Reality TV has taken on a life of its own since the likes of Big Brother, and every network is churning out and reinventing the genre to titillate an audience who are increasingly difficult to shock. The gap that separates fact from fiction has never seemed so narrow; in fact, all we have to look at is the popularity of shows such as Made In Chelsea and TOWIE to understand this thirst for ‘real’ people living out their lives under the scrutiny of a beige-filtered camera. The very concept of reality has itself become ambiguous and fraught with contradictions as these programmes, labelled ‘constructed reality’, act as a mediator between soap opera and documentary, but belong to neither cohesively. If you’re completely dumbfounded about the appeal of watching lads drink in a club during the day as they talk about the girls they’ve boned, you might understand a yearning for something ‘truer’, something more ‘authentic’. And this is where reality television is flourishing for a viewer who is chasing a more ‘valuable’ experience, but at the expense of both the sanity and dignity of those willing to apply.
After news broke about a new Russian reality show, Game 2: Winter, which allows “fighting, alcohol, murder and rape” in the Siberian wilderness, everyone was, of course, shocked. While there’s no disputing its outright abhorrence, the surprise was lacking on me; I actually felt this was a natural progression of almost comedic significance. It was only a matter of time before producers decided to cash in on human suffering so explicitly that we’re forced to re-evaluate our role in this twisted cycle. As production companies and television networks continue to battle it out in a dick-measuring contest to see who can drum up the most shock, we’re the ones who lap it up. Our engagement with the people on these TV shows has become less human, less empathetic, and more exploitative. Yes, a Hunger Games-style nightmare set in the Russian outback is viciously extreme, but it’s all part and parcel of the same problem – we want the thrill of fiction without considering the cost of “reality”.
“Yes, a Hunger Games-style nightmare set in the Russian outback is viciously extreme, but it’s all part and parcel of the same problem – we want the thrill of fiction without considering the cost of ‘reality’”
It’s hard to cast your mind back to a time when shows like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent didn’t dominate the small screen, with the same strategically formulaic structure where people with no discernible talent are ridiculed by the public and those with a sad, heart-warming background get the green light. Honey G, this year’s underdog and self-proclaimed rap artist, was the pinnacle of reality TV gone nuclear; she represented the complexity of exploitation that filters down through this carnival-esque system. Her seemingly humourous demeanour teamed with an odd brand of white rap made her someone to be both scoffed at and revered, and I’m sure ITV producers’ eyes flashed cash as she walked into auditions donning a pair of sunglasses while grabbing her crotch. Honey G’s mannequin challenge also hit headlines for all the wrong reasons as she performed an uncomfortable mash up of Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Push It’ and ‘Black Beatles’ by Rae Sremmurd, simultaneously appropriating and mocking music made by iconic black artists. Humiliation and success go hand-in-hand in the business of reality TV and our consumption is the lifeblood of this formation: the joke’s on us, too.
Devaluing people for entertainment has become the norm and it’s showing no signs of stopping, with more intrusive and outlandish concepts being financed all the time, such as Naked Attraction on Channel 4. Five men or women lined up in a sanitised studio, stark naked, as one obliging love-seeker is shown their body parts one at a time to make a judgement about their potential future together. Bewilderment; anger; intrigue; I tried to wrap my head around the fact that we now not only reduce people to their bodies, but to their body parts. As each nude person was rejected and walked away with their dignity in tatters, not to mention their genitals between their legs, I felt sad, but also strangely (and worryingly) entertained. Sick fascination and a distorted sense of shame make the relationship between the viewer and the viewed so difficult to navigate; why do we keep tuning in? Is reality TV the guilty pleasure many of us argue it is, or does it say something more about the human condition?
As a branch of entertainment that is often cast aside as ‘low culture’, reality TV has never been so pervasive and wide-reaching, tapping into an audience who, reluctantly or not, consume it habitually from the privacy of their living room. If tabloid shows such as Jeremy Kyle and Jerry Springer sit on one end of the spectrum and more ‘reputable’ programmes like, say, MasterChef or Great British Bake Off lie on the other, there’s no clear, defining viewership anymore and the boundaries that separate ‘reality TV junkies’ from the perceived ‘intellectuals’ are ever tightening. Although there is well-crafted, well-intentioned reality programming out there, with cult followings of millions across the world (apparently Snoop Dogg loves GBBO?), we seem to have lost sight of the difference between performativity and human life.
Construction of celebrity has now become so entwined with reality TV that ‘everyday’ contestants on shows later appear on I’m a Celebrity! or Loose Women as high profile figures; the meta-narrative speaks for itself. Celebrity Big Brother launched last night and features two ex-lovers of Whitney Houston who reportedly had a fight over her two days before her death, a match up that feels gladiatorial, without the glamour. The more tragic, shameless or controversial the person, the better, and the rabid exploitation by media outlets is overwhelming. However, if we continue to see vulnerable people who have been thrust into fame as less than us, less than human, our engagement with this medium is equally problematic. Television was once a plasma-plated mode of escapism, a fictionalised portrayal of life without the expectation of authenticity, but now audiences want the real deal, without the pretences of scripts and production. Trying to pursue a mirror image of reality comes with its numerous difficulties and manipulations, and it’s vital we become more compassionate and start feeling shame rather than humour. We’re a hop, skip and a jump away from Game 1: UK Winter.
Follow Anna Freeman on Twitter here @annalouisefreem