Once you’ve passed the Kardashians’ temper tantrums, the scheming castaways of Survivor and the real housewives histrionics, there’s a lot to learn about ourselves in reality TV, says sociologist and TV lover Danielle J Lindemann.
Like it or not, she says reality TV illuminates our everyday experiences and can help us make sense of complex social forces.
She tells Jesse Mulligan that no one should feel guilty about that particular guilty pleasure in his book, True story: what reality TV says about us.
Lindemann says she was fascinated by the social dynamics of shows in the mid-1990s when she was growing up in New York. But when she started studying sociology, she realized how these shows can teach a lot about social interactions in their daily lives.
As a form of entertainment, it also helps people relax. Many women say reality TV reduces stress, including Michelle Obama, who admitted it helped her through her husband Barack’s presidential campaign.
Many who say they don’t watch the shows actually do, and the majority of viewers tend to be women, Lindemann says.
“We tend to see it as this guilty pleasure that we shouldn’t admit we’re watching. But more people watch reality TV than not.
“He tends to be female more often, so he tends to be gendered that way and he tends to be younger. There also tend to be people who use social media more often, which makes sense because you can kind of interact with the people who are on these shows through social media.
“You can also interact with other fans and discuss the show.”
The fact that people talk about the shows, whether online or at work, shows that it helps build different kinds of social connections, she says.
It is considered a guilty pleasure due to what is observed, including bad social behavior, such as fighting, people getting drunk, and saying inappropriate things. There is a fear of being “contaminated” by the toxicity of what is viewed.
But she is convinced that stigma is associated with women taking advantage of it.
“We tend to devalue cultural products associated with women and femininity. We tend to despise them a little more. »
There are different types of reality TV, from Lego building shows, to cooking and singing competitions, to marrying strangers. But it’s all part of the same genre, she says.
“There’s a kind of feeling that if you watch shows that teach you something or are more overtly professional – you can explicitly learn something from them that’s more palatable then those shows where there’s only women housewives hitting each other with purses… But I would put all of those shows under the umbrella of reality TV.
“These are all shows featuring real people whose primary purpose is to entertain, not educate, although they educate us along the way.”
Her book describes reality TV as “an amusing mirror of social life, a kind of exaggerated version of us”.
She argues that reality television takes us to places that scripted television masks or simply doesn’t show us, educating us about aspects of social reality, both good and bad. “It reflects the worst aspects of ourselves,” she says.
“Our sexism, our classism, our racism, our homophobia. It puts those things on full blast, but by doing that and caricaturing those things to allow us to really look carefully at the worst aspects of ourselves and all the qualities that deeply shaped our culture.
“But reality TV also shows us beautiful things about ourselves. It has always been more diverse than other forms of media and sometimes that diversity is stereotypical, but sometimes there is something to be said for the representation of different races, different sexual identities and gender identities. Reality television was at the forefront of queer representation.
However, the shows can also reference some old-school values and narrow ideas about what’s socially legitimate and healthy, especially for women, she says.
“In another way, it shows us the more backward aspects of ourselves, in terms of for example how we think about race and gender. So if you take a show like The single person, where there are these women vying for a man’s hand in marriage, the way these women interpret gender on this show is kind of a conservative portrayal of femininity. They have faces full of makeup, eyelashes so far, dazzling prom dresses at 10 a.m.
“The way they interpret the genre is a narrow conservative approach and they don’t really stray too far and if they do they kind of get punished for it and fired.”
Social realities bleed into the shows in other controversial ways. She argues that the “bad judge” character on music talent shows tends to be rich white men for a reason.
“Who gets mean in our culture and gets away with it, not always, but… more often than not it’s these rich white men who are allowed to be mean in these contests.”
Even the shows that seem furthest from our social realities like Survivor, reflect our lives quite strongly.
“Survivor seems as if it is separated from our daily life. Most of the time, we’re not castaways on an island figuring out how to make fires and compete for immunity idols. But the small dynamic on Survivor are very similar to the dynamics of our own lives.
“Like the alliances we form and even if you think of a workplace, the people you form alliances with, how those alliances benefit you, your twos, triads, your threes, in groups and out bands, who’s popular and not popular, who’s on the outs, so all of these little dynamics are amplified on Survivor, but they also exist in a more discreet form in our daily lives.
The power of reality TV can be measured by those who have seemingly benefited from it. Former US President Donald Trump and embattled Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – both showmen – have weaponized the medium with great success.
“I think Trump certainly weaponized it. It’s interesting to wonder if he would have been so successful if he hadn’t appeared on The apprentice, in his position of power, behind the desk, his orders dressed in a suit.
“We’ll never know, but he was definitely part of the cultural zeitgeist before that, but he really amplified his popular personas, so I wouldn’t be shocked if that helped his rise to the White House. Along the way, he used the conventions of reality TV.”
She says reality TV has had a huge cultural impact, but it hasn’t all been bad.
“It has the potential to serve that positive function…Reality television has been proven to change our society in ways that many of us would consider better. So the show Sixteen and pregnant actually reduced teenage pregnancy rates.
“It’s because people see the show and it offers educational nuggets, so that’s something you could point out and say maybe reality TV did a good thing…
“So he has the potential to perform that positive function even if he doesn’t always do it of course.”