Love it or hate it, reality TV has found a strong foothold in modern entertainment, and it won’t be leaving anytime soon. Despite this, as a genre, reality TV is not well-respected by critics or average viewers. But what is the reason?
With so many different styles of shows, the reality TV genre is so broad that it’s difficult to succinctly analyze. From competition-based reality shows like “Survivor” to lifestyle shows like “The Kardashians,” reality TV has found a way to appeal to virtually every audience and has only expanded its reach in recent years.
By itself, I don’t think reality TV is necessarily harmful. Some shows might help viewers deepen a passion (like Bravo’s “Project Runway” or FOX’s “Master Chef Junior”), while others are pure background entertainment (TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress” or Netflix’s “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo”). It’s hard to identify what exactly distinguishes these shows from others, but I believe they fall into their own subcategory since they are relatively low drama, don’t delve deep into the cast members’ lives and have a theme (fashion, cooking, etc.) that distributes the focus beyond cast member relationships. Given that these shows aren’t as reliant on personal drama to keep viewers engaged, they are much more relaxing to watch and easier to consume. They also don’t typically produce “influencers” or social media stars as frequently as other shows in the reality TV genre — like “The Bachelor” — so they don’t become as incorporated into the mainstream media or as relevant to our everyday lives. On the other hand, shows like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “American Idol” have created celebrities out of previously “regular” people. Suddenly, our views, our attention and our clicks are making a difference in a real person’s life: Thanks to “The X Factor,” Harry Styles has a career; thanks to “Dance Moms,” we have Jojo Siwa. In this way, reality TV does have actual impacts and consequences in the real world.
Reality TV’s currency is attention, so producers will choose people that bring drama, emotion and controversy — good people with strong morals aren’t necessarily high on the list when it comes to casting. Oftentimes, this gives a platform to people who don’t deserve one and amplifies voices that don’t need attention. Because reality TV permits celebrity influencers to rise to power and gives their words and posts an audience, they are able to impact increasingly high-stakes issues in our society even when they aren’t the most qualified people to do so. This isn’t to say that all stars who rose to fame via reality TV are bad or don’t offer some positive contribution to society (ask any One Direction fan), but it makes power and influence too easily accessible to those who don’t deserve it. Once we see the impacts reality TV can have in the real world, it begins to feel like much less of a fun escape and something that might need to be taken more seriously.
On a lighter note, like all entertainment, reality TV shows can also bring people together and spark interesting conversations. Growing up, my family had a tradition of watching “Survivor” and it was something we all enjoyed doing together; it was a bonding experience for us. To this day, my sister and I still meet up every week to watch “Survivor” together. Many contestants on established reality TV shows like “Survivor” express a similar sentiment to the one I have experienced. It is possible for these shows to hold personal value and be meaningful despite the drawbacks of the genre as a whole.
Reality shows have the ability to expose viewers to communities and people that otherwise would not have much representation, like TLC’s “I am Jazz,” which stars a transgender woman named Jazz and follows her and her family throughout her life, or TLC’s “Little People, Big World,” which spotlights a family in which some members have dwarfism. Of course, it is dangerous to have only one person or group as the spokesperson for an entire community of people, but reality TV can offer some marginalized groups a platform and can create a path for viewers to gain a more nuanced understanding.
However fun and entertaining reality TV might be, it certainly has numerous significant drawbacks that cannot be overlooked. The name “reality TV” suggests that what is seen on screen is real, or at least based on real life, but in truth, it is not at all reflective of many people’s experiences. What makes reality TV so harmful is that it leads us to believe what we see is real and raw when that is not the truth at all. It might be small moments that are edited carefully (like the “Love is Blind” season 2 reunion, which featured a clip that had been reversed to make it seem more dramatic), whole scenes (like one from the finale of “The Kardashians”) or even broader things like casting choices that serve to maintain unrepresentative body ideals. Consequentially, the stories that reality TV shows play off as real can have negative effects on viewers.
Watching reality TV also can cause viewers to feel anxious about their appearance — it has been reported that watching reality TV causes 25% of viewers to worry about their body image. Especially shows like “Miss America” or “America’s Next Top Model” feed into the insecurities many women already feel about their bodies. These shows perpetuate a problematic ideal body type — thin and white — which is damaging to many young girls who do not and cannot fit into these unrealistic standards. It is also damaging to men who are constantly met with the idea that they have to be extremely muscular in order to be attractive. While these impacts can be felt for the first time during our youth, television continues to cause body image issues throughout our adulthood due to the portrayal of a singular, ideal body type.
Reality TV has addictive qualities and can lead to viewers feeling lonely and isolated. It’s a double-edged sword: Reality TV can immerse us in an alternate reality, but it also makes us disconnected from our own. While it’s normal to want to take a break and escape your own world sometimes, extended time invested in a different reality makes it difficult to come back and feel at peace with the actual one. Spending too much time devoted to people and relationships that are not our own can hinder the real relationships in our lives. We are often led to unnecessarily doubt and question our relationships due to the unrealistic expectations and curated snippets portrayed in media.
Dating shows also bring a whole set of unique problems. For many people, the examples of relationships they see primarily come from their families and what they see in the media. Tropes like “Prince Charming” and ideas like “soulmates” or “love at first sight” are maintained so deliberately in various reality TV shows that they create a false idea of what most relationships look like and give viewers unrealistic expectations (*cough* “The Bachelor”). They also drive home outdated gender roles of traditional masculinity and femininity: The “attractive” men are those who are muscular, confident, don’t express vulnerabilities and make the first move; the “attractive” women are those who have stereotypically “good-looking” bodies and are delicate, emotional and compassionate. Dating shows support the ideas that women are only valuable if they are beautiful and that men always want sex. Media and reality TV have also contributed significantly to the hypersexualization of women. In television, we typically don’t see the real population represented adequately in terms of appearance: Young, fit and traditionally attractive men and women are cast significantly more than older, less-fit people who don’t fall into Western beauty ideals.
Further, the vast majority of reality shows, especially dating shows, have a severely cisgender and heterosexual agenda and only work under this assumption: Shows like “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette,” “Love Island” or “Love is Blind” operate under a very traditional structure that would need to be abandoned if they were to introduce cast members who weren’t straight. These shows push the idea that there is one rigid picture of what love looks like: a heterosexual, cisgender man in a relationship with a heterosexual, cisgender woman. This can be damaging for people who experience love differently as they are led to believe their love isn’t as valid or that there is something wrong with the way they love. Given that some of the most popular reality shows are dating shows, the lack of representation of LGBTQ+ identities is disappointing.
The bottom line is that reality TV is far too white, heterosexual and cisgender to reflect truthful experiences. Since reality TV is supposed to reflect real life, it has the power to influence what we see as normal and what we don’t. Exposure to reality TV prompts viewers to view certain races, sexualities, gender identities and social classes as the norm and anything else as unnatural or incorrect. This has consequences in the real world and affects how we interact with others and how we understand ourselves. It is important to be critical of the media we consume because it has consequences, and this is especially the case with reality TV. By no means am I telling you to stop watching reality TV, but it’s time for us to be aware of its potentially severe impacts.
Daily Arts Writer Jenna Jaehnig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.