Can Reality Television Actually Make Our Lives Better?
Reality television is often dismissed as mindless, consumed and fetishized by the only the narcissistic and of little value to society as a whole. Think of the Kardashian Klan and the enormous quantity of products they hawk in order to make an empire out of ‘nothing’ as the most prominent example. Some can conclude that the vapidness that is celebrated is the sign of the end times. But by looking closer at the genre of reality television, you can find it’s positive impact can perhaps mitigate or subvert the ‘style of substance’ attributes that reality television, as well as the Kardashian’s, is most often known for.
Case in point, Caitlyn Jenner. Previously, if you asked the average household if they knew of a transgendered person, the answer would have been ‘No’. (That obviously doesn’t mean that people don’t know a trans person, just that they might not be aware that a person they know is trans.) Yet, when the All-American-Olympic-Superstar come Reality-Television-Dad filmed her tell all with Diane Sawyer; suddenly instead of being something weird and bizarre, a trans person become someone we knew. And so unexpectedly, not only was a person we knew ‘transgender’, but it was a person we admired. The gains made by the LGBT movement for equality has arguably benefited from the surge of reality television for this reason, it has allowed us to ‘know’ what we don’t, and in that, the value is far greater than any commercial product placement of the latest Kardashian handbag.
By highlighting the ways in which reality tv programs rely upon ‘problematic hierarchies that equate classed notions of reflexivity with moral worth’, Michael Wayne argues that the ‘relative legitimacy of [particular reality tv] depends upon the ability to extract middle-class-appropriate behaviour from socially marginal participants (2015, p.990). He combats the arguments that reality television is simply exploitive, and that ‘use the misery of the socially marginal’ can ‘transform reality TV from guilty pleasure into a valuable experience for upper-middle-class taste-makers’ (2015, p.1005).
Although critical scholars have examined portrayals of homosexuality on mainstream television networks, Anthony and Thomas suggest that research has ‘tended to concentrate on fictitious entertainment formats such as sitcoms and drama’, containing fictitious characters and, as a result: ‘situations that need not accurately represent their real-world counterparts’ (2008, p.50). Reality Television gives us an opportunity that is omitted from the normal media landscape in terms of minatory representation that is authentic. This in turn provides an avenue for the LGBT community to challenge ‘the established power system into prevailing ideological structures’ that previously ‘ensure[d their] continued subordination’ to the heteronormative hegemony.
That is not to say that reality television does not ‘present problematic stereotypes and misogynistic norms [that are] vigorously reinforced’, however the portrayal of the LGBT community on reality television, and representation of minorities in general, continue to allow us to identify and point out ‘injustices and inequalities in media representations of marginalized sections’ which in turn will in ‘facilitate social progress and change’ (Anthony & Thomas 2008, p.63)
Antony, MG, & Thomas, RJ 2008, ‘Tequila, Straight up: Bisexuality, Reality Dating, and the Discourse of Heteronormativity’, Kaleidoscope: A Graduate Journal of Qualitative Communication Research, vol. 7, pp. 49-65.
Gamson, J 2013, ‘Reality Queens’, Contexts: Understanding People in Their Social Worlds, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 52-54.
Moran, A 2009, TV formats Worldwide : Localising Global Programs / edited by Albert Moran, Bristol : Intellect Books
Sender, K 2006, ‘Queens for a Day: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the Neoliberal Project’, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 131-151.
Wayne, ML 2015, ‘Guilty Pleasures and Cultural Legitimation: Exploring High-Status Reality TV in the Postnetwork Era’, Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 48, no. 5, pp. 990-1009.