I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for years, but after a recent conversation, I decided today was the perfect time.
What is wrong with “reality” TV and why has it become a way to measure one’s superiority over others?
I could go into some deep philosophical analysis of what really constitutes reality and how reality isn’t an objective concept, but that’s for another post.
First, let me explain the quotation marks: very few of the shows classified as reality shows are really what one might consider reality-that is, a snapshot of a situation that has not been perverted by production. These shows are created and casted situations which are continuously molded by producers to elicit the maximum amount of drama, comedy, or tragedy. Therefore, “reality” TV is more of a play on the audience’s emotions, using real people rather than traditionally scripted characters, than it is a snapshot of true reality for the purposes of entertainment…that’s what documentary films are for!
I’ve been watching “reality” TV since I was a kid…yeah, my parents allowed me to watch whatever I wanted at any age (NYPD Blue, ER, The Practice, etc.). The first “reality” TV show I liked was Real World. I started watching it because they had a season in Hawaii while I lived there and I had a girl-crush on Ruthie. I watched a couple of seasons, but the first season I remember getting into was Paris. I watched Road Rules until it was cancelled and continued watching Real World until about two years ago. In the mean time, I also watched Survivor, Bad Girls Club, The Amazing Race, and The Bachelor, sporadically.
The first “reality” show I really got into was The Jersey Shore. I watched it from beginning to end. I got my mom into it, then we got my dad to watch it. We eventually all watched it every week as a family and would laugh and laugh. I loved it! I like the characters, I liked the relationships, I liked the slang, I liked the partying, and the drama!
So how does all of this connect to moral and intellectual superiority?
Well, in 2011 I started graduate school and almost immediately realized my television choices were not going to help me make any friends. By chance I also watch Korean dramas which a few other students also watched, but otherwise I knew better than to mention “reality” TV. Every time I quoted a line from Jersey Shore or used a slang word or mentioned the characters, I was laughed at and called an idiot or stupid and asked why I would watch such “trash”.
Eventually I just stopped talking about it and made sure only to talk about the show with my parents or friends from outside of school that also enjoyed it.
In the graduate school example there was a clear sense of intellectual superiority among my classmates because they were too smart to watch “reality” TV, while I was not.
I don’t understand how people arrive at this conclusion because I don’t understand how watching “reality” TV for entertainment purposes is any different than playing video games, going to the gym, partying, or any other hobby most people have. Of course, there are hobbies that require critical thinking, analysis, and problem solving, but not every hobby does. So why do people feel intellectually superior based on entertainment choices? If I am in the mood for a mentally stimulating hobby, I’ll do crosswords, play sudoku, play trivia or some other game that requires critical thinking. I don’t have the money, time, or mental energy to devote to video games, but that doesn’t mean I think gamers are idiots. Other times, when I don’t feel like engaging my brain in some complex activity, I can turn on a TV show for an hour or two and laugh, cry, cringe, and observe people.
While I will admit that I believe there is a hierarchy of quality and rachetness in the “reality” TV world (for instance, I don’t really care for Millionaire Matchmaker, Duck Dynasty or Basketball Wives), why would one’s like or dislike of “reality” TV correlate in any way to their academic or intellectual abilities?
Do you think people that watch “reality” TV are less intelligent than those that choose not to? Why or why not?
Then came the kicker. The moral superiority argument.
One day, after a trip to visit some friends that lived out of town (who also loved Jersey Shore), I shared a picture of Pauly D on my Facebook timeline and tagged them in it. Less than 5 minutes later, one of my Facebook friends, that used to work at the high school I attended in Oklahoma, posted a paragraph-long status about how Jersey Shore was trash, she wouldn’t let her children watch it, it was horrible for society, etc. Several of my classmates with children quickly jumped on the bandwagon and commented on her status explaining why they were morally superior because they didn’t watch the show and why their children were going to turn out to be better members of society because they didn’t allow them to watch such trash.
I was younger, and much more comfortable with confrontation and I knew that many of these women had criminal records, had become pregnant out of wedlock, and used drugs and alcohol to excess (none of which personally affect me, but all things they were making fun of others for watching on TV)! I replied with something along the lines of: “I do not party, go to clubs, sleep around, or any of the other activities that are ‘promoted’ on the show. On the contrary, I go to school, don’t have children, don’t have STDs, and don’t have a criminal record.” (all things they said the show was causing). “I find the characters endearing and funning and enjoy watching them live their lives. Just because I watch a show featuring characters who are following different life paths, does not mean I am going to do the same…and if I did want to move to New Jersey and party for a summer, how does that affect your life?”
I can think of many instances, despite the sex and drinking that everyone looked down upon, when characters on the show displayed admirable character traits. They built friendships, fell in love, watched out for each other, protected each other, etc.
I was blown away that a shared picture of a character from a “reality” show had caused multiple mothers to explain how they were morally superior to people that watched a show.
Do you think watching “reality” TV has a negative moral effect on society? How? Have you ever made a poor decision because you saw someone on a show do something similar?
This particular example relates to Jersey Shore, but I have encountered the exact same blowback for watching The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. This franchise isn’t my favorite, but I became hooked on it because it was a way to bond with my mom. She enjoys the show and we can both watch the show and judge the contestants while spending time together.
Most of all, this is the main reason I watch reality TV. I strongly believe that it is a great way to bond with people that you may otherwise have nothing in common with. People of all ages, income levels, races, and genders watch reality TV-it’s very much like sports in that capacity. Since I am a graduate student and many of my friends and relatives are not, it gives me something to talk about with them, other than rambling on about my studies. We can compare our analysis of the cast members and guess what we think will happen on future episodes. We can laugh together and cringe together, but most of all, we can share an experience despite distance or other obstacles.
Obviously, I understand that there are unhealthy habits that can damage your life and influence you to make poor decisions, but I do not think watching PG-13 entertainment is one of those habits. I’m equally blown away by those that think video games and gangster rap cause people to commit murder. It’s amazing how otherwise liberal individuals are so quick to explain why their choices of entertainment are better than others and how superior they are to other individuals.
This is not to say that everyone has to like or enjoy “reality” TV, but it is definitely important that people understand that “reality” TV is a form of entertainment just like any other. While some hobbies may be more intellectually stimulating than others, I do not believe that one is more intelligent or moral because they choose a different form of entertainment.