the not-so-guilty pleasure of reality television today

Why otherwise rational and progressive thinkers are embracing the genre.

by Jane Helpern
27 July 2016, 1:30pm

Reality television has been polarizing since the 1973 PBS miniseries An American Family first showed a nuclear unit unraveling during primetime. The genre has (d)evolved from televised documentaries to the pervasive, highly scripted fluff we consume today. But what's interesting at the moment is how otherwise rational and intellectual people are engaging with reality TV. Why have shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians and The Bachelor (and, currently, -ette) inspired thinkers like Roxane Gay, Heidi Julavits, and the legion young, educated fans who take to Twitter each week?

From vitriol to fascination and even genuine emotional investment, in 2016 it seems no one is exempt from the grips of reality television. As season two of the Peabody-winning scripted satire UnREAL charms critics with its depiction of a Bachelor-like show, there's no better time to discuss our collective obsession with shows that have gone from guilty pleasure to widely accepted ice-breaker. Not only is our generation watching these series, they are serving as launching pads for wider societal conversations about love, feminism, privacy, and exhibitionism. But why?

Some would say there's real emotion to explore in front of the cameras. In 2012, writer and editor of The Believer Heidi Julavits wrote an essay called "Love in the House," examining her addiction to "The Franchise": The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Bachelor Pad. She recounts how her more "sensible" friends have questioned her appetite for these programs, which they've deemed fake and beneath her intellect. But Julavits is steadfast in her commitment to "The Franchise" and her confidence in its merits as a purveyor of true love. Their foolproof formula for matchmaking, she explains, is based on a phenomenon dating back to caveman days, rooted in the most primal impulses of humanity, that "crushes thrive in small spaces."

Of course, crushes have been thriving in small (televised) spaces since 1992, when The Real World first premiered on MTV with seven strangers picked to live in a Soho loft. A gateway drug into the controversial genre as we know it, the series has been praised for its portrayals of taboo topics including AIDS/HIV, LGBTQ issues, abortion, and race. Before The Real World became its current hot-tub-heavy platform for hothouses, it was one of the few corners of mainstream media where minorities could see themselves represented somewhat accurately. In a coup for queer visibility, AIDS/HIV activist Pedro Zamora, a Real World San Francisco cast member, married his partner Sean Sasser in one of the first same-sex, interracial commitment ceremonies ever televised. When Zamora passed away, former president Bill Clinton expressed his gratitude for the activist's valuable contributions to AIDS awareness and outreach.

Let's face it: most reality television is still mired in racism, sexism, and damaging stereotypes. The current season of unREAL pokes holes in The Bachelor's systemic racism by making its "suitor" black. But Pedro Zamora did pave the way for figures like Caitlyn Jenner. While the nation's first major transgender reality TV matriarch has of late tarnished her image in liberal circles by supporting Trump, she has also helped make gender transition a topic around kitchen tables in Middle America. It's a first step, albeit a shaky one.

There's an undeniable voyeuristic thrill to reality TV, despite the fact that we are increasingly savvy to the machinations behind the scenes (exposed so hilariously on unREAL).

Although we know that the revelations are not always authentic, the very sense of discovery can feel profound. A 2015 piece in The New Yorkeracknowledges The Real World's contribution as "the popularization of first-person confessional reality TV and the now-established millennial culture of self-discovery and self-disclosure." It describes creators Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray's voyeuristic masterpiece as a sort of precursor for modern selfie and confessional culture, one that "has helped train us to see our daily lives as a continual acting out of identity in public."

From The Real World's early days until now, there's no denying reality television's escapist entertainment value. But in today's oversharing, social media-crazy world, the genre is no longer a window into the beautiful and ugly truths of humanity. It's widely accepted as fiction, serving the same episodic craving for narrative as novels and scripted shows. In Roxane Gay's widely read editorial for The New York Times, "The Marriage Plot," she took the comparison even further, equating The Bachelor to fairy tales.

Fairy tales so archetypal and predictable that they fade pleasantly into the background, white noise for our busy and stressful lives. "I tend to like reality TV precisely because it's dumb and trashy. I can get home and put in on in the background while I'm cooking and cleaning up and doing other stuff," says James, a successful Los Angeles-based lawyer.

"It's entertaining. It's like TV as junk food. It's not the only thing I watch, but I definitely like it sometimes, and sometimes I binge on it and feel gross after," says Yasi, a writer with a masters degree and a 'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood' high score.

If reality TV holds up a mirror and reflects the best and worst of society, then what does it say about the audience? Perhaps our insatiable desire to tune out with mindless television is a reaction to a plugged-in, exhausted culture that feels collectively powerless as world politics go haywire. With two-time reality star Donald Trump gunning for POTUS and causing the presidential race to devolve into a political circus, our fascination with reality television feels more grim.

As a cultural barometer, it's no surprise how the genre has managed to seduce our most prolific thinkers. Reality television has evolved into a curious combination of reflection of the times and parabolic fantasy. There's no question that America is tuned in, and that it's spurring conversations. Now we ask: how can we move forward, and make this a force for good rather than evil?

As we witnessed with The Real World's trailblazing early years, entertainment and education don't have to be mutually exclusive. Whether you like it or not, Kim Kardashian has galvanized a new generation of empowered young feminists, women who are comfortable with a frequently-nude star appearing on the cover of Forbes as a tech mogul. Shark Tank is kind of silly, but it inspires Americans to think big and start their own businesses. There's no reason why the low-brow genre can't step up to tackle bigger issues, with more diversity. How about a reality show about a young campaign aide for the Hillary campaign? An activist in the Black Lives Matter movement? Let reality television be a reflection of the difficult times we face, not merely background noise distracting us from them. 


Text Jane Helpern
Image via YouTube 

Kim Kardashian
Roxane Gay
The Kardashians
reality television
The Bachelor
heidi julavits