, Sally, and Ricki. But in France, Loana, Jean-Edouard, and their friends have become the odd, singular household that actually invites the public airing of its affairs.