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Reality Television and the State of Our Souls

September 25th, 2023 | 11 min read

By Ashley Anthony

If you’re my pastor, you’re welcome to stop reading now.

When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I took the morning sickness and fatigue as an opportunity to do nothing at all. I incorporated reality television into this routine of “nothing,” having not watched it before because I’d thought it was a waste of time. So, I immersed myself in the world of reality television, real estate, and boss ladies, entering what felt like an alternate universe.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not sure it was the best use of my time. Surprisingly, I found myself pulled into the lives of those on screen. In one episode, a woman and a good friend sat on her couch in her million-dollar home. Nearing 40, she knew she wanted kids, but her boyfriend was reluctant. If they stayed together, her future might not include kids of her own or the family she’d always wanted, so they broke things off. Her friend comforted her, trying to assure her that she did everything right and the relationship was fruitful, but she remained unconvinced. What was she supposed to do next?

In another show, a woman wept on screen because she wasn’t sure if the relationship with her boyfriend would last.  As her boyfriend showed off his extensive car collection to the cameras, she showed off her insecurities. She wondered if they would marry and have a family, or if all the time she spent in their relationship was pointless.

I cried with her.

As I watched, I realized that behind the drama of a real-life “will they, won’t they” romance, there was a living, breathing human who just wanted to love and be loved in return. They weren’t just discussing real estate or dollar signs; they were talking about significant, life-altering things—families, love, marriage, one’s purpose, and companionship. I’ll admit the reality TV I watched was less redemptive than a show like Fixer Upper and more in line with trash television. Still, I was enthralled.

Part of the intrigue of reality television is its provision of the interior life, propped open like a book for all to see. Talking heads provide motivations and thought processes. Heartfelt conversations offer reasons for us to sympathize with unsavory decisions. In a way that real life doesn’t always allow, reality television holds up a picture of a life lived and asks us what we think about it. We don’t get just one side of the story, as we might with a good friend sharing her thoughts on that interaction with a co-worker; instead, we get to see the event unfold for ourselves, to see humans be human.

Right?

As one producer suggested, reality television is purposefully like candy, easy to consume. It’s manipulated, false reality that gives the viewer exactly what they want, taking the interior life and making it a spectacle.

The Good: Self-Reflection

Danielle Lindemann, a self-described reality television expert, suggested of those who watch reality television, “We’re voyeurs, but part of what tantalizes us about these freak shows is that the freaks are ourselves.” While we’re fascinated by the lives of those we see on screen, what compels us to keep watching is that they’re more like us than we initially thought. They might be selling lavish homes, taking exotic trips, and making confident friends, but in the end, they’re just people.

I recently realized this as I watched a grown woman navigate her love life on screen. She was convinced she and her boyfriend were a perfect match, since they wanted all the same things, primarily lives filled with family, success, and hard work. For her, as for most people, a successful relationship entailed similar values, but I was surprised by the values she held close. Family, of course, and hard work, that’s fine. But success and wealth? Did people consider this a value worth marrying for? I thought we’d learned from Jane Austen and any modern rom-com that marrying for money wasn’t in vogue.

Watching a thirty-something-year-old woman confide to cameras what she believed was the meaning of life caused me to pause. In a subversive twist on C.S. Lewis’s commentary on friendship—that friendships form when we realize another shares something in common with us—I realized that she and I thought differently. While we might use the same language in conversation, like values, family, and marrying for love, we mean something vastly different. At that moment, I had an epiphany: by taking time to understand how she thought about the world, I could better understand how I thought about the world.

We might think that reality television reveals what’s wrong with the world, what’s wrong with those on screen, but maybe it reveals more about us. There’s a reason we engage with the lives of strangers on screen, strangers whose worldviews vary from or mirror our own. There’s a reason we emotionally respond to or at least engage with the drama, conflict, and actions of people we’ll probably never meet.

As I watched reality television for the first time, the introspection of the people I watched forced my own introspection. Yes, sometimes I was horrified by the way people handled conflict, made decisions, and prioritized things over people, but the diary-like nature of modern reality television made way for insight into my own interior life.

I didn’t go on to watch every reality television show out there—I have to draw the line somewhere—and I’m not its number-one endorser. But I’ve allowed the introspection fostered by reality television to move outward, recognize slow, personal growth I may have otherwise missed, and empathize with those whose lives are different from mine.

The Confusing: Humans are human?

Can we really—accurately—analyze the situations and people we watch on reality television? As one fan pointed out in The Atlantic, “[Reality television] shows continue to be defined by a strange conundrum among reality-television fans: They want to see what’s “really” happening to other people, as long as it isn’t too real.” In other words, it’s often challenging to distinguish between raw and scripted in the shows we watch. We want to believe that what we’re watching is real life, but we’re never sure.

Perhaps nothing reminds us of this more clearly than the recent documentary on the Duggars, Shiny Happy People. As the documentary accuses, Michelle’s sing-songy voice and Jim Bob’s friendly demeanor actually veiled something more sinister. While the Duggars displayed a firm Christian faith and overall thriving family life on screen, later allegations proved their moral lives were falling apart behind the scenes. Parents allegedly exploited their children’s labor, and one child committed horrific crimes against young girls. Lying, harsh discipline practices, and self-promotion ran rampant. The characters propped up on screen were just that—characters. When the cameras turned off, they changed.

While cameras made the Duggars look good, there are times when the opposite happens—enter the reality television villain. After all, producers film, cut, and edit to make their shows as entertaining as possible, and as one TV villain proclaimed, ratings would disappear without the villain. So, instead of filming things as they are, villains are “half-organic, natural solvents of the show’s chemistry. And they’re half-machinated, orchestrated by the producers to become the hostiles we know.” If the villain doesn’t manifest organically, then they’re manufactured—anything for ratings.

Perhaps this is best illustrated by an editor who purposefully villainized a reality television star who shunned her at a wrap party. For eight seasons, this editor manipulated her character, which resulted in viewers hating her, but in the end, the editor admitted that she just really didn’t like this woman. While viewers believed they knew this character and what she was like, that their judgment of her was accurate, in reality, this character was simply a mash-up of her most embarrassing and unsavory moments. Aired on television. For everyone to see. While this edit consumed the character’s public life, viewers bought into a false reality.

Increasingly, it appears that it’s not just the stars in the camera lens who are manipulated for viewers—perhaps it’s the viewers who are manipulated, as we partake in the drama not just when we hit “next episode” but also as news stories, social media fights, and podcast episodes cash in on our interest. Reality television stars post ominous warnings on their social media that, as viewers, we can’t believe everything we’ve watched. Stars in love one season break up the next, as fellow co-stars suggest their love was all a sham. Someone goes on a podcast to tell all, but the next week, their nemesis goes on a podcast to tell all, with both tell-alls directly contradicting the other.

Watching reality television, we feel like we have a front-row seat to the interior life—it feels real, and our reactions feel real, too. But then, as we discover more about the genre and the manipulated reality it provides, we look for other avenues into the interior life. We look for the truth. Maybe, we think, we can access the interior life through social media, podcasts, and news stories. For a moment, it seems as if we see through the facade of the screen and into the true lives of those we’re watching. That is, of course, until there are warring narratives, ghost scenes that remain unaired, and private conversations we’ll never be a part of. The interior life that reality television advertises remains elusive.

Often, the interior life remains not just elusive but underdeveloped. I’m someone who tends to take people at their word. If they say something is true for themselves, and I don’t have a reason to believe otherwise, then I will probably believe them. I will assume that they have thought things through, investigated for themselves, and come out the other side with a workable conclusion. Cue: the confusion of reality television and its talking heads.

It’s often challenging to reconcile people's reasoning and choices within reality television. One character explains that she cares deeply about a friend and would never want to hurt her, but then she spends ten minutes tearing her down on TV. Another character claims he loves his girlfriend and wants to spend the rest of his life with her, and then dumps her as soon as the cameras stop rolling. Two stars break up, but they assure everyone that they have so much love for each other and that the timing was just wrong (please tell me I’m not the only one who doesn’t understand this). Two stars war throughout a season; both cry and both are sympathetic, but when they explain their motivations, it doesn’t match the vitriolic words they’re sharing with the other. How do we know who is right?

I know I’m not the only one trying to reconcile what I see with what is true. If you’ve ever followed a canceled social media personality, you’ve seen the onslaught of negative comments, the desperate attempt at positive PR, and the eventual turning off of comments.

The masses weigh in. The masses find the personality is wrong. The masses see they’re not alone in their perception of truth. The masses destroy the public life of yet another celebrity.

And when a personality is considered “in the right?” If we villainize the reality television star in the wrong, we glorify the reality television star in the right. Maybe even move them to C-list celebrity status so they can afford a bigger apartment in whatever city they lived in before. Perhaps a book deal is in their future, one that people want to read for fun instead of drama.  

The Ugly: Distorted Realities Define Reality

One of the most memorable-to-me short stories from Richard Matheson, who wrote many short stories and for television shows like The Twilight Zone, had to do with an average couple living a normal life. Every day, unsavory women came to their door, hoping for some of the husband’s time. At first, the couple couldn’t believe it. How could they, and in this neighborhood? But then, as the unsavory characters knocked on their door day after day, the husband started thinking that maybe giving in wasn’t such a big deal. After much thinking and secrecy, he considered how, if he kept it from his wife, she probably wouldn’t mind. Maybe it will even strengthen their marriage. The day he plans to commit adultery with the women at his door, a male consort shows up instead, petitioning for time with his wife.

We don’t see how this alters the husband’s interior life because the story ends abruptly. But we can imagine a shock to his system when all of his thinking, scheming, and rationalizing were bathed in the harsh light of reality. When the men showed up at their door, adultery was no longer an option for the couple’s marriage.

Richard Matheson’s short story displays an exploited interior life, a conscience that this man has silenced for imagined, temporary pleasure. It also shows how our perception of what is true and right is sometimes simply incorrect. Would this man’s wife mind if her husband slept with the woman at their door? Of course she would have! Would this action be out of love and care for his wife? Of course not! While the words he used to reason away guilt sounded fine, they were untrue, a false reality.

In many ways, this embodies another problem with the interior life of those we watch on screen: rarely do we glimpse mature, truthful interior lives. They sound as if they know themselves, using cliches about dating oneself, self-actualization, and being true to their inner selves. Still, there is very little to prove this is true—if not because of the actions we view, then because we only see them for a short time on screen. Are our judgments accurate? It’s challenging to say. But their perceptions of reality impact ours, as we attempt to reconcile what we’re watching with what we believe to be true. We might find that it’s not just the characters on screen who decline, but we do as well.

I’m sure for many who are reading, I don’t have to convince you that the false reality of television impacts real people. Even if we tried to understand the world through characters in reality television, we’d never be able to—at least not entirely. We might try to make the right judgments of character and situation, but really, we just make judgments based on the drama producers hope we’ll see. We become consumers of an altered interior life.

When asked what viewers got from reality television, one executive producer suggested fantasy and escapism, which aligns with the earlier evaluation that it’s like candy, fun to consume with little nutritional benefit. But he also suggested viewers experience schadenfreude, loosely translated as joy in another’s misfortune. So, while we feel as if we’re making appropriate judgments, determining right and wrong in the world, what we might actually be doing is reveling in the pain, drama, and mishaps of others. The sympathy disappears, and priggishness takes its place. We enjoy watching the villains get what they deserve, whether this is what they deserve or not. We enjoy being the ones with the moral upper hand.

But what about us?

In reality television,  people become props played by the real actors—producers and editors—while television companies make tons of money off all of us. Our attention both consumes those on-screen yet is consumed by those who turn our attention into dollar signs.

In his novel Vanity Fair, William Thackeray acts as his interpretation of a reality television producer. He bookends the novel with notes from the “Manager of the Performance,” a puppeteer performing a puppet show. The characters reflect Thackeray’s observations of society; most are unlikable. Thackeray’s well-known final lines remind us of the play: “Ah!  Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in the world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied?—Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out” (689). We know our characters’ endings, and most of them are unhappy.

But this is how Thackeray hoped it would end; after all, as he wrote in a letter to a friend, he wanted to “leave everybody dissatisfied and unhappy at the end of the story—we ought all to be with our own and all other stories.” This is because “we are for the most part an abominably foolish and selfish people ‘desperately wicked’ and all eager after vanities.”[1] We embody the terrible characters, the terrible puppets, he created.

Maybe we do. While we want to believe that we are better than those we’re watching on screen, perhaps the fact that we’re still sitting in front of the television, watching the train wreck before us, proves that we’re not. Maybe, as we exist on a steady diet of altered interior lives and personalities, the “freaks” we see on the screen reflect us more than we’d like to admit.

Footnotes

[1] Letter to Robert Bell from William Makepeace Thackeray, September 3, 1848.

Ashley Anthony

Ashley Anthony is an associate instructor of English, seminary student, and active member of College Church in Wheaton, IL. She is wife to Matt and mom to Ellie, Levi, Evelyn, and Oliver. You can find more of her writing at For the Church, Gospel-Centered Discipleship, and other online publications.

Topics:

Television