The first time I ever got drunk, I was a sophomore in high school. It was 2009 — a pretty indistinct year with all things considered — except a new phenomenon was crashing down with a vengeance on kids my age: the rise of reality television.

Illustration by Alicia Kovalcheck

Prime time gems like “Flavor of Love” or “A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila” peppered the television lineup like a bad case of herpes. Then came “Jersey Shore” — the penultimate reality television show for getting plastered, having sex with strangers and living an entirely irresponsible life … while simultaneously becoming famous and getting paid.

These stars were impossible to ignore — their faces plastered on billboards, commercials and advertisements. So I, much like every other teenager, investigated what the hype was all about and eventually bought into everything the reality TV paradigm had to offer.

My friends came over for a sleepover, and we flipped on a “Jersey Shore” marathon. After my parents went to sleep upstairs, we snuck to the back of the living room, quietly shuffled some potted plants around and broke into the liquor closet. We mixed some vodka and orange juice and began to play a “Jersey Shore” drinking game.

“Every time someone refers to themselves in third person — drink!”
“Every time someone references gym, tan or laundry — drink!”
“Every time they have to blur out a body part — drink!”

By episode three, we were passed out drunk on the couch. The next day we awoke with killer hangovers and the vodka safely back in the cabinet half filled with water (sorry, Mom and Dad).

In my young mind, drinking and reality shows like “Jersey Shore” seemed to go hand-in-hand. I thought getting wasted, dressing awfully and making altogether bad life choices like Snooki and the Shore gang made them seem “cool.” And what kid doesn’t want to be cool?

It’s easy to write off this kind of anecdote as teen stupidity. That was “so high school” — after graduation, students receive the gift of maturity along with their diplomas. But the effects of reality shows have a tendency to burrow much deeper than one drunken sleepover. They can alter perception of what is right and wrong and can perpetuate drinking, drugs and sex throughout generations.

Communications Prof. Susan Douglas teaches a course that analyzes the effects of reality shows like “Jersey Shore.”

“Let’s say you’re thirteen and watching ‘Jersey Shore’ at night,” Douglas said. “You’re seeing all of this behavior, and these people that are famous because of this show, which can provide aspirational representations. You want to aspire to these behaviors with the goal of becoming famous.”

The result: you aspire to these behaviors with hopes of becoming famous.

Even for students in college, the idea of being on a reality television show can persist as a last resort. LSA sophomore Mackenzie DeWitt sometimes jokes with friends about how she plans to be on “The Bachelorette.”

“When your life turns to complete crap, it’s always a viable option to go on TV and make a fool out of yourself,” she said. “If we can’t become professionals, we can always become reality TV stars!”

One of the largest dangers of these shows is the overwhelming glorification of drinking and party lifestyle: Entire populations of young adults can have a similar experience to my own in high school.

“Shows like ‘Jersey Shore’ totally normalize binge drinking,” Douglas said. “They go out every night and drink massive amounts of alcohol until they have something that really resembles alcohol poisoning, which is harmful. We do know that binge drinking — unlike social drinking — is a problem on campuses including ours because it is a dangerous health behavior.”

DeWitt echoed Douglas’s sentiments from her own experience on campus.

“It seems as though students assume the more they drink, the more it will be like it is on television,” DeWitt said. “They search for that level of excitement and drama and vivacity.”

Reality shows don’t only perpetuate an emphasis on drinking in viewers, but they also heavily encourage it on set as well. Emotionally dramatic shows like “The Bachelor” amp up the alcohol content to make contestants irrationally emotive.

When the women go to the Bachelor house there’s often no food, only alcohol. Producers supply them with wine, and if that isn’t enough to create drama, they crack open the vodka, a fact that Douglas teaches in her introductory communications course. The cast is encouraged to engage in drunken conduct, a behavior that is then transferred to TV viewers regardless of age.

“I think reality television portrays drinking as something fun that has little to no consequences,” DeWitt said. “It sensationalizes drinking because it shows these huge parties that are exciting and colorful and people meeting other people … and that’s really not how it is at a frat party, for example.”

Reality television can also preserve old-fashioned notions about sexual stereotyping. Women are encouraged to fulfill roles as “the slut” and are simultaneously devalued by doing so. On the opposite end, men can be players and promiscuous without consequence, sometimes even with reward.

“There is this emphasis on women fighting with other women over men,” Douglas said. “Women are stereotyped as not getting along, competing over the men and being judged by their experiences. That’s really 1957 kind of stuff.”

Shows that each season alternate genders as the object of affection only spread stereotypes.

“ABC claims that they have ‘The Bachelorette’ so they’re ‘gender neutral,’ but in my opinion, just because you objectify men in the same way you objectify women doesn’t mean either one is okay,” Douglas argued. “The dynamics behind it is so retrograde.”

The concept of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” seem to be similar to a dramatic combination of online dating and “The Hunger Games.” The competition is fierce and only one can find true love. The probability of finding real, lasting love in front of millions of viewers seems next to impossible, because most people on reality television have ulterior motives, such as fame and money. The odds of “winning” reality television don’t seem to be in favor of the contestants.

“I think it’s funny because especially with ‘The Bachelor,’ these people who are beautiful and apparently successful are turning to TV because they don’t think they can find someone in the real world,” DeWitt said. “It’s kind of like using online dating sites. People are turning to technological outlets instead of just putting themselves out there, which arguably is altering the way that we see love.”

So what exactly has happened to our concept of social drinking into throwing back cosmopolitans before a rose ceremony? Why is it that when we see Snooki pass out face-first in the sand we think, ‘Hey, that looks like fun?’ Are the casts of reality television a reflection of us as a generation, or are we the ones who set the entertainment agenda.

“I feel as though people turn to reality television as an alternate source of what reality should be like,” DeWitt argued. “You see these beautiful attractive people being promiscuous and doing ridiculous things, and some people use that to justify mirroring those behaviors in real life. Instead of a culture shaped by more intellectual entertainment we turn to “Jersey Shore.”

Television networks follow market trends — shows that don’t get an audience will not stay on TV. Reality TV sells, making this system unreliable in providing what we really should be watching. Though the Shore team finally left the boardwalk for good, shows like it will keep succeeding because they show viewers what they want to see.

We, as television watchers, perpetuate the presence of low-quality television.

“Since the 1990s in particular, there has been an increase in sexually explicit material in a variety of TV shows, and young people favor these shows,” Douglas said. “‘Jersey Shore’ amped up the drinking and the sex, using infrared cameras to film scenes that suggest that casual hooking up is the norm, normalizing it and putting minimal attention to the importance of safe sex and contraception. Do they reference sexually transmitted diseases? Or even talk about condoms?”

The answer is no. Recently, reality shows are nothing more than superficial. Character’s personalities only skim the surface in a way that makes them easily classifiable: the bitch, the whore, the player, the good-girl, the nice guy, the clown. Even though no one in reality is that simple, TV viewers don’t want to deal with complications in their entertainment. So, when it comes to a one-night tryst between “the whore” and “the player,” viewers want fulfillment without any of the messy consequences that might come of the situation.

“They aren’t safe, and they are at risk, and it isn’t talked about as much as it should be because that’s not what they want to feature on TV,” Dewitt said.

So what came first, the proverbial chicken of reality television, or the degradation of the moral fabric of our society, represented by the egg? TV shows like “Jersey Shore” took off so quickly because of the way the producers framed the people on the show. The mode of address seems to suggest that the viewers are better than the people performing these ludicrous acts on national television. No matter how out of control you get, the show seems to say, at the very least you aren’t like these people!

But if at first the point was to poke fun at the characters while flattering the viewer, the reality TV phenomenon has evolved into another beast entirely. I can say with certainty that you could get exact re-enactments of scenarios on “Jersey Shore” right here on campus on any given Friday night at Rick’s — a fact that calls into question, does anyone really want to be like Snooki?

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