Since 2000, the number of reality television shows has risen from four to three hundred twenty in the United States. The American people have an overwhelming love for reality TV despite its generally awful representation of women. According to the Oxford Dictionary, reality television is defined as “Television programs in which ordinary people are continuously filmed, designed to be entertaining rather than informative.” “Entertaining” for reality TV companies means portray- ing women as catty, manipulative, and untrustworthy by either pitting women against each other, like the women in America’s Next Top Model and Real Housewives of whatever city, or by having them emotionally, and sometimes physically, fight over a man on shows like The Bachelor, Jersey Shore, and Sister Wives.
There are also shows like What Not to Wear, Extreme Makeover, and Botched, which aim to improve the appearance of the women on the show by making them over to fit into mainstream media’s beauty standards. Adult women watching these shows is one problem, but almost all of these shows are available with basic cable, which means young, developing girls are also watching this garbage and thinking that they are “not skinny enough” or “not pretty enough.” Charlotte Markey, an Associate Professor of psychology at Rutgers–Camden, with husband Patrick Markey of Villanova University, recently published research on this in the academic journal Body Image. The wife-and-husband team surveyed nearly 200 participants, both men and women, with an average age of 20 on their immediate responses to an ‘Extreme Makeover’ program or a show on home improvement – incorporated specifically to mask the intent of the study. As the Rutgers–Camden researcher suspected, women were more likely to want cosmetic surgery than men, and viewers of the cosmetic surgery show were more inclined to consider the procedure for themselves than those who didn’t tune in. What still shocks Markey are the handwritten responses to the cosmetic surgery show, including comments like “inspirational” and “I saw an unhappy girl get her dreams.” According to WebMD Medical News, reality TV is contributing to eating disorders in teen girls. With shows like Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People and Extreme Makeover, young girls believe that to be accepted you have to be “hot” or a “bombshell.” Since the boom of reality television in 2000, eating disorders in teenage girls (ages 13-19) has nearly tripled.
Race representation of women is also a huge problem in reality TV. In the study “Portrayals of women in prime time reality TV pro- grams” conducted by Ivonne Martinez-Sheperd of Iowa State University, a total of 611 females were shown in reality shows during prime time hours in the summer season of 2006. Adult females constitute the majori- ty, comprising 87.6 percent; there were only 76 girls, comprising percent of the sample. Of the total 611 female participants, only 142 or 23.2 per- cent were of minority descent. Among the three minority groups studied, African Americans were the most prominent, representing 14.2 percent female of the population in these shows. The next most popular minority group was Hispanics with 5.9 perecent of the total females. Asians were the least featured, comprising of only 3.1 percent of the total females on reality TV. So even if reality TV were claiming to be feminist, it would be white feminism.
Don’t get me wrong, not all reality TV programs are bad. Career or competition focused shows like Survivor, Amazing Race, American Idol, The Voice, The Next Great Baker, Hell’s Kitchen, and Project Runway, which create an equal playing field between men and women, are great for all ages to watch, but for the most part “reality” TV is an unrealistic portrayal of average American women.
I was raised and continue to be a feminist and an activist throughout my life. Especially in this wary political climate, I’ve tried to consistently project messages that resist bigotry and hate in school, in my neighborhood, and on my social media accounts. And while I can rationalize the need for ethical media, I have my vice: reality dating television. Unlike the rest of mainstream TV airing right now, dating shows such as ABC’s The Bachelor, MTV’s Are You The One?, and Netflix’s Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City provide my radical self with the utmost form of escapism.
These shows are not feminist. They are all ridiculously heteronormative, many of the men make inexcusable sexist remarks, and many of the women face such deep internalized misogyny to fill ten Ph.D. theses. And yet, why do I, a staunch feminist, still come back? Simply, I consider it an easy form of self-care from my activism. There’s something incredibly easy about watching twenty-five hunky dudes trip over each other for a couple minutes of alone time with the Bachelorette, or see two people enter a stark white room fully prepared to spend the rest of their lives together, only to see the words “No Match” flash across the screen. These shows fulfill the most honest definition of “guilty pleasure,” and yet they are the perfect form of escape from my ever-spinning political mind.
I listen to a podcast on the Maximum Fun network called Rose Buddies, a Bachelor fancast in which married couple Griffin and Rachel McElroy recount episodes of the franchise weekly, but often reconcile their intersectional beliefs so as to enjoy the actual watching of the shows. However, they also frequently point out the obvious and often intervention of the producers in order to stir up drama. For example, during episode two of Jojo Fletcher’s season of The Bachelorette, Grif n points out that contestant Chad was most likely singled out to ful ll the “vil- lain” role because of his dramatic shift in behavior towards the other men in the house. This perception of the true television aspect of these shows is how I can truly reconcile this garbage media with my feminist identity. First and foremost, everyone on whichever show you’re watching is there to make pro table and watchable television. The contestants’ desire to find love may be real as well, but they were cast on the assumption that they would add to the programming and draw a larger audience. After Corinne Olympios left Nick Viall’s season of The Bachelor after her hometown date, the show’s ratings dipped solely because that season’s villain was gone.
I agree that dating shows are trashy. They feed off an audience’s most animalistic desires to watch relationships crash and burn rather than keep up to date on the most pressing world news, and I obviously contribute to this cycle of trashy television over informative media. However, of all the problematic things in the world to partake in, reality dating shows are pretty low on my list.