Reality TV is television’s most detested genre. No other genre has been so outwardly derided since its conception. It has been written off as “garbage for the brain” as this Elite Daily article puts it. Piers Morgan has labelled the latest series of Love Island as “revolting”. It has even been branded as symptomatic of the “end of civilisation”.
However, all this self-righteous moral outcry serves to disguise a very human truth. Reality TV taps into our desire to watch and observe other people. As Rijks Museum points out, this is something that shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians have in common with 17th century artists such as Vermeer and Jan Steen. Known for their daily life paintings, these artists depict a staged version of candid life, allowing the viewer to be a so-called fly-on-the wall. This voyeuristic take on life is emphasised by details such as lighting and framing in order to emphasise this construction of reality. Such paintings have continued to attract numerous visitors to museums such as the Rijksmuseum who would arguably turn their nose up at non-scripted television.
However, unbeknownst to them, they are arguably looking at the 17th century versions of fly-on-the-wall shows such as Keeping up with the Kardashians. In a similar way, the Kardashians present a version of their lives that draws you in with their unfiltered emotions, allowing you, as the viewer, to connect with them. They also use similar tricks as those done by these Baroque period painters to capture their reality. By doing this, they have drawn in millions to tune in to their show or follow their Instagram accounts.
A conversation starter for the topics we find hard to talk about
Despite this, reality TV doesn’t need such a connection with classical art to prove its worth. The genre’s most fruitful contribution is its capacity to generate conversation and in turn, tell us something about society. This can be seen in the genre’s early days with the Big Brother racism controversy, where the late Jade Goody was depicted using racial slurs against Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty. At the time, press attention largely concentrated on Channel 4’s questionable morality in broadcasting the tensions. By doing so, however, it depicted the very real reality of racism in the UK proving those who say that we live in a society that doesn’t see colour wrong. It’s this kind of unintended social commentary that positions the genre as a kind of accidental art that reveals the cold hard truth about our culture and society.
The current UK king of the reality show crop, Love Island has continued much in a similar vein. For example, last year’s treatment of Samira, the show’s only black female contestant, unwittingly revealed not only the reality for dating as a black woman but also how pop culture sidelines the stories of PoC women as this VERVE Team article details. This year, some of the reaction to Maura Higgins, who openly talks about sex, has been telling of how we cannot accept women who outwardly display their sexuality. Megan Barton-Hanson, before her, also displayed a similar attitude to sex yet also continually feared that she was seen as inferior for her previous job as a stripper, further revealing how society looks down upon sexual women. Moreover, Micheal’s gaslighting of Amber this series has also served to spotlight the domestic abuse issue.
By inadvertently outlining social issues to an audience who most likely just tuned in for mindless post-work escapism, reality TV proves its worth. We tune in for trashy fun and something to take our mind away from our problems. It gives us a welcome respite from the tumultuous and often terrifying world we have created. However, sometimes, issues from this world seep into our hour of escapism even if we don’t notice it.
Reality TV is society’s most visible invisible mirror. It inadvertently reflects our uncomfortable truths whilst tapping into our desire to voyeuristically peek into other people’s lives. As long as it continues to do this, it is here to stay — whether the critics like it or not.