“Those ‘Jersey Shore’ freaks are out of control. They’re setting a terrible example for adulthood.”
“And ‘The Bachelor’ has to be fake, right? Those girls can’t all be in love with him!”
We’ve all heard it before: the common perception of “reality” television as a purely entertainment category, the perception that it’s just manufactured drama orchestrated by manipulative producers. There’s even a four-season scripted drama produced with the intent of riffing on reality TV production malpractices.
But if you look beyond the idea of shows like “Big Brother” or “The Real World” being “fake” or “trashy,” you’ll find there’s merit between spliced-together interview segments and overblown confrontations that’s helping push social commentary and social change forward.
Give reality television a chance — not only to entertain, but to inform and to educate.
“Bachelor” contestant Caelynn Miller-Keyes was dumped at the end of last week’s episode, but during a prior one-on-one conversation with Bachelor Colton Underwood, she opened up about having been sexually assaulted in college and how it’s affected her in the years since.
That in itself is an important media moment. A nationally televised monologue about a young girl overcoming sexual assault was watched by an estimated 6.5 million viewers on live television. That should be a conversation starter about the merits of this genre.
What made this even more remarkable, aside from the strength it must have taken Miller-Keyes to share her story, was that (at least in the final edited product) Underwood sat and listened. He didn’t interrupt, judge her or try to shift the conversation to make it about himself.
And so Miller-Keyes’ story not only became a beacon of strength for the 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men who will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, but became an example for the friends and family of those survivors of assault. It becomes an example to follow — an example of listening, understanding and believing.
Reality television allows viewers to tackle these kinds of issues on primetime television in ways other genres can’t. With scripted television, it’s easy to just produce a “very special episode” centered around a touchy, topical subject and leave it at that.
But with reality TV, there’s the pretense that these events, no matter how fake they may end up being, are real. There’s an assumption that these people and their experiences are real, and believable.
And that’s important.
In April 2017, over 8 million “Survivor” viewers had the opportunity to witness contestant Jeff Varner out Zeke Smith, a fellow contestant, as transgender in an attempt to sway their tribe into voting Smith off the island.
This was met with unanimous disapproval, with tribemates chastising Varner for his actions. Even Jeff Probst, the show’s host, condemned the move as going too far.
Varner was voted out unanimously afterward, but the narrative moving forward follows Smith, someone with enough social grace and wisdom to not only shake Varner’s hand on his way out, but to move forward confidently as an openly gay transgender man, not only on the show, but in life as well.
Varner and Smith’s fellow contestants, too, become examples of general human decency and behavior — collectively declaring, on national TV, that outing someone is never okay.
The GLAAD-award-winning episode, again, becomes more than just a sensationalized incident. It presents “Survivor”-watching families an opportunity to discuss LGBTQ+ issues, to discuss why behavior like Varner’s shouldn’t be tolerated.
It gives young people who may be struggling with their gender identities an example. It gives them someone on primetime TV to point to and say, “I’m not alone in what I’m going through. This person has been through it, too, and they’re even stronger for it.”
When two “Big Brother 20” contestants clashed over offensive language, CBS dedicated the bulk of the following episode to not only the confrontation itself, but the two cast members unpacking the incident in a respectful and professional manner.
Last month’s “Survivor” season premiere featured a segment where castaway Wendy Diaz explained how she navigates her Tourette syndrome, her specific tics and challenges, and noted that everyone with Tourette faces different challenges — an educational moment not only for Diaz’s teammates, but for millions of viewers at home.
It’s important that these moments keep airing on TV when they happen and that they continue being candidly discussed. Because when “reality” is the concept behind a whole genre, the events it portrays are supposed to reflect real-world issues — whether audiences are ready to face those issues or not.