Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Popular Culture: Reality TV Is NOT Reality

Does reality TV even remotely resemble reality?

What attracts millions of Americans each week to this cultural phenomenon known as "reality TV?" Where did the purveyors of shows such as Survivor, Jersey Shore, and Wife Swap, get the idea (I know, from Europe!), and why do so many of us buy into the idea that reality TV resembles reality in any way, shape, or form? Only in George Orwell's 1984 reality can people be watched every moment of the day like on Big Brother. Only in William Gerald Golding's Lord of the Flies reality can people "eliminate" one another on a desert island like on Survivor. Only in Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives reality are all of the women attractive, shapely, and predominantly white like on the Real Housewives franchise. Only in Andy Warhol's "fifteen minutes" reality do people whose only claim is that they won a reality TV show make them worthy of the fame and fortune of talk show appearances, book contracts, and speaking tours. Yet this is the "reality" of reality TV to which we are exposed and it is the reality that some of us may come to believe can be our reality.

Reality TV promotes the worst values and qualities in people--and disguises them all as entertainment. Reality TV has made the Seven Deadly Sins--pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth-attributes to be admired. Throw in selfishness, deceit, spite, and vengeance--all qualities seen routinely on reality TV--and you have the personification of the worst kind of person on Earth. Reality TV makes heroic decidedly unheroic values, characters, and behavior.

Why would popular culture want to communicate such destructive values, you may ask. The answer is, because popular culture has no values; it's amoral. It doesn't care about us and it has no sense of social responsibility. Popular culture is concerned with only one thing, money, and it will do everything and sacrifice anything to achieve that end, including hurting the society it is meant to serve.

Some argue that reality TV is just giving us what we want. But I don't recall any demonstrations or picket lines outside of the television studios clamoring for reality TV shows. Admittedly, if viewers didn't want these shows they would "vote them off the island" by not watching them, thus ensuring cancellation. But doing so would be like driving by a horrendous car wreck and having the strength not to look at the carnage.

The messages that popular culture sends us about success and failure--as communicated through the unreality of "reality" TV--are particularly destructive. Success, as defined by our culture and conveyed through reality TV--wealth and fame, most notably--is so revered, yet, in the reality in which most of us live, so utterly unattainable. We get the message from reality TV that we must become successful at any cost, even if success can be achieved only by dishonesty and subterfuge. The unfortunate results of these messages can be found throughout our culture. We see increased cheating in schools, the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, and criminal behavior in our youth and, among our adult population, lying on resumes, frivolous law suits, and corporate greed. Anything to become a success! Reality TV obviously doesn't cause such behavior, rather that it is just another symptoms of the decline of values that used to limit this behavior. And reality TV is now an omnipresent conduit through which these truly atrocious messages are communicated to America. And if you think these message are fundamentally benign, think again. The more people are exposed to any message, even terrible ones, the more likely they will be accepted as the norm.

There is no worse fate in our culture than to be labeled a failure, yet, so narrowly defined by our culture (not being wealthy, famous, powerful, or beautiful), it is almost a certainty for most of us. Failure alone though is not punishment enough for the "losers" in reality TV. They must also be demeaned, dehumanized, and publicly humiliated. These losers must suffer the indignity of banishment from reality TV shows by hosts, such as the cold, yet venerated, Donald Trump--"You're fired!"--and judges such as the mean-spirited Simon Cowell on American Idol (I realize that these shows differ from other unscripted shows, but no greater authority than lumps them all together). Despite this despicable behavior, we are encouraged to feel excitement and glee in seeing others suffer. As we cringe outwardly at the barbs that are thrown at the well-meaning contestants, we inwardly giggle in guilty pleasure at seeing the failing contestants in pain. Most of the joy of reality TV is not in seeing contestants succeed, but rather in seeing them not only fail, but fail in the most humiliating ways. We celebrate every luscious moment of this depravity!

Why do so many of people not only watch reality TV (I understand that everyone has a right to be entertained as they choose), but become so consumed by it that there are Web sites, blogs, magazine and newspaper articles, and constant talk around the water cooler? One answer is vicarious stimulation. Reality TV is exciting when life is often mundane. It is interesting when life can be dull. Reality TV is dangerous when life can be all too secure. It is emotionally powerful--excitement, joy, embarrassment, shame--when life can be emotionally void. And many of us want it that way because we are loath to take risks and feel so deeply in our own lives.

Reality TV has become the public executions of our times. We sit on the edge of our seats waiting eagerly for the guillotine to fall, yet don't want the end to come too quickly. We want to savor the lingering death of humiliation and rejection. And when the "execution" finally occurs, we feel conflicted in enjoying others' "deaths," yet relief in our continued existences, guilty for the exhilaration we feel, yet giddy in knowing that we are "survivors" of our own reality show called Life. In these times of economic and global uncertainty, thanks to the contestants' symbolic deaths on reality TV, we can return to our lives feeling somehow better, safer...that we are going to be okay.

Or maybe I'm just overthinking the reality TV thing and the shows are just fun to watch. Just sayin'.