OPINION: Reality television serves as a lens into the current state of our society

Jordan Wiseley competing on the 35th season of MTV’s ‘The Challenge’. The show has been notable for its inclusion of minorities in its casts, a characteristic different than most other reality competition shows of its kind. Photo courtesy of MTV.

In 1965, the first modern reality television show premiered on screens across the country. Today, Jeff Probst, Johnny Bananas, and the Kardashians are just a few of the faces of the enormous world of reality television in the U.S.

Many individuals find themselves entranced with the lives of others. They use reality television to escape their seemingly dull lifestyle and live vicariously through a character on television. While a viewer may need to be reminded that these are real people in real situations, many fail to realize just how real their entertainment may be.

At its core, reality television captures candid, unscripted moments of human life, often over-saturated by a unique situation, such as surviving on an island or living with an interesting lifestyle. Watching contestants compete in extreme challenges or a dysfunctional family struggle to stay together is a guilty pleasure to most, whether they want to admit it or not.

Still, there is the possibility of taking something important from these shows. Reality television offers a beneficial snapshot of society and can be much more than just a leisure piece. Just as one would critique a film, the question of, “Does it accomplish what it set out to do?” must be asked to truly determine its quality.

With the expansion of social media and the progressive nature of politics in our country, society is changing more rapidly than ever before. New ideas are being presented, new causes are being fought for, and new conversations are being had. These conversations delve more into deep-rooted social issues and attempt to dismantle systems of oppression that still weave their way into our lives. 

Since reality television programs show people, often of different backgrounds, interacting with each other for a certain period of time, these conversations and issues are bound to work their way into the fabrics of these programs. Acknowledging this is one step, but applying it to one’s life is another needed component.

For example, racism may be the most impactful and threatening force of oppression in our country right now. Though there are certain blunt moments of racial discrimination that could be found in each show, many feature contestants using micro-aggressions or stereotypes in seemingly innocent ways.

The humor that may come from a reality television personality’s ignorance speaks directly to issues facing us, rather than just being something to laugh off. The truth is that many people in the real world echo these same beliefs and language, often with no one to correct them. So, they come on a reality television show and continue their rhetoric, expecting to get away with it.

The most we as the viewing audience can do in these situations is hold those accountable for what they say and do while under a microscope. Calling someone out when they are in the national spotlight would go a long way at repairing a broken system in our society, since more people will likely see it and be educated on what they are doing wrong.

Reality television offers a beneficial snapshot of society and can be much more than just a leisure piece. Just as one would critique a film, the question of, “Does it accomplish what it set out to do?” must be asked to truly determine its quality.

Still, there is a fine line between something inappropriate being said and someone’s safety being immediately threatened. For example, on CBS Survivor’s 39th season, Dan Spilo came under fire for inappropriately touching several cast members, even after they voiced their discomfort with him directly. After these complaints were ignored for nearly two-thirds of the season, Spilo was finally ejected after an “incident” with a production member.

Especially in light of the #MeToo movement, this situation received widespread media attention, and showed just how universal sexual harassment is in our country. A situation such as this, where someone is being violated, calls for immediate action and removal from the show, regardless of the circumstances. Of course someone can be educated in an instance like Spilo’s, but when you are in isolation from society and someone is blatantly ignoring the pleas from their female cast members, it is almost irresponsible to continue to brush off these behaviors as simply being “reality.”

Conversely, on the similar CBS show Big Brother, contestants are frequently criticized for racist and derogatory remarks made to and about their fellow houseguests. Infamous figures on the show include Aaryn Gries, Ginamarie Zimmerman (season 15), Jack Matthews (season 21), and Christmas Abbott (season 22). 

Gries herself was actually confronted on her remarks upon her exit from the house by host Julie Chen.

While abhorrent and out of line, comments about race, sexuality, religion, and other personal characteristics simply do not constitute the same level of punishment as physical violence. Contestants are essentially entitled to say these things, even if they are extremely wrong and hurtful to others. The most one can do in these cases is to attempt to educate those involved and show them how their behavior is offensive. 

The mistake can not be made, however, to simply kick someone off a show when they say something that is rude or disrespectful. By doing this, reality television shows would adopt a “cancel culture” mentality, the same toxic mindset that is often mistaken for activism. If anything, these contestants should be kept on the show so that they can continue to be held accountable for their actions, while not being immediately punished for saying what they think. It is not the production team’s responsibility to monitor everything every cast member says, but rather it is the audience and other cast members on the show that will decide what they will and will not tolerate. This way, those watching understand what is and is not acceptable to them and can approach these situations better in their real life.

It is important to remember that at the end of the day, these are real people living their real lives.

After all, this is reality television.

When watching these shows, viewers should recognize social issues when they appear and use these incidents as lessons that can be applied to real life, not just as a late-night getaway from the real world.

Alex Prince is a columnist for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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