Til Debt Do Us Part: Reality TV and the Financial Literacy Regulatory Project
Peter Robson & Jessica M. Silbey, eds, Law and Justice on the Small Screen (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2012) 211-27
Posted: 14 Aug 2012
This chapter critically assesses the Canadian reality television show Til Debt Do Us Part. The programme follows couples and families as they receive financial “makeovers” and learn to manage their finances “responsibly." The chapter begins with an overview of the series and provides an overview of the series, describes the format of a typical episode, and discusses the mechanisms it uses to encourage audience participation and investment in the programme. The second section situates the television series within the reality TV genre, and looks specifically at the ways in which it fits within the reality TV subgenres of game shows and lifestyle programming, particularly shows that focus on self-improvement and transformation through consumerism and consumption. The third part of the chapter analyses Til Debt Do Us Part both empirically and textually. It looks first at the socio-economic location of participants, who it turns out generally have the means to become debt-free in a relatively short period of time provided they make ‘appropriate’ choices. Second, it looks at the messages about spending, savings, debt and responsibility that thread through the episodes, and reflects on the kinds of expectations and beliefs about financial management and responsibility that are constituted in the programme’s audience. I draw on the literature analysing financial literacy programmes as ‘regulatory projects’, and ask whether the financial literacy education in Til Debt Do Us Part can be understood as empowering — providing participants and viewers with tools to assist them as they participate in the market. Or alternatively, whether it is better understood as (1) reinforcing and normalising individual responsibility for managing risk and financial security; and (2) providing cultural support for the regulatory shift under neoliberalism that has been characterised by, among other things, a focus on decentralised governance, limited regulation of the market, and responsibilisation. I conclude that despite some of the empowering financial literacy features of Til Debt Do Us Part, the programme is best understood as cultural support for the responsibilisation that underpins the neoliberal regulatory project.
Keywords: law and television, neoliberalism, financial literacy, law and culture, popular culture
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