Reality TV isn’t reality, but it can tell us something about the real world by Cayt Mirra
It’s easy to dismiss reality television as unrealistic garbage. And it is, don’t get me wrong. There was a time when I didn’t watch it. I thought I was above it. Why would I waste my time watching Big Brother during the golden age of television? I was busy watching Lost! It was a simpler time. But here I am, a decade later, and I have recently dedicated the better part of a year to watching all 37 seasons of Survivor. I’ve watched every season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Twice. I even watched MAFS, despite promising myself that I wouldn’t this year. I haven’t been watching Bachelor in Paradise, but I know that all of the episodes are sitting there on TenPlay, calling to me.
I’ve been thinking about why I watch this stuff – why I enjoy it. I mean, I like to think of myself as an intelligent person who enjoys complex narrative and character development. I watch Game of Thrones. I’ve even read the first two books (the second was an audiobook but yes that still counts). I keep coming back to this argument that it’s all fake. And it is. But at the same time, it’s a real insight into our world.
Watching two decades of Survivor all at once showed me how much America has changed based on the people who are cast and the way they speak to and about each other. There is still a lot of sexism, but it isn’t overt. They’ve stopped doing the men vs women seasons, and they never repeated the season where they split the contestants by ethnicity. Things that were once socially acceptable are now not. But Survivor has used its format to see how people react under pressure, and when they are forced to betray each other. I have seen friendships between people from the city and the country, I have seen men have their homophobia challenged by proud gay contestants, and I have seen the first trans contestant on the show be loved and supported by those around him. I have also seen a woman be gaslighted by all of the men about her response to an unwanted sexual advance, and another woman be forced to sit next to the contestant who sexually assaulted her at the reunion ceremony. All of these things paint a picture of America. They might have been edited a certain way, but there is something to be learnt from watching, and from following the public response.
Ru Paul’s Drag Race is, by its very nature, far more woke. The show operates under the assumption that all contestants are anti-Trump, which seems pretty accurate. Recently contestants performed in a Trump musical. Ru often speaks out about the importance of enrolling to vote. But it’s not the challenges that show us the real stuff, it’s the discussion in the work room. It’s the impact of listening to season after season of queens talk about the lack of support they have had from their families. Or the queens who have never told their parents that they are gay, or that they do drag. It’s the clear contrast between the lives of the queens who grew up in cities compared to those who grew up in country towns. It’s also the changing attitudes as the seasons go on, as more and more queens have positive stories about supportive families. But it was only last year, in 2018, that Dusty Ray Bottoms confessed that when he (and I say he because this is a story about him as a boy, not in drag) came out as gay to his parents, they took him to see an exorcist. An exorcist! This shit is actually happening. I have learnt so much from this show about drag culture but also about acceptance and love.
And then, there’s MAFS. I’m not quite as proud of my love for this one. It’s a train wreck. But it’s addictive, and there is value in watching it critically. I enjoy watching it with my partner (sorry Marty, I’m outing you as a MAFS watcher) because we pick apart the mistakes that people are making in their relationships, and through this we have had some really great conversations about what is important in relationships – we’re pretty comfortable up on our couple high horse. I think there is value in watching if you are also talking. I want young people to be talking about how Dino recording Melissa’s phone call was an invasion of her privacy. I want young people to be talking about how Jessika made herself look stupid when she wasn’t honest. I want young people to be talking about how gross it was for Sam to make jokes about taking Liz for a run, and about how Mike was gaslighting Heidi. Because I want young people to be able to recognise these behaviours in their own relationships.
There doesn’t need to be a more complex message behind reality television. It’s OK to watch Survivor because you like watching them eat gross food. It’s perfectly fine to watch Ru Paul to check out the outfits. And it’s super normal to watch MAFS because you love the drama, or just because it’s fun to watch the experts try to maintain some semblance of integrity as they walk around in lab coats (why do they need lab coats?) pretending that what they are doing is somehow scientific. Whatever your reason for tuning in to all the trash, that’s fine. But it helps me sleep at night to consider the deeper learnings about the world and the people in it, and how these things can be genuinely explored within a reality television format.