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Why the snobs are wrong about reality TV

Over the weekend Lizzie Marvelly wrote a column condemning reality television, a sentiment that she shares with many. But does reality TV really herald the end of critical thinking, devouring brain cells as every minute passes? Leah Damm responds.

Imagine writing an opinion piece in which you spend a thousand-odd words expressing disapproval of an entire genre, within which you also admitted never having watched any of it. This is the paradox presented in Lizzie Marvelly’s recent opinion piece in the Weekend Herald, in which the abundance of reality television on new MediaWorks channel Bravo is mourned.

Despite the irony of Marvelly’s admission to having never actually taken the time to watch reality television before (Grey’s Anatomy is about as far as she’s willing to admit venturing into the television swamp), the sentiment that reality TV is candyfloss for the brain is not particularly uncommon. But who decides what is and isn’t trash? What is it that makes the ‘trash’ so ‘trashy’?

“In the reality television age, brains are out and voyeurism is in,” she writes. “Critical thinking is so dusty a concept that few people know what it means anymore.”

There’s something uncomfortably snobbish and decidedly uncritical about the blanket dismissal of reality television. What if people are capable of critical thinking but still choose to watch The Bachelor? Would that imply people can be smart and enjoy, or even take part in the show – like the lawyer, the doctor, and the large number of other successful and educated women who willingly joined The Bachelor NZ over the last two seasons.

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The Bachelor’s twenty-three successful young professionals willingly surround a reality TV star

As an audience, maybe we just don’t feel like spending our evenings poring over the hard stuff. That’s not because it isn’t around – there are a near-infinite number of documentaries or prestige dramas available to stream at little or no cost online. So if people are no longer limited in what, when, and where they can watch supposedly decent television, why hasn’t the reality television genre died a quick and painless death? Perhaps it’s because people actually like it. They watch it and revel in its ridiculousness, or its dorky humour, or self-mocking drama – or any of the other ways you can enjoy reality television.

As Marvelly points out, there’s no doubt that reality TV as we’ve come to understand it mostly consists of deeply contrived depictions of ‘real life’ situations. Being unscripted and breaking the fourth wall doesn’t mean that the format isn’t choreographed, staged, and manufactured. This is about a groundbreaking a revelation as ‘WWE is entirely choreographed!’

Ouch: the truth sometimes hurts

Ouch: the truth sometimes hurts

That the fictionalised nature of reality television is a concern to critics of the genre suggests these critics aren’t particularly aware of why people watch ‘trash’ television in the first place. They seem to feel it’s physically unhealthy for people to come home after work, and head down an hour-long rabbit hole of other people’s weird televised behaviour. There’s little chance, though, that audiences are unaware of the bleakness going on in the world, and although tuning out from current events is a first-world privilege, it’s also not unreasonable for people to want a break from the world’s harsh reality from time to time.

The anti-reality television crowd are mostly too coy to admit that they cast snobbish glances at regular people’s television habits, choosing instead to mask their passive aggressive judgments through their framing of reality television as a sociological nightmare. According to them, reality television is an industry that thrives on sexism, superficiality and an overabundance of false realities masquerading as ‘real life’ – all fair indictments of reality formats. Indeed, Marvelly points to Donald Trump as an example of the long-term impacts of reality television;

“Look at the US. As much as it pains me to say it, they may well have brought Donald Trump upon themselves. Thanks, in no small part, to reality television.”

Wait, what? For all the genuine criticisms that can be made about the television industry, blaming reality TV on the existence of Donald Trump the political entity is an amazing leap. That he had profile through The Apprentice implies that Joe Rogan or Chris Harrison could also slide into nominee status, if only they were to turn their minds to it.

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Someone has to answer for that spray tan, but it’s probably not the producers of The Block

Similarly, Kim Kardashian is a regular focal point of critics, described by Lizzie as another one of those “nobodies to product pushers”. Whilst there has been fair criticism of Kardashian’s appropriation of black culture and subsequent silence on issues facing black communities, so many of Kardashian’s critics cite her obscene wealth and sexuality as proof of her status as a do-nothing airhead. Yet on the cover of Forbes magazine this month, Kardashian is manifestly an incredibly astute businesswoman. Not only that, she constantly harnesses her powerful platform on social media – built on her reality TV audience – to pushback against the slut-shaming that resides at the core of much of her critics’ rhetoric.

While people pace around wringing their hands at what they perceive as the anti-feminist premise of The Bachelor and Keeping Up With the Kardashians, these are actually a very small slice of the reality TV world. Even Beauty and the Beach, a show that follows people who travel to Thailand for cosmetic surgery, is dismissed by Marvelly as a no-go zone lest her brain wither up and die in a “cesspit” of botox and champagne.

Yet former New Zealand Idol contestant Nikki Lee Carlson’s participated in the show to seek gender reassignment surgery, helping draw attention to the New Zealand’s 30-year waitlist – which has left Nikki with no other choice but to seek the riskier option of surgery overseas. Both Carlson’s journey and her prior fame are the product of reality television. Similarly, The Undateables is a show that initially appears open to the potential for mockery of ‘undateable’ people, but turns out to be an endearing and humanising look into the hopes and desires of people who struggle to fit into societal norms of physical or mental health.

In a local context, Homai Te PakiPaki and Game of Bros have both been successful and entertaining examples of Māori Television’s venture into the reality genre – and a great display of New Zealand’s multicultural landscape. Australian Idol even launched Stan Walker’s career which has included opening for Beyoncé and a transition into acting.

Maori TV's Game of Bros, reality

Maori TV’s Game of Bros, one of the many examples of Kiwi reality TV that’s actually pretty cool

There’s even been some redeeming qualities surface in the New Zealand public thanks to reality television. X Factor NZ judge, Natalia Kills’ odd but brutal attack on Joe Irvine showed us just how little the public cares for those in power having a go at the little guy. So too did Chrystal Chenery’s pushback at having her crotch used as a means of humiliation, which created a platform for discussion about how women’s bodies are so exhaustingly sexualised and shamed – often without their permission thanks to otherwise innocuous circumstances, like a split-second crotch flash whilst ballroom dancing.

The conversation around reality television has long been framed as a battle for the brains and souls of the poor, defenceless public. But reality television is as replete with great and awful examples as any other genre. So for Marvelly and her ilk to dismiss it while armed with little more than a glance at the TV Guide, achieves the rare feat of being both elitist and intellectually lazy.

Just as the reality genre has evolved into a complex and diverse one, so must the arguments mounted against it evolve – otherwise they’ll read as if the author hasn’t even taken the time to consume what it is they’re criticising. Which wouldn’t imply much in the way of critical thinking, would it?


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