There are plenty of things that should probably embarrass me but don’t.
I openly engage in one-sided conversations with my golden retriever on our walks all over Brooklyn. Does it bother me when I get weird looks from strangers? Not especially.
In full view of others, I’ve been known to dip a spoon into a container of rainbow sprinkles and shovel them into my mouth. Does it make me look like a five-year-old? Sure. But they are my favorite dessert, so, I don’t care!
My husband and I met when we were twelve years old (back when he was much cooler than I was), so I quite literally live with the shadows of humiliating moments from my tween and teen years. I’ve learned to laugh about it, and even own it.
One thing that I’ve struggled to own, however, is my relationship with my favorite genre of entertainment: reality TV. I’m a well-read, well-educated, mostly well-informed woman who is interested (at least most of the time) in bettering myself and the world around me. Shouldn’t I be watching something a little more highbrow?
I also hate to think that so many of the shows I most enjoy have been consistently reinforcing the icky gender stereotypes that I work so hard to dispel in my own life.
Alli Hoff Kosik
For what it’s worth, I’ve tried. I’ve made the rounds on “prestige TV,” giving it a real shot on episodes of shows that are frequently nominated for awards or discussed among my smartest friends. But I just can’t get into it! My eyes glaze over, I have a sudden urge to fold the laundry, or I simply find myself scrolling mindlessly through my phone, a habit I would argue is far worse than watching reality TV.
Still, I get a little uncomfortable any time I have to chime in on a conversation about television preferences. I can’t help but anticipate judgment and laughter — and if the wealth of strong anti-reality TV opinions and data on the Internet is any indication, this concern isn’t totally off-base. The genre’s enemies are numerous and widespread.
A Central Michigan University psychologist shared the details of his reality TV experiment on All Things Considered. Participants in his study responded more aggressively to a competitive prompt after watching episodes of Jersey Shore; Real Housewives; and Little People, Big World. The experts linked this behavior to the show’s relational aggression. Basically, the more you watch aggression on TV, the more aggressive you are in real life. The results of another study, from the University of Wisconsin, indicate that reality shows can feed into problematic gender stereotypes. And a 2018 Healthline article explores the extent to which so-called “unscripted” entertainment has reinforced negative behaviors like teasing and bullying and misinformed young people about the true meaning of reality as a concept.
Let me be very clear: I am not on board with any of this.
I can’t help but think that my relationship with reality television has, at times, made me a better person, or at least a person who is better equipped to manage and put into perspective the stresses of everyday life.
Alli Hoff Kosik
There is, of course, an important conversation to be had when aggressive behavior is linked to, or a product of, a specific source. The last thing we need as a society is to model for children that bullying behaviors or angry outbursts are acceptable — or worse, entertaining. I also hate to think that so many of the shows I most enjoy have been consistently reinforcing the icky gender stereotypes that I work so hard to dispel in my own life.
I can appreciate the hypocrisy of watching The Bachelor every Monday night over wine and takeout with a group of my feminist girlfriends. Even if we explain it away as “hate-watching” (which, truthfully, it isn’t), it’s fundamentally problematic for us to rail against the issues of the patriarchy, while also making a weekly event of a show that puts women in a position to not only subvert to a man’s power, but to compete against each other for it. When we all tune into these shows together, it appears as though we’re on board with the messages they convey about heteronormativity and girl-on-girl crime.
Still, I can’t help but think that my relationship with reality television has, at times, made me a better person, or at least a person who is better equipped to manage and put into perspective the stresses of everyday life.
For one, it’s made me a smarter observer of people. You can’t spend hundreds (or thousands — who’s to say?) of hours watching all kinds of humans being thrown into various situations on camera without learning how to better pick up cues and read signals. The Housewives have taught me how to spot a liar so I can approach dishonesty more calmly. Drama among the female cast members on The Bachelor has taught me to look out for impending emotional breakdowns so I can mellow my energy and lend a listening ear. Naturally I’m not very observant, but the time I’ve spent watching reality TV has sharpened some of my real-world powers of observation in a way that’s made me more aware and tuned in.
In becoming a better observer of my fellow humans, I like to think that I’ve also become more curious. My obsession with all things reality TV has developed a fascination with the human condition — where people come from, what motivates them, what they’re interested in, and how they overcome challenges. I’m now more likely to ask questions that try to see to the root of who people really are. I would even argue that this has made me more empathetic and open-minded, since the time I’ve spent engrossed with the lives of those on reality television has introduced me to perspectives and experiences I wouldn’t have otherwise been aware of.
I do think it’s all too easy to get stuck in our own nonsense, to make ourselves the star of an imaginary soap opera in which we are the star and everyone we’re disagreeing with is the ultimate villain.
Alli Hoff Kosik
The wild interpersonal scenarios I’ve witnessed on my favorite shows have put some of my own relationships into perspective too. To be fair, I would never claim that the run-of-the-mill tension or frustration I go through with my loved ones is on par with the next-level drama I see on my television, but I do think it’s all too easy to get stuck in our own nonsense, to make ourselves the star of an imaginary soap opera in which we are the star and everyone we’re disagreeing with is the ultimate villain.
And well, soap operas have got nothing on Bravo. Watching truly toxic relationships develop on-screen over the years has made it easier for me to recognize how minor many of my own issues are and what a gift it is to be able to reconcile my larger ones privately and on my own terms.
Maybe most importantly, reality TV has taught me to have a better sense of humor about everyday life — and I don’t think the importance of that can be overstated. I can be intense, and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have a tendency to take myself too seriously. The big personalities that populate my shows aren’t afraid to be themselves, to be silly, to play a tough situation for laughs when other options run out. If we’re going to be totally real about it, they’ve volunteered to put their good, bad, and ugly out there openly for viewing audiences to see, so they clearly have a healthy relationship with imperfection. I know I can continue to learn from them…and don’t intend to stop any time soon. So pass the popcorn, please!