During quarantine I found myself starved for entertainment. I’d binged all of Netflix’s quarantine staples (looking at you, Tiger King), and decided to turn to an entertainment genre I had rarely delved into — reality television, particularly 90 Day Fiance.
I started with Season 4 of 90 Day Fiance: Before the 90 Days, infamous for one of its participants, “Big Ed.” Big Ed is in his mid-50s and quickly grew in “popularity” due to his unique appearance — he is 5 feet tall and has Klippel Feil Syndrome, which caused him to have a shorter-than-normal neck.
I was aware of Big Ed and Rose (his Season 4 Before the 90 Days co-participant) before I watched the show due to a handful of memes and cringey YouTube videos that made their way to me via social media. And when I finally started watching the show, it definitely delivered on the drama and the cringe factor. Yet even as I found myself entertained by Big Ed’s over-eagerness, Lisa’s infatuation with Nigerian music artist Usman “Sojaboy” (22 years her junior), and David’s seemingly naive refusal to accept that he’s probably being catfished, I couldn’t help but feel a small, nagging guilt. I was being entertained by their emotions, by the arguably traumatizing drama of navigating relationships and trying to find love.
The Reality TV Phenomenon
Reality TV, in its many forms, is eerily similar to an episode of Black Mirror, a show about the dark turns that seemingly innocent technology can take when placed in the wrong hands. One episode in particular, “Fifteen Million Merits,” chronicles the existence of a future society in which the ultimate goal for most is to make it on an American-Idol-esque TV show. Just making the auditions doesn’t cut it, though — if you don’t impress the judges (or if they prefer your body over your talent), they may pressure you into (nonconsensually) being one of their porn stars.
In other words, you get turned into a spectacle at your own expense.
The parallels here to modern-day reality television are too numerous and obvious to ignore. Some call reality TV a “voyeuristic peep show” that has negative effects on society. Others justify the entertainment in various ways, saying that reality TV stars consent to their lives being on display and that they often receive good compensation for it.
Signed contracts aside, it’s a well-known fact that many reality TV shows rely on alcohol to fuel the drama. And they have very little regard for the participants’ health — in fact, Dr. Drew Pinsky says he knows first hand of alcoholics on reality TV shows still being pushed to drink, even though they’re clear about trying to recover. Not to mention that, no matter how many contracts you sign, consent is impossible when you’re under the influence.
The mental health of reality TV stars is also rarely taken into consideration during filming. Refinery29 has confirmed that at least 28 reality TV stars have died by suicide, and many more end up with substance abuse issues. Are these mental health issues pre-existing? Probably not always, but the producer perspective when casting is often that mentally stable individuals don’t make for good reality TV.
Regardless of reality TV’s questionable morals, there’s no question that viewers around the world get immense enjoyment from being a fly-on-the-wall-esque viewer of other people’s lives — of the good, yes, but more often the bad and the very ugly. Knowing what we know about the potentially devastating effects of reality TV on its stars, why do we still get off on it?
Why Are We So Obsessed?
First off, I’d be remiss to not mention that reality television rarely represents “reality.” In most cases, reality is fairly boring, so showrunners will put real people in fabricated/exaggerated circumstances (or capitalize on existing circumstances, such as in Kate Plus Eight or 19 Kids and Counting) and capture the ensuing drama for viewers’ enjoyment. But even though we know that what we’re watching isn’t reflective of reality, we still seriously get off on it — why?
One simple explanation is that we just like stories. We like to see how characters placed in certain situations will genuinely react — it gives us some insight into how humans work, think, and act without needing to be the ones in the situation. Reality TV can actually give some pretty poignant social insight.
But this explanation doesn’t cut it for me. I don’t watch reality TV to learn about how people work (nor, I imagine, do most loyal viewers of Love Island or The Bachelor). Nope, I dug into 90 Day Fiance purely for the entertainment value. And after taking a close, hard look at myself, I gained some insight into why I enjoyed it — and why I think we, as a society, turn to reality TV for our drama quick fix:
1. My life may be messed up, but at least it’s not like theirs. The first hard truth I had to accept was that I enjoyed the drama precisely because it wasn’t my own — and further, it distracted me from my own. Watching David’s naivete on 90 Days let me put aside my own insecurities surrounding relationships, because there’s no way I’d ever be that naive. It’s rhetoric we heard as early as elementary school — bullies bully to distract from the messes in their own lives. I watched 90 Days to distract me from mine.
2. We get to be the smart ones. Have you ever watched a reality TV show and gotten some sick enjoyment from yelling at the television? I can’t even tell you how many times I shouted “Dump his ass, you deserve better!” at Rose re: her relationship with Big Ed. Maybe this is just because I’m opinionated, but I think we all to an extent get satisfaction out of thinking we know what’s best for others — and reality TV lets us put that knowledge on full display, even if only just in our living rooms.
3. We just plain love drama. I have a confession to make — I love drama. So do you, probably. We all get some sadistic pleasure from the shock value of IRL drama, whether it comes through a news notification of a celeb breakup or a Buzzfeed article about the 23 Craziest Things Bosses Said to Their Employees. Reality TV is a no-brainer in the drama department. This past season of The Bachelorette saw a season high number of viewers in the episode where Clare Crawley left and Tayshia Adams took over — arguably the most dramatic episode of the season.
Reality television gives us all the juicy shock-value pleasure of IRL drama without any of the potentially negative impacts on our own lives. It lets us experience a range of emotions in an hour or two on a Tuesday night, and maybe (if we’re super invested) gives us a conversation point with our coworkers the next day.
But is this right? Is it ethical, is it morally okay to fetishize the seemingly real pain, anger, anguish of reality television stars? They make money off of it, sure, but we all know (or have at least heard) that money can’t buy happiness. Moreover, are we as the audience okay with essentially being emotional parasites that feed off the stars, perpetuating a system that really only benefits the networks in control of the whole thing?
I don’t have answers for any of the above. Half of me says no, this isn’t right, and turning humans into a circus spectacle isn’t okay. The other half of me would like to pop the top off of a pint of ice cream and turn on another season of 90 Days to further distract me from my own problems. Should I choose the latter, I find myself suddenly reduced to twelve-year-old Emily — an incredibly insecure young girl who would make fun of people on YouTube because it gave her some sense of worthiness, of being above and better. She sits in front of a screen after school, fresh wounds still festering from a classmate making fun of her side ponytail (which she’d thought made her look effortlessly cool) and she clicks on video after YouTube video, seeking something to compare herself to and come out on top.
What are your thoughts on the exploitation of feelings for reality TV? Let us know in the comments.
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