Reality TV ‘Peels Back Our Collective Skin.’ What’s Underneath Isn’t Pretty.

Sociologist Danielle J. Lindemann's book True Story explores the ways in which reality television holds a mirror the the American id.

Reality TV ‘Peels Back Our Collective Skin.’ What’s Underneath Isn’t Pretty.
Image:Cyndi Shattuck/FSG

Danielle J. Lindemann is a sociologist at Lehigh University, and in her new book, True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us, she argues that reality programming acts as an expression of the American id, offering a singular look at our society, stripped of the relative decorum that pervades more staid forms of entertainment. By analyzing series from Sister Wives and My Super Sweet Sixteen to The Bachelor and Breaking Amish, Lindemann examines what the reality TV genre reveals about our values surrounding race and class, friendship and motherhood. It’s perhaps unsurprising to learn that there’s not a ton of good news to be found. “I tell my students all the time, ‘We’re going to dig into the ugly underbelly of reality TV,’” she told Jezebel, “‘and you’re going to see how it perpetuates these stereotypes that have existed in our culture for hundreds of years.’”

The “guilty pleasure” feels a bit like a concept left over from the nineties, much like the idea of selling out. Poptimism has become a default critical mode for considering everything from superhero franchise TV shows to holiday rom-coms, but even as the mandate to just let people enjoy things reigns supreme, reality TV, particularly in its most disparaged iterations, still carries a distinct stigma. This is despite its widespread popularity: Of the 400 top rated TV shows of 2017, nearly half of them were reality television. We all know reality television is often crass, many of us—myself very much included—watch it anyway.

Lindemann begins her book by describing an exercise she assigned to one of her recent classes. She asked students to draw two columns, and in one, write the names of as many sitting Supreme Court justices as they could think of. In the other, they were to write down as many members of the Kardashian family as they could name. (She points out that the Kardashians have the upper hand in the experiment, as, if you count the Jenner side of the clan, there are far more than nine of them. That they all share surnames probably also tilts the exercise in their direction.) Still, in her class of almost 200 students, only one undergrad could name more justices than Kardashians. Lindemann doesn’t start her book with this story to hand-wring over the state of the kids today, but to point out that when a brand of entertainment has built a celebrity dynasty with more name recognition than the leaders of our judiciary—not to mention the fact that the genre also helped propelled one of its stars to the presidency—it’s worthy of thoughtful consideration.

“My whole life has been a life of doing research for this book,” Lindemann joked. She watched The Real World in high school, The Hills as a graduate student, and even name-checked Bad Girls Club and Project Runway in her wedding vows. Her affection for the genre doesn’t dull her critical eye when it comes to assessing it, however. Her book argues that reality shows tap into a broader cultural conservatism, revealing how little has truly changed amid ostensibly shifting social norms and unprecedented gains in inclusivity.

Despite its status as the lowest of low-brow entertainment, studies suggest that reality TV provides fertile ground for social bonding, from the kind of water cooler chat that helps enliven an office to dedicated online fandoms. There’s also a divide between the relative prestige of shows like Great British Bake Off and RuPaul’s Drag Race, with their focus on workmanship and skill, and shows like Jersey Shore, which focus solely on the social interactions of its participants. Though their lack of singing, dancing, and acting skills has often been levied against Snooki, the Kardashians, and their ilk, Lindemann points out that people who are famous for being famous have existed for centuries. “Royalty,” she said, are also “famous for being part of a family.”

Reality casting, which often relies on bringing people from different backgrounds together in the hopes that interpersonal tensions will drive the storylines, leans on gender, class, race, and sexuality divides to create conflict. “As a sociologist, to me, this is what makes these shows really fascinating, because when you artificially patchwork people from different backgrounds together, you start to really see the importance of your social context in shaping who you become, and how you behave, and your understandings of the world,” said Lindemann. The people on these shows may behave in ways that we wouldn’t—or so we would like to think—but they’re products of this culture just as surely as we are.

Consider The Bachelor. Most single people would probably not find the opportunity to compete for and potentially become engaged to a virtual stranger to be particularly enticing. Yet, through its outlandish pageantry, the series and its multitudinous spawn, along with other wedding-adjacent shows from Bridezillas to Say Yes to the Dress, illustrate the outsized value American culture places on marriage and its trappings. “The people on reality shows are people who are willing to eat bugs and take pregnancy tests on TV, but they’re parodies of ourselves,” Lindemann writes. “They dwell in the blurry space between the mundane and the disreputable, and they show us how we all do the same.”

Each chapter of True Story interrogates the genre for what it might reveal about our understanding of class, race, the family, and other societal forces and institutions. Lindemann explores the ways shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo allow viewers a voyeuristic perspective on the American underclass while justifying its continued existence, and how dating shows prop up traditional femininity. Reality TV, she illustrates, is often invested in portraying women to be bad mothers, with shows like Teen Mom chiding young girls for falling short of the motherly ideal, Smothered mocking older mothers for holding on too tight, and, in Kris Jenner, presenting a chimera of maternal dysfunction, someone both too lax and overly involved. The pressures of motherhood may be more thoughtfully explored in other media, but reality TV makes it clear enough “good mother” status is an always moving target, one that leaves women damned if they do and if they don’t.

The fact that most reality television is highly staged does little to minimize its power; Lindemann quotes the Thomas theorem that, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Even if its scenarios are inorganic, reality TV often reflects troubling truths that other forms of media tend to paper over. While HBO’s Sex and the City reboot offers an aspirational picture of multi-racial friend groups, the Real Housewives franchise—with its largely racially segregated casts—more closely resembles real life, in which a majority of white Americans do not have even a single non-white friend.

Within this segregated TV world, some communities, particularly Latinos and Asian-Americans, are rendered nearly invisible. Yet Black people can be more highly visible in reality television than in its scripted counterparts. This comes at a cost, as many depictions on shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta reinforce racist stereotypes of Black people as raucous, uncouth, and inherently at odds with the norms that usually accompany wealth and privilege. “If you’re a Black woman who’s succeeding, historically, the cultural impulse has been to swat you down,” Lindemann points out. Echoes of that impulse live on in shows like Atlanta, where glamorous Black women are coaxed into screaming match after screaming match.

Despite the ways in which reality television is often racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic, shows can retain a particular popularity among the very demographics they denigrate. “The Bachelor and Real Housewives are portraying femininity in ways that are negative and probably harmful in a lot of ways,” Lindemann said. “But I still enjoy them as a fan.” In her book, she quotes African-American Studies professor Donnetrice Allison, who asked in her work, “Why are we contributing to our own subjugation and misinterpretation?” and answered that: “We want to see ourselves on television, even if the depictions are distorted and inaccurate.”

In recent years, reality television creators have vowed to do better, particularly when it comes to race. “I know CBS made a commitment to diversify its reality television shows both in front of and behind the camera. So it seems like there’s a greater awareness of some of the issues that underlie reality television, especially when it comes to race,” Lindemann said. “Whether or not that’s going to result in any kind of long term change, I don’t know.”

Her book suggests that any serious evolution in the reality industry’s output would have to be born of deep-seated cultural change offscreen. Like biased artificial intelligence, reality TV is what we make it—or perhaps, it is what we are. “In its raw and heightened portrayals of the norms we create and pass down to our children, it peels back our collective skin and shows us, bloody and messy, the things that we value, who gets to be seen as real,” Lindemann writes, “and who doesn’t stand a chance.”

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