Through the Looking Glass: The Real-Life Impact of Reality TV
Reality television is a significant part of contemporary pop culture. While it is often written off as lowbrow culture or trash, it may have a larger effect on the public consciousness than it is given credit for by critics.
Adding to that, reality television stars and internet influencers have been permeating pop culture for the past two decades to great social and financial avail.
In this article, we question the effect reality television has on society at large - mainly through its effects on social media - and take a look at a few reality television franchises to paint a picture of how reality television affects its viewer both on and off of the television screen.
The Real Housewives Franchise
The first Real Housewives started in 2006 in Orange County, California. Since then, the franchise has grown internationally, creating spin-offs in 21 different cities. While the show originally captured the wealth of women in upper middle class society, it has grown into a machine of heavily manufactured storylines, studio-funded luxury vacations, and sponsored content both on the show and on social media. Chelsea Fagan from The Financial Diet breaks down the increasingly contrived portrayal of the housewives in her essay “How the Housewives Poisoned Our Relationship to Money”. Fagan lays out four key areas in which the housewives have had an effect on the general populations’ aspirations to wealth: luxury clothing, vacations, entrepreneurship, and criminal activity.
"Is emulating the heavily made-up lifestyles of these women worth the lasting effects to the environment?"
When the housewives started, they were often seen wearing fashions one could find in their local franchise boutique. However, as new housewives such as Erika Jayne came onto the Beverly Hills franchise with a million-dollar glam team, other housewives followed suit, hiring whole teams of men and women to do their hair, makeup and outfit selections for every occasion and even paying for them to come on cast vacations. When audiences see the housewives looking effortlessly flawless on what is supposed to be a candid depiction of the lives of the rich, it adds to the mystique. One might ask how to achieve this façade, without having to spend the money to do so. Fagen explains that the answer is fast fashion. Reality stars from the Jenners to Cardi B have collaborated with some of the most popular fast fashion brands in order to create a portal of accessibility to those in the real world. But fast fashion impacts the environment in a majorly negative way and is increasingly becoming a top contributor to climate change. Is emulating the heavily made-up lifestyles of these women worth the lasting effects to the environment?
Looking deeper into the way these women make their money outside of their compensation for the show, some concerning patterns emerge. A number of the housewives are portrayed as financially independent women who pointedly do not rely on their spouses for support. Housewives like Kandi Burress, Bethenny Frankel, and Sheree Whitfield showcase their entrepreneurship on the show, perpetuating the empowered ‘girlboss’ hustle-culture lifestyle that grew increasingly popular over the last 15 years.
However, these endeavours are not always legitimate as housewives like Erika Jayne/Girardi and Jennifer Shah of Salt Lake City have showcased in the last year, as well as two New Jersey Housewives Danielle Staub and Theresa Giudice in the early seasons of the show. Both Shah and Jayne are currently tied to lawsuits accusing them of defrauding vulnerable groups of people, such as plane crash victims, burn victims, and the elderly. Their lifestyles on the show, including their extravagant vacations, glam squads, million-dollar mansions, and other luxurious amenities were portrayed in previous season as a result of the hard work and sacrifice they put into businesses created long before their Housewives careers.
Audiences who watched them – especially the young women in these audiences – were meant to be inspired by the resolute, savvy, have-it-all businesswomen that these ladies portrayed themselves to be on television. However, it has become increasingly clear by these women’s examples that financial success (whether the endeavours are legitimate or not) is not as effortless as they make it seem and that the money they used to pay for their elaborate lifestyles comes at a price, often charged to innocent people.
Fagen closes the essay by stating that it is imperative for audiences to be diligent about the way reality television may alter the way we perceive others as well as ourselves. “What we post on Instagram…expect to be covered in our budgets, what we think when a wealthy versus a poor person does something. Even what our jobs say about us. All of this ultimately comes down to a question of perception.” The way audiences comprehend what they are consuming through television and social media should not be a passive process. As reality television becomes increasingly less realistic, it is helpful to “keep a keen eye” and question how reality television stars make us feel and how they influence the way we aspire to both make and spend money.
Love (Island) on reality TV
The role sexism plays onscreen
Modern dating shows tend to portray the people who participate in them as equal. Both men and women are supposedly sexually liberated, free to choose who they are affectionate with and the manner in which they choose to do so. In theory, series like Love Island, Love Is Blind, and Too Hot to Handle would not be able to sustain themselves otherwise. However, as Alicia Denby points out, reality TV exists as a “mediated reality” or, a reflection of real life, but in a “semi-artificial context where scenes are edited, exaggerated and manipulated for entertainment purposes.” In this mediated reality, sexism (more specifically misogyny) is done away with so that both the men and women on the show have a fair shot at finding their match, but this is not exactly the case.
The women contestants on Love Island are often made out to be delirious and over emotional. One of the most prevalent examples of this is seen when contestant Adam Collard gaslights Rosie Williams in season four while attempting to pursue Zara McDermott. Collard continuously dismisses Williams’ feelings and attempts to make her feel paranoid even though she is rightly reading his waning interest in her. Moreover, audiences had to watch as women like Zara Holland and Jess Hayes were subject to outright misogyny by systems like the pageantry circuit or by their fellow contests respectively as a reaction to their sexual autonomy.
The production team on the show also participate in the emotional turmoil of women for ratings. This is most prevalent in the 2,500 Ofcom complaints in the aforementioned season regarding Dani Dyer, Ellie Jones and Jack Fincham. The production team brought Fincham’s ex-girlfriend Jones into the villa, sending Dyer into hysterics. Those complaints exhibit the way society has changed and how reality television has yet to catch up. As concepts like mental health and feminism become more accessible to the general public, audiences can glean when something is wrong. While Love Island does mirror the everyday sexism of real life, the progressive audiences who watch it still desire the aspect of escapism. In a post-Time’s Up society, that escapism involves navigating a world that does not exploit women, tired sexist tropes, or mental health issues for higher ratings.
Why mental health matters
Video essayist Broey Deschanel examines how the constant surveillance of contestants affects mental health. She discusses the catalyst for contemporary television: MTV’s The Real World in 1992. The show stood out as it brought people of different ethnicities, sexualities, and classes together to interact within a limited space, living up to its name as it treats the individuals as such while also showing how their individuality both clashes and meshes with their housemates. As reality television progressed throughout the 2000’s, Deschanel observes how it becomes less diverse and more confrontational. This is how we arrive at shows like Geordie Shore, the first Real Housewives franchises, and eventually at immersive dating shows like The Bachelor franchises and Love Island.
While it seems like a paradise to the viewers, who are privy to the highs and lows of the contestants live, Deschanel points to a quote from Holland, who describes the experience as a “posh prison.” After it was exposed for the lack of wellness and welfare precautions, Love Island created a more elaborate scheme for prospective contestants. However, as the mental health issues, sexism, and racism of reality television continues to prevail, it is worth asking: have they really addressed the root cause?
The fact that the contestants are under constant surveillance means that they do not know when they are and are not being watched. Add to the fact that they are cut off from the outside world, their family, friends and routines, and thrown into a camera-laden villa with free alcohol, a chance at $50,000 and a fast fashion sponsorship, and one could come to understand the immense stress and pressure an individual could face during their time on the show. Foundational to all of this, is the pretext that the contestants are judged on the most harshly by both fans and their fellow contestants: are they there for the “right reasons?”
In the end, Deschanel labels this “regulated deviance.” Unlike the nascent reality television of the 20th century, there are incentives at play that involve copious amounts of possible social and financial capital. To gain this, contestants must self-censor at all times; this is doubly true for the women on the show as seen with contestants like Zara Holland. Failure to do so may end tragically as in the cases of Sophie Gradon, Mike Thalassitis, and the show’s very own television host Caroline Flack. Additionally, if a contestant only seems to be on the show for the fame, if they refuse to comport themselves to the behaviour dictated by the societal standards set, then they are not there for the “right reasons”.
(How) Should we watch reality TV?
Writer Jia Tolentino reflects on her experience as a teen on reality television. In her essay, she comes to the realization that “[b]oth high school and reality TV are fuelled by social ruthlessness,” meaning that confrontational and clique-ish theatrics are the best way to win at the social game of reality television as well as navigate real life. Tolentino explains that she played this game because she was in need of the prize money due to her parents’ financial woes at the time. Her behaviour on the show was influenced by the potential monetary gain she would receive. She interviews her castmates years later and recognises that she was not the only person on the show in that situation.
"In one way or another, we are all contestants"
Tolentino and some of her castmates rewatched the show as adults and reflected on their actions, most of them copping to behaviour and their motivations. My biggest takeaway from Tolentino’s essay is how reality television changes a person’s psyche, mostly caused by the tangential promise of a capital gain. We see this idea repeat itself throughout other reality television shows. From the Real Housewives to Love Island, reality television has the power to affect the player as well as the viewer with wealth.
Whether we are watching wealth in action on the Real Housewives or watching others compete for wealth under the guise of finding romance on Love Island, it is imperative to recognise that the individuals on these series have gamified their realities in order to keep wealth or obtain it. In the end, reality television is a glamour that mirrors reality just as much as it creates its own; viewers are compelled to participate in it just as much as the contestants. Reality television refuses to be passively consumed. In one way or another, we are all contestants. The question is not if we are playing the game, but how. The genre should not be written off as mindless viewing, but instead a practice in which critical thought is necessary in order to understand the humanity of everyone involved.
Edited by Evie Townend