What began as morbid curiosity and harmless voyeurism has turned into somewhat of an obsession. Reality Television has become a habitual part of my nightly routine and something that I am not particularly proud of. As I spent the weekend clearing out my DVR, which was full of reality tv shows I missed while being out of town, I realized that perhaps I have a problem. Why else would I secretly watch rerun marathons of Real Housewives of Atlanta all damn day when I have already seen the debauchery? Why else would I DVR Basketball Wives and mentally if not verbally take sides about who is “in the circle?” Why else would I be so invested in who wins the challenges and/or prizes at the end of Food Network Shows that there is often a tightening in my belly before the announcement (Chopped, anyone, lol)? Why else would I have done a happy dance at the re-emergence of Project Runway? I do believe I have a problem!
As a feminist, I find it troublesome that so many of these shows represent women in problematic ways. And while I have written about the nebulous position of being a critic and fan, or what Henry Jenkins calls an “aca-fan,” I feel the need to justify my over-consumption of other people’s “made for television” lives.
Truth is, I don’t always watch these shows for “research” or entertainment. Sometimes I watch for the same reasons I recorded The Jerry Springer Show when I was a college student. I watch for the temporary escape from my own life and the reminder that no matter how bad things are (in my own life) they could always be worse. I watch so that I can get on my proverbial high horse for 30 minutes to an hour and judge someone else’s life without being judged in return. One of the appeals of reality television is the one-sided view. I can watch someone else’s life, make claims about how I might have handled a situation better or differently, complain about the choices or representations, challenge the authenticity, participate in virtual and actual conversations about the characters with other consumers, and then turn off the tv. Reality television makes me feel better about myself and it allows me to have conversations with other viewers or track comments online, laughing and/or nodding and/or shaking my head at other takes on what I saw with my own eyes.
Despite the fact that I am disgusted and oftentimes troubled by the ways in which Black women on these shows represent themselves and treat each other, and the ways that women are characterized and caricatured in general, it does not keep me from turning on the tv and shopping for a show. And since reality television is not going anywhere, I feel the need to justify my continued fixation.
I do, however, try to temper my addiction. I don’t watch Big Brother or Dancing With the Stars, or any reality shows featured on network television (hm… could it be they are not scandalous enough) and I always critique and discuss what I see/think/feel in order to emotionally justify my curiosity. I mean am I just that damn nosey? Am I a masochist? Is my life so routinized that I get off on other people’s drama?
I have decided that while reality television has its evils, it is not the devil. I think that reality television shows offer important social commentaries about the hegemonic bullshit that oftentimes goes unchecked or unnoticed. For example, The Bachelor(ette) and all of its various versions demonstrate the problematic notion of a fairy tale, both through its unrealistic portrayals (including the embedded classism, racism and heterosexism of the show/s) and un-happily-ever-afters. And it is also contentious that the Real Housewives franchise includes many single, divorced or never-married women who are simply bourgeois, rich, privileged, and attention-starved. (I am continuously confused by the titles—Basketball Wives should perhaps be called Basketball Exes…but I digress). What I am getting at is that I think reality TV offers a platform for interesting opportunities to have conversations about issues that we should be talking about anyway, issues that influence the female image.
Take Teen Mom, for example, the spinoff of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant. I found the latter show by accident but was immediately immersed into and fascinated by the documentary of 16 year old girls who are unexpectedly expecting. The show chronicles the lives of young girls who negotiate the very REAL issues surrounding teen pregnancy, from contemplation of abortion and adoption, to the realities of motherhood, unsuccessful relationships with the fathers of their children, challenges to their relationships with their family and friends, domestic violence, intergenerational privilege or poverty, etc. I remember watching the series and feeling impacted by the reality of it all. My initial impression was that this show would discourage young girls from having unprotected sex (a good thing) and garner public attention and discussion about how to care for young girls who find themselves in the undesirable position of being unexpectedly pregnant (another good thing—the call for care, not the unexpected pregnancy). The general response, however, is varied, and some people feel the show encourages risky sexual behaviors. I read some time ago that some girls were trying to get pregnant so that they could be on the show L. Perhaps the drawback of any reality television show for young and impressionable young women is the illusion of fame as a permanent or positive position.
When I realized that they were doing a follow-up series, Teen Mom, to follow the teen mothers on their journeys through parenthood I began watching religiously. I watch for a few reasons. First, because reality television has conditioned my interest and fascination with characters to be more ongoing (16 & Pregnant chronicles a different girl every week while Teen Mom follows the same group over a longer period of time). I also watch to see if the criticisms of the show are fair, if it really glamorizes teen pregnancy or offers a realistic purview into the sacrifices and struggles that are inherent in the everyday life of teen mothers.
I realize that my perception as a grown ass woman who did not face teen pregnancy is one that is limited by my own experience(s). While I have never been pregnant, I witnessed teen pregnancy from the outside looking in. When I was a teenager I knew many girls who found themselves pregnant and had to make difficult, permanent adult choices when they were barely past puberty. And that is a feminist issue worth troubling—unlike the more superficial points of many reality shows.
So, while I cannot justify all of my reality-television watching, and I confess that I need to wean myself away from my hours-long binges, I hope to utilize some of what I learn and see to initiate conversations about social issues and not just good gossip. VH1’s catch-all phrase, popularized during their hot-ass-mess Flavor-of-Love days, “watch and discuss,” prevails here.