This week, in between the coverage of the gun debate, immigration reform and North Korea’s rendition of Rocket Man, CNN, FOX and MSNBC all decided to tackle a hard-hitting news piece on reality-TV star Farrah Abraham. Let me see if I can sum up Farrah’s “career” for those of you who don’t know who she is:
Farrah got pregnant at 16. Pretty and emotionally damaged, MTV cast her on a show that broadcast her struggles to raise a toddler, deal with a tumultuous family life and launch a modeling career. She had plastic surgery, wrote an autobiography (about what, I don’t know), spent week-after-week on the cover of US Weekly, and when her dream of being a model didn’t work out, she decided to take the Kim Kardashian-route to fame and made a sex tape, feigned innocence, got caught in her lie and now claims she had to make pornography to keep her child fed.
I think that about covers it.
Now, this post isn’t specifically about Farrah. I’m just using her as an example of a societal trend that truly terrifies me: young women (and men) who are so obsessed with being famous that they would do anything to have 15-minutes in the spotlight. And even more terrifying, the otherwise normal people who are happy to watch the death-spiral play out on television.
Reality TV has created a class of people who are essentially famous for doing nothing. Jersey Shore, Teen Mom, Buckwild, and Honey Boo Boo are just a few examples of very successful television that are popular because they let us watch other people act a fool. The more dramatic or beguiling a show is, the better it does. We laugh at them, not with them, and they choose not to care because their taking checks to the bank and smiling at us from the glossy pages of the gossip rags.
I’m hardly the first person to decry the promotion of extreme schadenfreude as entertainment, but since this is a blog read primarily by women 18-35, the primary demographic of these shows, I have to ask:
Why do women watch these shows? Isn’t it a bit like repeating the angsty-Mean Girls behavior of junior high from the safety of your couch? Doesn’t it concern you that we’re telling our young people that celebrity is the ultimate brass ring? And how can you actively participate in the exploitation of poor rednecks, troubled teenagers, drunken spring breakers, etc. without feeling a bit spiritually depleted?
It’s so easy to get sucked into these shows. Even I’ve been pulled in by the magnetic tug of trashy reality TV, but lately, I feel like we’ve created a Leviathan that threatens to consume us all.
Our teenage girls and young women see how obsessed our nation is with the lives of these fame-seekers and they emulate that behavior. Where a decade ago young women wanted to be actresses, singers and models (careers that actually take work and talent), they now want to have their own reality show so they can spend their days shopping, drinking and lazing around just “being themselves” and get paid for it. And the more we fill the airwaves with negative examples of how women should behave, the less room there is for positive examples.
We’ve ditched the daytime soap operas for “quasi-reality” shows where the more outrageous and insane you behave the more you are rewarded. And when the show is done, so are the people. Washed up before their 30th birthday. Heidi Montag, anyone?
Bottom line, I don’t think you can honestly say that you’re promoting the advancement of the female gender and watch these shows. MTV, Bravo and others are making boatloads of money turning badly behaved women into celebrities. Their setting a terrible example for impressionable young women, and given that I have little nieces and cousins to worry about, I’m not going to sit idly by and call these shows harmless entertainment.
Couldn’t agree more. We don’t watch any reality TV and the more I hear about it the worse it sounds. I also agree that our young people should have their exposure to these people limited, a colleague was telling me that his 16 year old watches the kardashians and that he caught a part where the sisters were competing to see who had a better smelling vagina, with the third sister as the judge. He said he almost had a parental meltdown, and I am pretty horrified this is what passes for entertainment for anyone.
When there were just a couple of shows, I think it was easy to laugh it off. But when there are women on every channel acting like fools for fame–from the Bachelor, to Real Housewives, to all the trash on MTV and VH-1–I think other women, who care about feminism, need to take a minute and re-evaluate their TV choices.
A Nonny Moose says:
I’ve never watched reality TV but have been subjected to it thanks to roommates. I totally fail to see the entertainment value.
I did make the horrible decision of watching some old Dawsons Creek on netflix recently, and despite how terrible the show is, it was refreshing to see normal teenagers living normal lives and actually working to get the places they wanted to be. Such a stark difference from reality shows and other popular shows like Gossip Girl, etc.
Also– Belle am I doing something wrong? Your site always wants me to fill in an email address..
What I’m about to say may be a little unpopular, but I actually think reality tv and its “stars” are more the symptom than the problem. I think it’s a response to our constant emphasis on wealth and things. (And believe me, I do not exempt myself from this in any way.)
I bet most of us read aspirational magazines and have a wishlist of items we can’t afford – yet. I suspect most readers here are fortunate to enough education/career success to be comfortable, even if that doesn’t mean having every “thing” we want. But imagine if you’re young, maybe not very bright, maybe not very well off, don’t have many good role models and even fewer opportunities. You’ll still have your wishlist, but you may not see a lot of options for fulfilling it. If you don’t have anything to lose, the fame-by-any-means-necessary train doesn’t look so bad. I don’t endorse this approach, but I do acknowledge that we have a lot less income mobility in this country than we like to admit.
As for those who watch those programs – unfortunately I think it’s human nature to delight a little bit in those who are less well off. It makes us feel better about our own less-than-perfect circumstances.
Agree. I also think reality TV goes hand-in-hand with our social-media-overshare culture: “I can tell the whole world whatever inane thing I’m doing/thinking at any time! People comment and affirm me and I get attention! And I like that!”
Lizzie F says:
Such a good point. I think it even goes beyond delighting in those that are less well-off to a more basic level of human interest. Despite how scripted and structured these shows really are, we still get a really private view into strangers lives that we don’t often get outside of memoir–spanning from the frivolous (what do other people’s houses look like?) to the profound (are other people this unhappy?). And of course, the range of perspective we get from books is limited to the people that are actually willing and able to write them. Shows like True Life are so good because they show us that everyone is as strange, or as sad, or as frustrated, or as passionate as we are, and I think there’s real value in that.
Okay. I see your logic on this. I’m just having a hard time with the pervasiveness of some of the things you see on these shows. There’s certainly seepage into the psyches of young people. So if your earlier comment is write and this is a symptom, can we treat the symptoms to cure the disease, or do we have to cure the disease to treat the symptoms?
Lizzie F says:
That’s a good question. I think it’s as simple as us getting a better perspective on what reality TV is and what it means for the people involved. It’s already starting, with so many of these shows running into issues where the reality is getting a little too real. People who play unhappy people on TV also play unhappy people in real life. People who gain fame for having kids at sixteen will still have kids at nineteen when the cameras stop and everyone stops paying attention. Guys who get famous for partying like crazy on TV are still alcoholics even if they’re getting paid for it. I think we have to give kids a little credit and assume they’ll realize that for themselves in their own time.
Yes, yes, yes! Way to hit the nail on the head, Belle. I’ve been saying this for some time. These shows tell girls that you’re better off acting insane, promiscuous, or both, than–oh, I don’t know–getting a decent education and doing something with your life. Why work hard when the payoff doesn’t lie there? I think that when people like the Kardashians and the Honey Boo Boo clan are household names and make ridiculous amounts of money for behaving the way they do, it shows how sad society (generally) has become.
Mrs. Type A says:
Totally agree. I’ll admit, I used to watch the Kardashians and some of the early seasons of the Housewives franchise, but at some point I found the constant fighting/yelling/absurd behavior too stressful and decided to opt out. Life is stressful enough without listening to these people bitch at each other nonstop.
Furthermore, as a hard-working 20-something with a real job, bills, and a real life, it’s irritating to watch these people get paid for this “race to the bottom.”
That’s part of the reason I can’t stand these shows. They bitch about everything. Every little quibble and gripe becomes the biggest conflict in the world. It’s just conflict and drama for conflict and drama’s sake. It’s exhausting.
Cynthia W says:
I refuse to watch any of these shows or buy any products promoted by any of these people – for the same reason that I never watched the Jerry Springer Show or any of that ilk. I refuse to let garbage in my home and I refuse to reward people for acting poorly.
As far as all this sex tape and/or being the mistress of someone who is actually famous business goes – it’s a truly disturbing trend to see young women becoming rich and famous for being little more than prostitutes. At least prostitutes are honest about what they do for a living.
Joan Chase says:
One of the easiest ways to take a stand against this trend is to simply cancel your cable. With Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon you are able to pick and choose the type of entertainment that you support financially. And for big important events like the State of the Union, or local sporting events you can simply get bunny ears (they still work – really well in fact). When you pay for cable you are paying to support each and every channel regardless of whether you agree with the programming.
I watch many of these shows. I don’t consider how I am/am not promoting the female gender by my choices in television. I watch the shows because I find them entertaing, but they have no bearing on my every day life or my goals. As far as setting role models for younger women, I hope that I do that by my own choices of career, not by my television shows. And I think conversations with young women about expectations for their futures is far more important than any television show. There’s a reason for parental controls on television. The responsibility of using those controls is on the parent. There are plenty of horrifying things out there that influence kids these days- girls included. I think reality shows do far less damage than violent video games and movies, and some of the cultural implications of “hip” music. Look at the Chris Brown/ Rihanna relationship, for example.
Maybe these shows aren’t harmless, but I certainly don’t think my moral compass is damaged by watching them. My morality is informed by many other factors, generally not television or pop culture.
I’m not saying you’re setting a bad example by watching. I’m saying that promoting them promulgates other, often more exploitative shows and those programs are seen by young women and teens who aren’t yet aware that the crap they’re seeing isn’t how real life is or should be. So while it may have no effect on you individually, it’s possible that you’re contributing to something that is damaging to others.
I agree with you. I like watching the Real Housewives and until recently Teen Mom, and I honestly don’t think that means I’m not promoting the female gender. That being said, my moral compass has stopped me from watching Teen Mom now and I couldn’t get past one episode of Honey Boo Boo. Both of those shows are just too sad and I think the people on them need serious help.
I’ve only seen about 2 minutes of Jersey Shore and that was enough for me. I think part of the reason people watch is b/c it makes them think they’re better than the people on those shows.
I really feel like society is heading towards the future in the movie Idiocracy.
I’ve never watched Honey Boo Boo, The Kardashians, Jersey Shore, Teen Mom or any of the Real Housewives. But Shark Tank, Extreme Home Makeover and What Not to Wear are guilty pleasures of mine. Sometimes after a long day you just need to veg out with some mindless TV. I agree that most reality TV is complete trash, but I also think that anyone who thinks that getting famous by acting stupid or humiliating themselves is a great way of life likely would have come to that conclusion or something similar with or without reality TV. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I don’t think smart driven young women are going to decide to give it all up just from watching the Kardashians. So I guess I’m echoing a previous commenter’s point that reality TV is more the symptom of a larger problem
Perhaps this is just rationalization on my part, but I do not put HGTV in the same camp as Jersey Shore. Is it staged and a bit mindless? Yes. Howevever those shows are not pretending to offer “character” development or plot – each episode covers a project start to finish and moves on. You might even learn something! (If nothing else, I am continually reminded that Boston real estate is ridiculous and that money spent on tailoring is money very well spent.)
Lizzie F says:
Love this topic! In a lot of ways I agree, and I don’t think the Kardashians or Teen Mom are necessarily good for society, but they’re not new either. Every generation has its own form of low-brow entertainment and its own share of hand-wringing over whether it’ll be the next generation’s downfall. Fifty years ago it was kids wanting to be rock stars; now it’s kids wanting to grow up to be on Real Housewives. It’s a cycle.
I’m not saying reality TV isn’t an issue, but like an earlier commenter said, it’s a symptom not a cause. Every generation dreams about the quickest route to being rich and famous, and reality TV offers a direct path that’s more immediate and more democratic than any other. Nicole Polizzi became Snookie practically overnight, and it wasn’t because she spent years training or writing or singing. It’s because she was *her*. Kids feel like her success is attainable even if all they do after school is sit on the couch and watch TV. Plus, kids (humans?) are complete narcissists, so I can understand the appeal.
Teen Mom and Honey Boo Boo are a little different than the RHs or the Kardashians, because I firmly believe minors shouldn’t be filmed for reality TV. Parents shouldn’t be able to decide for their kids whether they will be okay with that kind of personal exposure, and since kids can’t legally consent for themselves they just shouldn’t be involved. There are plenty of over-18 trainwrecks for the public to feed off of, anyway.
Either way, the question your post boils down to for me is whether people who exist in the public sphere are role models by default; I don’t think they are. Ultimately its up to parents to teach their kids who is worthy of emulating. Impressionable young minds aren’t Snooki’s responsibility, or Farrah’s, or Andy Cohen’s (or athletes’, or singers’, or porn stars’)–they’re ours.
I have to agree with KM and S. I think it is a bit harsh to say one is doing a disservice to feminism by watching certain reality shows. While I don’t watch Teen Mom, Honey Boo Boo, Jersey Shore, etc, I like watching the Kardashians and Real Housewives. I’m in law school and after spending the entire day at the library, sometimes all I want to do is veg out and watch mindless TV. I still consider myself a feminist.
Plus, this might be surprising, but I do take other things from shows like the Kardashians and Real Housewives- I don’t watch the shows to make fun of them. For instance, I find the Kardashians relatable in terms of their “family first” mentality. I also admire their entrepreneurial endeavours.
Finally, I don’t necessarily separate my enjoyment of these shows from my enjoyment of fashion and beauty blogs, including this one! To me they are similar- I enjoy seeing what the women on the show wear, just like how I enjoy reading blogs for similar ideas. While your writing and content is more career-oriented than most fashion and beauty blogs, which I obviously appreciate and enjoy, who doesn’t indulge in a little frivolity and materialism once in a while? Some of the items you feature on your blog are out of my price point but I like to look at them (a girl can dream)- similarly it’s fun to look at the clothes and accessories on these shows.
I do understand the point you are making, which is the glorification of fame/wealth and how this is influencing our younger generations…and I certainly agree to some extent… but in the grand scheme of things, I think my TV choice has little impact on what I “contribute” to women overall. I wouldn’t say I’m no longer promoting the advancement of women because of it.
Brovo Belle! You are so correct-you speak truth, and I could not agree with you more. Only one thing- I am a 50’s something woman and I do read/enjoy your blog! The only reality show I watch is Baseball-(sports) and Fox News.
Andrea Reeve says:
Amen! I 100% agree with you. I’m glad to say I don’t watch any of those shows. I refuse to let their viewerships be any higher than they already are. Can we please turn back time to “modest is hottest”? I miss that time.