Reality TV creates villains and heroes out of ordinary people, who then have to inhabit that manufactured identity long after the camera stops rolling.
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Reality television has an almost universally bad reputation. Those that decry it say that it is vapid and an unwelcome peek into the worst parts of the human psyche, and even those that love it think of it as a guilty pleasure. But people do enjoy it; reality television programs are incredibly popular, now more than ever. With low production costs and an ability to adapt to COVID-19 protocol (many shows already required social isolation pre-pandemic), streaming services are taking the number of reality television programs available to new heights. That audience popularity has led to reality television being a multibillion-dollar industry. For example, Love Island UK, a show whose popularity has inspired sister programs in countries all over the world, raked in a record $12 million in advertising before the first episode of the latest season even premiered.
But these viewership numbers and sponsorships wouldn’t be possible without the people who appear on-screen. Reality stars put their lives on display and leave themselves exposed to a viewing public with a lot to say about it. There are two types of reality television stars: The first is a cast of characters that appear season after season, think shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the Real Housewives, and Jersey Shore, that transform their cast into celebrities, allowing them to rake in big checks. The second camp includes people who appear on programs where there is a new cast every season. These people usually receive little direct financial payoff, yet face all the ridicule that comes from appearing on reality television. In fact, the only payoff that these participants get is the promise of 15-minutes of fame indefinitely extended through social media.
Some stars are able to successfully navigate this terrain. Stars like Molly-Mae Hague from Love Island have leveraged their time on television into millions of followers across social media platforms and a job as the creative director of Pretty Little Thing. Hannah Brown, the runner-up of Season 23 of The Bachelor, not only later scored the role of Bachelorette, but later won Season 28 of Dancing with the Stars, partly due to her loyal fanbase of followers (she’s the most-followed Bachelor contestant on Instagram). RuPaul’s Drag Race took the art of drag and made it something that non-queer people know and love. And as a result, it has led many of the contestants to have flourishing careers outside of the drag scene, appearing in fashion shows, releasing makeup brands, and writing New York Times best-selling books. Even though they all only appeared on one season of their respective shows, they and all the people who have been featured on these shows are a massive part of the success of reality television.
However, that investment in contestants’ character arcs isn’t always positive. The “villain edit”, as it’s known, occurs when a participant is edited in a way that makes them the clear antagonist of a show; every time you see this person, they are saying and doing something that makes them look petty, rude, or downright evil.
Evia Psarras, PhD and feminist media scholar says that many reality television stars don’t fully understand what they are committing to when they sign up for these shows. “We feel like it takes nothing to be famous,” she said. “We glamorize it to the point of ‘at least people are taking your picture.’” But according to Psarras, there is no way you can prepare yourself for the negative aspects of celebrity. So while people think they are signing up for a fun, once-in-a-lifetime experience, that naivety can set people up for disappointment.
Love Island is a prime example of a show that has had negative consequences for the contestants that appeared on them. After two contestants completed suicide after dealing with harassment post-show, there were calls for ITV to cancel the program. Producers introduced new plans to protect their contestants, both during shooting and post-production, saying, “a key focus will be for us to no longer be reliant on the Islanders asking us for support but for us to proactively check in with them on a regular basis.” Additionally, recently released “duty of care” protocols include training contestants on the impact of social media and financial management. However, even with these purported guidelines, contestants are still suffering. Jack Fincham, who won season four of Love Island with his now ex-girlfriend Dani Dyer, recently revealed that he attempted suicide after appearing on the show, and explained that his mental health took a radical dive due to financial and social issues for which he was not prepared.
While these action plans from shows like Love Island are a step in the right direction, Psarras says that as an industry, reality television is designed to exploit its workers. And just like other industries that exploit workers, these stars could use the protection of a union. “Production won’t want to offer any benefits unless they have a union contract,” Psarras said. Production knows the lifecycle of reality television in the 21st century. It is high risk (online hate campaigns, depression, financial catastrophe) for high reward (money, influence, and attention), and there needs to be infrastructure in place to protect the participants that prop up the industry.
But what does the need for such intense pre-and post-show surveillance and care reveal about us, the consumer? Why do we need a villain? Reality show story producers are tasked with creating a show that people not only want to watch but want to engage with. In the age of social media, this means viral moments that can cause the show to trend online, and more long term, hopefully meme-ify and be talked about for years to come.
According to Psarras, while the villain edit can be nefarious, the need for it comes from a need to enact storytelling devices that an audience can resonate with. “We turn to these shows for escapism but also for a sense of balance. At the end of all of these shows, the villain gets it. Their time always comes where they are found out and exposed and knocked down a peg. We can believe in good things again as an audience member,” she said.
The attachment to the storylines of reality television participants is a prime example of a parasocial relationship – an illusion of a friendship with a public persona. While parasocial relationships with traditional celebrities can lead to an unhealthy attachment that’s one-sided, having a parasocial relationship with someone who appears on reality television is a lot blurrier – for both parties.
“We can have all parasocial relationships with all the celebrities we admire… in the case of reality TV stars, they’re real people,” Psarras said. “A lot of the time, us watching at home really feel more of an immediate connection with them. That could be us on-screen, literally and figuratively.” The consequence is the general public feeling justified voicing their opinions and even speaking directly to a stranger on the internet about their lives. And in the worst cases, audiences will use a mob mentality to harass reality television stars, who for all intents and purposes, are ordinary people.
At the end of the day, much of the reality television that we watch is the result of carefully crafted snapshots of people’s behavior, cut and edited by professional storytellers. The vitriol and animosity toward reality television as a genre comes from the perception that the participants represent the dregs of society. However, it turns out that the need to protect reality television participants represents failures far worse than we ever acknowledge.
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