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The Realities of Reality TV

A Critical Take on Our Consumption of Reality Shows

As I learned in my first year film module, all types of film are produced to tell a specific story. The question is, how much does this apply to the well loved and widely watched genre of reality TV? I myself am no stranger to the appeals of reality TV. Only last week, my flatmate and I religiously watched the new season of Netflix’s Too Hot To Handle, a Love Island-esque reality show about young, horny singles who are forced to abandon their sexual tendencies in order to form what the show loves to repeat — “deeper connections“. And of course, win a large sum of money depending on how successful they are at forging authentic relationships. As much as we loved laughing at the quasi-deepness of the so-called ‘spiritual’ contestant, or cheering on our favourites, the thing that actually stood out about this new season of the show was the producers' manipulation of the contestants and exacerbated stereotypes.

These pitfalls of reality TV are by no means unique to dating shows. At the mercy of demanding stakeholders and calculating producers, reality TV exploits unprotected people for the benefit of the viewer’s enjoyment. When considering the number of people with their fingers in the pot, it comes as no surprise that much of reality TV is manufactured to achieve the end goal of entertainment.

The means to achieve this end goal, however, is marked by the exploitation of contestants. One appeal of reality TV is that it portrays ordinary people as just that: ordinary. So they make mistakes, act out, and are often plied with alcohol to heighten tensions. On the flip side, hiring ordinary people also implies a certain lack of professionalism. The non-actors that are hired, recruited, or auditioned to be on these shows lack the representation and union protection offered to professional actors, allowing producers to take advantage.

Producers and shows utilise motivating factors, whether that be love, money, or fame, to manipulate contestants into competing in conditions that may lead to emotional or even physical damage. Consider Survivor; the show strips its contestants of basic necessities by marooning them on an isolated island. They then complete tasks and play games in the hopes that they are the last standing survivor and win a cash prize. Within the context of reality TV, the contestants’ exposure to extreme conditions for the sake of money is normalised, allowing producers and viewers to justify the exploitation of a contestant’s struggle for entertainment. Take that synopsis out of the context of reality TV, however, and it sounds borderline inhumane.

The exploitation of contestants is only made worse when they return to the real world, surprised by the character they were portrayed to be. If we as viewers think about the fact that reality TV, like any other form of media, is curated and carefully planned, we’re easily able to pick out the roles contestants on reality TV are given.

Netflix’s Selling Sunset is another example. Despite the show being advertised as a reality show about of-the-now real estate agents in the most highly sought after neighbourhoods of LA, each of the people in the show are easily classified into specific archetypes. Christine Quinn: the evil queen bee. Heather Rae El Moussa: the sweet, ditsy blonde. Chrishell Strauss: the lovable girl next door.

In reality, people can’t be cast into archetypes. In the land of reality TV, on the other hand, the ‘ordinary people’ seen on TV are represented in a certain way. It’s no surprise that oftentimes, these representations of people through carefully curated scenes misrepresent their character or only show half-truths. As viewers, we are fed judgements and conclusions about people and situations, despite only seeing a small amount of highly edited footage. When laid out so blatantly, I feel a slight pang of regret for the offhand ‘Gosh I really hate her’, that I must have said countless times while watching reality TV.

Contestants and people portrayed on reality TV are served on a platter for society to judge. And in the real world, particularly now with the relevance of social media, the judgement does not stop at the TV screen. For many contestants, particularly in shows where they are denied outside communication, the shock of returning to the world to face public opinion is a shocking one. It is not the producers or the shows which face the backlash of unfortunate or false representation, it’s the contestants themselves.

A notorious case of a contestant suffering the consequences of misrepresentation recently emerged in the wake of the 2020 Netflix series, Love Is Blind. In this dating show where contestants meet, get to know one another, and get engaged with each other all without ever meeting, contestant Jessica Batten faced an extreme amount of hate once the show aired.

In the show, the partner she felt she had the most connection with ultimately proposed to another woman, leaving her with a man with whom it was quite clear she did not share the same affection for. This led to Jessica being portrayed as an untruthful and unfaithful woman, who always had a glass of red wine in hand. The hate she received online was ruthless, as bullies behind the safety of their screens and keyboards relentlessly picked her apart for the way she treated her partner, Mark.

Months later, however, Jessica spoke up about the situation, expressing how harmful the hate had been and how difficult the show had been to watch back. Most surprisingly, however, she revealed that she had pleaded with producers to leave the show when she realised her lack of feeling for her partner and the miserable time she was having. Instead of accepting this, producers forced her to stay to fulfil the contract and continued representing her as the unlikable character she is seen as in the show.

Despite the severity of this situation, it is unfortunately not uncommon. To make matters worse, the issue of misrepresentation in reality TV is rarely limited to individual contestants. Reality TV is often guilty of portraying and perpetuating racial, cultural, and gendered stereotypes, not only harming those within the show, but also harming the communities they misrepresent.

Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, a show many of us grew up watching, was a massive hit throughout the 2010s. Honey Boo-Boo, or Alana Thompson, is immortalised in meme culture and the success of the show was unmatched for its time. Looking back on the show, however, the cultural and class stereotypes that were perpetuated are clear. The featured Thompson family’s Southern, lower class lifestyle was often ridiculed on the show, maintaining stereotypes about the ‘uneducated rural South’.

So with all of these negatives, why do we even watch reality TV? As a reluctant lover of reality TV myself, I always end up catching up on the new season of Drag Race every year or watching whatever new revamped dating show Netflix releases, even though I know how produced and terrible reality TV is.

Some, like Steven Reiss and James Wiltz, claim that viewers of reality TV are drawn to the shows as they appeal to our most base desires. After leading an experiment based on Reiss’ Theory of Sensitivity, the pair found that audiences of reality TV prioritised what they label as the “basic desires” of status and vengeance. They concluded that those who prioritised status as an end goal in their lives were more likely to watch and enjoy reality TV. Considering the recent fixation on status, with exclusive high end brands and ordinary people finding fame through social media, this conclusion explains the boom in reality TV viewership.

Others say reality TV is comforting as a form of vindication. Watching other people handle sticky situations badly or act foolishly on our screens allows us to feel just a little bit better about ourselves. No matter how bad you may feel about failing that biology exam, at least you didn’t get dumped on national TV, or at least you’re not as terrible as that person.

Reality TV also acts as a form of social discussion. Like many other shared interests, reality TV is something people can discuss and connect over, whether that be the mutual hate or love of one of the contestants.

Realistically speaking, knowing the harmful side of reality TV isn’t going to stop anyone, me included, from watching the reality shows that allow us to simply stop thinking for a while. So, while the market for these shows won’t go away any time soon, the least we can do as viewers is to make sure we watch with a grain of salt, and think about what might be going on behind the scenes before we pass judgement.

Illustration: Sarah Knight

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