I have to admit, as a watcher of The Bachelor, that I participated in this phenomenon without ever thinking about it. Colson Whitehead, in the most recent NYT Magazine, talks about the “loser edit” in most competition-based reality television shows, the fact that, in winnowing 30 TV faces from total strangers into winners and losers, requires some narrative-building and, in the case of the losers, narrative-obliviating. As many of us (I hope?) can recall, there are the moments at the end of each of these shows where the ousted suitor, the ousted chef, the ousted whatever creates this reaction among viewers: “Who even is that?” or “She’s definitely going home tonight.”

Of course, Whitehead explains, the real editors of these shows don’t have a choice. With hundreds of hours of film to parse through, and nothing but the chosen winner to help weave together some coherent season’s narrative, all the peripheral narratives must be told to fill in the space, i.e. the losers. The ones (speaking of the Bachelor) who get pigeonholed into the one drunken impulse they indulged, the one character flaw they forgot to hide, the one blemish-from-the-past they never owned up to. For these losers of national television, their failure becomes their essence–a character defined by nothing more than their un-chosenness. And Whitehead explains that this is the way it happens in popular culture in general, when we see a figure once loved move beyond the pale–Lance Armstrong, Bill Cosby, Brian Williams. We sit aghast, shocked that we didn’t see the narratival signals–the loser edits–that this person was anything less than great. “How did I miss this?” “The signs were there all along…”

Most importantly, though, Whitehead says we do it to ourselves, too:

Fifteen years later, the critical language used to carve up the phonies, saints and sad-sack wannabes of reality shows has migrated, and the loser edit has become a limber metaphor for exploring our own real-world failures. Fate doles out ideas for subplots — fire her, dump him, all species of mortification — and we eagerly run with them, cutting loser narratives for friends and enemies, the people we have demoted to the status of mere character. Everybody’s setbacks or degradations have been foreshadowed if we look hard enough at the old tape. We arrange the sequences, borrowing from cultural narratives of disgrace, sifting through the available footage with a bit of hindsight — and in turn, we endure our own loser edits when we stumble.

…The footage of your loser edit is out there as well, waiting. Taken from the surveillance camera of the gas station where you bought a lottery ticket like a chump. From the A.T.M. that recorded you taking out money for the romantic evening that went bust. From inside the black domes on the ceiling of the train station, the lenses that captured your slow walk up the platform stairs after the doomed excursion. From all the cameras on all the street corners, entryways and strangers’ cellphones, building the digital dossier of your days. Maybe we can’t clearly make out your face in every shot, but everyone knows it’s you. We know you like to slump. Our entire lives as B-roll, shot and stored away to be recut and reviewed at a moment’s notice when the plot changes: the divorce, the layoff, the lawsuit. Any time the producers decide to raise the stakes.


Occasionally, on a “Top Chef” or a “Project Runway,” a contestant suffers a monstrous loser edit, one that lasts a whole season. The unlucky contestant isn’t sent home at the end of the night, but is instead doomed to perform personality deficits episode after episode. The supporting player trapped first by an aspect of himself or herself, and then by editors who won’t let him or her escape the casting. We need a goat.

Perhaps you have a personal acquaintance with this phenomenon, slogging through months and months of your own terrible editing. The audience takes in the spectacle, pressing pause for a quick trip to the kitchen so they won’t miss a second of your humiliation: This is destination television. Your co-workers rewind your loser’s reel, speculating over why you didn’t get that promotion, where it all started to go wrong. If you ask me, it goes back to the Peterson account. Your ex’s buddies pass the potato chips and barely pay attention, texting pals, making jokes on Twitter — they knew before the first commercial break that you were being voted off the island. Your friends and family, who of course love you very much, are tuning in, even though they know all of your story lines by heart. They’ve seen this episode before. There he goes again.

A couple things of note here. One, that “we need a goat.” We require, as humans beings within our universe’s teleological scope, justice. A system wherein we can sift through our day’s ins and outs with pluses and minuses, and pay for those minuses with blood–sometimes our own, sometimes with the blood of others (a variety of what we call self-justification). As much as we stray from the religious field in this “secular age,” we still demand sacrifice.

Another thing, speaking of self-justification: our inner-editor loves to tell the other story, too. The story of our victory, the “winner-edit” that postures for the mirror, that peers beyond a conversation for a higher-ranking one, that regales ourselves of the story God is making of our lives. We snip out the parts of our stories we don’t want to hear–the negative feedback, the one office slip-up–in favor of the greater glory-story we’re becoming today. With great pereception, Whitehead asks, “How’s that going for you?”

You know the golden boys and girls who sail through life without care, recipients of an enviable winner edit that lasts season after season. Untouchable. Everyone else has to do it by himself or herself, assembling our edits through a thousand compulsive Facebook tweaks, endless calibrations of Twitter personas, Instagram posts filtered of all disturbance. Should I wear glasses in my profile pic? How do I express solidarity with the freedom fighters? The exaggerations and elisions on your dating profile, and the ridiculous yet oddly calming amount of time you spent choosing the proper font for your résumé. I hear employers associate Calibri with diligence and follow-through. Marshal the flattering anecdotes, string them together into a leitmotif of confidence and sophistication. Cut when this scene establishes the perfect pitch of self-­deprecation, cut before everyone can see your humility for the false modesty it is.

Do you think it’s working? Did you get away with it today?


We give ourselves loser edits and winner edits all the time, to clasp meaning onto experience. Sometimes you render both kinds of edits in the same day, maybe even the same afternoon, deleting certain scenes from your memory, fooling with the contrast, as reality presses on you and directs your perceptions. Pull it off, and maybe you’ll make it to bedtime. Why do you think they call it “Survivor”?

Splice and snip. The contradictory evidence falls to the cutting-room floor, and we assert order, shape a narrative, any narrative, out of the chaos. Whether you tend to give yourself a loser edit to feed that goblin part of your psyche or you fancy the winner’s edit for the camouflage and safety it provides, it’s better than having no arc at all. If we’re going down, let us at least be a protagonist, have a story line, not be just one of those miserable players in the background. A cameo’s stand-in. The loser edit, with all its savage cuts, is confirmation that you exist. The winner edit, even in its artifice, is a gesture toward optimism, the expectation of rewards waiting for that better self. Whenever he or she shows up.

Take the footage you need. Burn the rest.