It’s time to stop feeling guilty about guilty pleasures.
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Recently, over plates of pork braciola and roasted fennel at a large and lively Brooklyn dinner, my friend Megan un-ironically referenced an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Nobody flinched, except one new addition who blanched, “You watch reality TV? But you seem smart!”
And she is. Megan, a successful Hollywood marketing executive, went on to proudly list off the other “junk food” (and a few “quality” programs like Mad Men) in her repertoire. In her mind, this was not an admission. Megan would expound the virtues of The Hills (R.I.P.) without shame right now.
Personally, I can’t tell the Kardashian sisters apart, but I do wait impatiently for The Bachelor on Monday night. And I’m joined on the couch by my sister Claudia with her multiple advanced degrees and my friend Annie, who just finished her Masters while working full-time at a non-profit. And Megan via email, of course.
So, why do arguably intelligent women spend hours not only watching bad TV shows, but also discussing, dissecting and laughing about them?
The first question is: what constitutes “bad” TV? Out-of-work LA actors might argue that anything reality-based is excrement, but it’s unclear why a relatively highbrow competition show like Top Chef (where we learn about cooking and interesting restaurants) is any less valuable than a crappy episode of True Blood.
And it’s not just about unscripted television. I watch dramas with even less discretion. I adore procedurals with their unlikely outcomes, unrelenting sexual tension and unrealistic resolutions. Sitcoms are especially “shameful,” which is why New Girl with Zooey Deschanel confuses audiences. The writing is strong and the cast is talented, but still, people apologize for watching, as if it’s inherently without value.
According to media psychologist Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., “bad” television is indeed subjective. The medium itself has been considered subpar since the 1950s, when FCC Chair Newton N. Minnow referred to the boob tube as a “vast wasteland.” Asserts Fischoff: “There’s always been a snobbiness about TV and nonetheless it has prevailed.” Good usually prevails over evil, right? I learned that from the small screen.
“I suppose it’s ‘bad’ TV if it makes you dumber,” he says. “It’s good TV if it inspires you to broaden your perspectives and challenge your prejudices or do something good for the world.” Of course, most programs fall into a gray area between those two extremes. Good, bad or ugly, it’s just entertainment.
But we still glean information from these shows, observing the characters like foreign cultures on National Geographic. “We’re absorbing information,” says Fischoff. “Some is about what people are wearing, how divorced people work out their problems, what goes on in a procedural courtroom, but it’s still information.”
What’s deemed acceptable may have more to do with longtime norms than anything else. For instance, watching a sporting event may be considered worthwhile, but there’s little difference between rooting for a football team or a Survivor tribe.
In both cases, fans choose a side and emotionally invest in an outcome over which they have no control. In a 2008 book of essays, Sports Mania, Adam C. Earnheardt and Paul M. Haridakis contributed an academic study called “Exploring Fandom and Motives For Viewing Televised Sports” through which they discovered that escapism, relaxation and vicarious (or “passive”) achievement were top motivators for watchers (in other words viewers felt personal success when their teams played well). The motivation for watching competition-based reality shows is similar even if the investment is shorter term—especially when watched with raucous companions. The Bachelor and Project Runway fantasy leagues are common. Of course, viewers may not drink Bud Light on the couch while watching Bravo!, but they’re just substituting something that tastes better.
As for relaxing, studies show that women are more likely to watch television to counteract negative feelings than men. For instance, a 2004 study authored by Nobel laureate Dr. Daniel Kahneman, professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, monitored 909 women and found that TV lifted their moods over other pleasurable activities like shopping and talking on the phone with friends. “People often watch TV for mood management or alteration,” Fischoff says. “The needs vary from person to person—they could be emotional, sexual, escapist.”
When we’re in a foul mood or anxious, TV is an “escape.” In that case, often the dumber the program the better because it’s less likely to require effort or ignite stressful triggers. (When Ben F. votes off a weird blonde bachelorette, I’m distracted from thinking about anything substantive besides, “Why is she crying? She’s known him three days!”) Sometimes we need help to relax and non-cerebral TV does the job. It beats chugging entire jugs of wine—an activity given a more highbrow designation.
It may not be pretty to admit, but we also derive self-esteem from observing other people’s poor choices. In what is dubbed, “downward social comparison,” we get to feel less bad about our boss yelling at us because at least we’re not, for example, on national TV striving to be Paris Hilton’s BFF.
And we have the next day to consider: TV is a kind of cultural currency. If you aren’t watching certain shows, you’re out of the loop. That goes for programs deemed substantial like Downton Abbey, but also for supposed “trash.” I can’t say it was fun, but—two years ago during the height of Real Housewives mania—I endured countless all-female dinner conversations about Bethenny Frankel’s hair, remaining silent because I wasn’t a fan.
Ultimately, whatever our mood, TV gives us the luxury of choosing what feels best from PBS to MTV, what’s most likely to boost us after a grueling day. “TV is a grand emporium of possibilities with every kind of information you could want,” enthuses Fischoff. “It’s a toy store for everybody.”
(Nora Zelevansky’s first novel, Semi-Charmed Life, hits shelves on July 3, 2012.)
Sometimes we need help to relax and non-cerebral TV does the job. It beats chugging entire jugs of wine.Nora Zelevansky
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