In the trailer for Olympic gold medal swimmer Ryan Lochte’s new reality show, "What Would Ryan Lochte Do?," the sculpted athlete says "emphadence" when he means "emphasis," tells an interviewer he has no idea what his own catchphrase "The Lochte Edge" means, and says the word "Jeah!" no fewer than five times. The attractive simpleton (whose previous on-screen foray included playing a sex idiot) rose to prominence during the 2012 summer Olympics, not just because he won five medals in London, but also because he says things like, "the reason why I love swimming is because racing."
The reality TV dunce is a stock character that’s been around since the early proliferation of the genre: Think Jessica Simpson during her "chicken of the sea" Newlyweds phase in the early aughts, when she famously confused chicken and tuna fish. Again, the television archetype of the dumb blond is extremely familiar, with Three’s Company’s Chrissy Snow as a prime example. And there are other varieties of dunderheaded stars littering TV history. One of the world’s most beloved characters is a dope: Homer Simpson.
According to Joanna Morreale, the interim director of media and screen studies at Northeastern University and the author of Reality TV, Faking It, and the Transformation of Personal Identity, the Homer Simpsons and Chrissy Snows of the world provide humor through "misinterpretations, misuse of language, or physical comedy." These characters tend to play on our negative stereotypes—Morreale says they are often working-class men, rural folks, people of color, and yes, blonds.
Certainly it’s funny when cartoon character Homer falls down the stairs headfirst and asks a question like, "Do I know what rhetorical means?" but what’s the appeal of a real-life dum-dum? Morreale says we like watching the less-than-brilliant on reality TV for the same reason we like watching them in scripted television. "There is a ‘superiority’ theory of comedy that says that we like to laugh at other people so that we can feel better about ourselves," Morreale explains. "And that ties in with the notion that we watch people on reality TV whose lives are a train wreck so that we can breathe a sigh of relief that our lives are so normal."
But Lochte’s reality TV persona seems to be serving a slightly different purpose, according Morreale. It seems to be taking the viewer behind the scenes and puncturing the myth of the athletic hero. If he were smart and good looking and successful, he wouldn’t be a very sympathetic character. "Maybe [his presence] is to reassure us that you can’t have it all—you can’t have brawn and brains," Morreale says.
Though she’s more of an archetype as a dim blonde, that same principle seems to apply to Jessica Simpson. She was a famous singer, a beauty, and seemingly in love—but her lack of smarts meant that the viewership could feel vaguely superior. Though Simpson, a decade later, seems to be having the last laugh, because she’s made herself into very wealthy woman through licensing fees. Perhaps Lochte, who is trying to hock a line of blinged-out sneakers, sunglasses, and other various apparel through his reality show, will follow in the clumsy steps of Jessica Simpson. Which is to say, maybe he’s dumb…dumb like a fox.
[Images Courtesy of the E! Entertainment Television]