Help! I’m Addicted to Reality TV

After religiously watching the inaugural season of The Bachelorette Australia, I accidentally missed the finale last week. Well, I’m not sure if was an accident entirely. My friend invited me over for dinner and as she served the best steak I had ever tasted at 7:30pm sharp (the time The Bachelorette starts), there was a niggling feeling at the back of my mind that I was missing something. Once I quickly figured out what it was, I didn’t ask my friend to turn on the television and take our steak dinner to the couch. That would be rude. But, it wasn’t only that. Although my friend would undoubtedly understand me really needing to satisfy a guilty pleasure, a large part of me was feeling ashamed for wanting to watch the show in the first place. Although I later found out who Bachelorette Sam chose as her prince charming (the internet age means we don’t really miss anything), it got me thinking how someone who prides herself on her impeccable taste in film and literature (sigh) be so into The Bachelorette?

Between the Real Housewives and Judge Judy, the Big Brothers and Jersey Shores, the Kardashians and all their ridiculous spin-offs (who cares that Khloe and Kourtney are taking the Hamptons?), and the Survivors and Amazing Races, what was once a seemingly niche genre has turned into a massive beast that refuses to be tamed. Americans spend one third of their free time watching TV and of the shows they’re watching, 67% are reality programs.

In our narcissistic society, reality TV has meant that every talentless Jim and uninteresting Polly can become a celebrity. And as a major moneymaker for the networks, the genre has turned into a competition of “what will they think of next?”. The other night I saw a few minutes of Dating Naked (it’s all in the title—contestants date each other in the nude in exotic locations) and I was gaping in disbelief. Come on, guys. The networks aren’t even trying to hide their intentions—I mean, how could you with a show called Dating Naked? These days, producers will air anything, as long as they can’t get sued, and “networks are willing to show almost everything, regardless of the impact on its cast members, until their viewers get upset, lash out on social media, or threaten to stop watching entirely.” (Not coincidentally, this is the subject of the brilliant female-helmed TV drama UnREAL, which I strongly recommend.)

If you think about the genesis of reality TV, your mind might wander as far back as 20 years ago to the O.J. Simpson trial. As this article so eloquently puts it, “the O. J. Simpson case remains unparalleled as noir mystery, soap opera, and (though no one knew it at the time) TV’s first reality show.” Then there was The Real World, MTV’s initially delightful and educational program, teaching young people about sex, religion, illness, death, politics, and substance abuse, amongst other things. But whereas back then people tuned in for something gruesome and heavy, or entertaining and educational, today reality TV seems to have lost its sparkle. What was once a genre of cultural expose, an anthropological look into the mind of an ordinary person, often pitted against extraordinary conditions, is now an unoriginal, often scripted, generally tedious affair. And how “real” is it all?


Sam and her suitors on “The Bachelorette Australia”

Let’s go back to The Bachelorette. Sam, a seemingly regular, sweet girl, was the original winner of last season’s The Bachelor Australia. The Bachelor proposed to Sam in the finale but dumped her immediately after the cameras stopped rolling and allegedly started dating the runner-up. Sam’s caution in giving her heart away again was the arc of the entire season. “My biggest fear is finding out someone I love doesn’t love me back,” she kept repeating. Call me old fashioned but how can someone seemingly normal, sweet, and clearly romantic think it was plausible to find “the One” amongst 14 strangers after eliminating a different bloke each week on the back of a lot of canoodling? With such an OTT soap opera background and oftentimes no emotion in the eyes of the guys professing their love to her, how real was the premise? And even more importantly, why, knowing all that, couldn’t I tear my eyes away from the TV screen? Why was I happy to stay home on Wednesday and Thursday evenings just to watch it? Why was I thinking about it while cutting into perfectly cooked, juicy steak?

I’m not the only one who’s critical of (but still cannot help their addiction to) reality TV. If you Google “reality TV,” you’ll mostly come across criticisms of it, studies to show how harmful it is, debates raging on about its intentions. In this ongoing online poll, 59% of people have voted that reality TV does more harm than good. Medical Procedure News says that reality TV is resulting in more cosmetic surgery procedures, while WebMD Medical News claims it is contributing to eating disorders in teen girls. Since the boom of the genre in 2000, eating disorders in teenage girls have apparently nearly tripled. This study says that among girls who watch reality TV, 72% spend a lot of time on their appearance, versus 42% of non-viewers. And with not only Kylie Jenner as your role model but the existence of shows like Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People (it’s abysmal and was luckily short-lived), how can anyone be surprised?

Reality TV has made us more extroverted and more neurotic, with increasingly low self-esteem to boot, says this study. The multiplying effect of the genre can be attributed back to itself: the more reality TV programs exist, the more people feel comfortable with the idea of being one on. We’ve all got public personal thanks to selfies, personal blogs, and an insatiable appetite to get ‘likes.’ What was once in the domain of Hollywood has become a free-for-all.

If The Bachelorette was totally real, then it says so much about our society: that we are increasingly becoming performers, that we think that after heartbreak and being pitted against a dozen other women on national TV, we can go and do the very same thing to a dozen men. If the network was amping it up (seems much more likely), then it means we don’t really trust “reality” to be that riveting.

We watch reality TV (like we read trashy magazines) because it makes us feel better about our own lives, and “what’s wrong with feeling a little better about your house when you see someone on TV with a mess and 50 cats,” asks psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz (she’s talking about Hoarders if you haven’t guessed). “[But], it’s not a helpful defense mechanism when you have your own things going on that you should be attending to.” Her words carry a lot of weight. I’ve been going through some of my own relationship drama lately and I can’t deny that watching The Bachelorette was a way to fill a gap. What’s wrong with feeling a little better about my own life after seeing Sam in an emotional turmoil week after week about which guy to choose? Luckily, I always knew that the things going on in my own reality are never going to be upstaged by some oiled-up bachelors.

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