Reality television has long been a retreat for me. A balm, a respite, a warm cup of tea with which I can recover from a long day or successfully avoid a long list of tasks. I recently heard procrastination referred to as protective behavior, so I suppose that makes reality TV a sort of shield. In my early twenties, I was plagued by the dilemma of how much I enjoyed consuming this media while calling myself a feminist. How can I watch this and laugh while also trying to learn to read the radical and painfully academic texts I was being exposed to in college? I’ve since learned to oscillate between several forms of media and learned that you can watch anything through a critical lens. And sometimes, for self-preservation, you can turn the lens off and just watch. Sometimes all the medicine you need is watching the mean girl in the house get jumped.
Several categories exist under the reality television umbrella: wilderness survival shows, “intimate” looks at famous and wealthy families, true crime, myriad competition formats, and my favorite: where a group of people are plopped into a shared living space with no tangible objective and without any financial carrot dangling at the end of the stick. I like these because I naively like to imagine a scenario where people are just interested in the social experiment that is reality TV. Maybe they just want to branch out, get out of their small town, or are looking for a reason to quit their service job and get a free mini vacation. Of course, there are ways they benefit that aren’t just a monetary prize at the end, especially now in the world of social media influencers, but it’s nice to imagine a 20-year-old in 2001 thinking to themselves “maybe I’ll just try something out of my comfort zone!”. They’re all just there, in a house, or on a beach, or working at a beach side shirt shop, trying to make a name for themselves. But no matter what the objective, almost none of them are there to make friends.
To engage with this syllabus, you simply need to have a desire to watch and/or discuss reality TV. No background knowledge or watching is required. Please bring along curiosity, an open mind, and whatever critical lens will be most supportive to you.
In engaging with the resources and materials compiled in this syllabus, I hope that you leave with an understanding of the many ways reality shows reflect our worlds back at us. Despite their earned reputation as being trash television, shows that are meant to be consumed superficially and then discarded, I hope this syllabus can remind us that despite their scripted, manufactured salaciousness — all of these shows are products of the time we live in. They are microcosms of actual reality, and stand to teach us a lot of lessons about humanity and the ways we see, consume, feel, think, and interact with the world. Watching reality TV is an escape, but it can also function as a grounding exercise. Despite the many ways in which we cannot relate to the characters portrayed on our screens, we are them and they are us. We’ve all been pushed to the point of throwing someone’s mattress into the pool, some of us just haven’t taken the leap. Reality TV opens up conversations many aren’t courageous enough or ready to have with their own loved ones. The dynamics played out on screen in these shows sometimes capture that exact feeling we’ve had that we’ve never been able to put into words when asked. Maybe you’ll feel compelled to expand your definition of “real”. Maybe you’ll be reminded that even so-called “lowbrow” television deserves a place in the canon, or maybe the canon should just be blown up. Maybe you’ve never watched reality TV before and have always slightly, privately, considered yourself too good for it. But then maybe you’ll start to realize that reality TV tells us so much about ourselves, and how can you be too good for something that you just are.
This syllabus and the materials therein are beholden to no time constraints or deadlines. The resources below were compiled to display some of the ways reality TV mirrors so many societal issues we see and experience outside of the screen. Please engage at your leisure, and know that what is compiled here comes nowhere near even scratching the surface of what reality TV has to offer.
Why Black Women Still Put Up With Reality TV Shows // Refinery29
The Real Colorists of Potomac // IG Thread by @darkest.hue
On The Outside: The Harsh Reality of Life After “Love Island” // The Ringer (TW: suicide)
An American Family // Spectacle Podcast (43 min.)
Exploring the Landscape of Black Women In Reality TV // Therapy for Black Girls Podcast (58 min.)
The Circle and the Future of Reality TV // Spectacle Podcast (38 min.)
“The Letter” // Jersey Shore — Season 2, Episode 5 (40 min. 54 sec.)
Love Island UK Slang Translated (3 min. 23 sec.)
Ericka Hart Love Island Impression (IG Reels)
Flavor of Love: Best of New York (18 min. 11 sec.)