“As long as we continue to live as if we are what we do, what we have, and what other people think about us, we will remain filled with judgments, opinions, evaluations, and condemnations. We will remain addicted to the need to put people and things in their “right” place. To the degree that we embrace the truth that our identity is not rooted in our success, power, or popularity, but in God’s infinite love, to that degree can we let go of our need to judge.” - Henri Nouwen
A few weeks ago, I was visiting my mom and aunt, celebrating their birthdays. After dinner one night, we came back to mom’s house to be lazy and watch the Oprah Network. Beverly Johnson’s reality show was on. After just a few minutes of tuning in, I was quickly reminded of the reasons why I don’t like watching them.
We started talking about how silly Beverly’s housemanager was, going on and on about his smoking habit. “OK,” we joked. “We get it, you want everyone to talk about the fact that you need to quit smoking. Let’s move on.” But yet, there we were, watching him drone on. Why? Out of pity? Boredom? With dozens of other shows or movies we could have been watching instead, there we were sitting back laughing about this family’s fake-real life. I even hopped on Twitter to see what others were saying using the show’s hashtag #BFH. Online, people were pretty much doing the same thing we were – going in on everyone on the show except the little baby.
That’s when I realized that shows like this just serve our need to feel like we’re better than other people.
Many women call reality TV their “guilty pleasure” because they know it’s not right to laugh, speculate and point fingers at the people whose “lives” we’re watching. On some level, we all know it’s unhealthy to tune in. Here are a few reasons why.
Reality Shows Are Not Representative of Reality
Although they try their damnedest to look like real life, reality TV shows are the furthest from reality that you can get. Yes, they cast ”real” people instead of professional actors as characters, but other than that, reality TV shows are completely scripted. Beverly Johnson’s show is just one example, and a mild one at that. Do you truly believe that Beverly just came up with the idea of moving her daughter’s family in with her without the promise of a TV show filming it all for the Oprah Network? No way, man. She’s a businesswoman who knows the exposure will be good for her (and her daughter’s) brand. In general, do you think normal people would really get paid to showcase their boring, mundane, not-so-glamorous, drama-free lives on the boob tube? Not a chance. Keep in mind that reality TV storylines are created with one thing in mind: cheap ratings. Networks are making money off of exploiting the “journeys” of contestants on shows like The Apprentice, American Idol and Top Chef. Black women are making money off of being “drama queens” on shows like Basketball Wives, even if they’re not really that bad (or that extra) in real life.
“Certainly, reality TV is a very manipulated format where the basis of it is that real people are put into unreal situations to create a story,” said J. Rupert Thompson, a director and producer who includes “Big Brother” and “Fear Factor” among his credits.
What’s so dangerous about this is that the more we watch “reality TV,” the more our brains are unable to clearly distinguish between what’s real and what’s not. Research has shown that reality TV shows actually skew our perception of true reality. It’s a psychological magic trick, the way the illusion of “reality” on the television screen makes us that much more engaged in people’s (fake) persona and lives. The truth is that you have no idea who Snooki really is. All you are seeing is what the producers want you to see.
Watching Reality TV Reflects an Unmet Need
So if we know it’s all fake, why do so many people feel compelled to watch shows like Real Housewives or even contest shows like Top Chef in the first place? The research on this is fascinating, summarized nicely here and here, for starters.
Reiss’s data showed that the largest significant motive for watching reality television was social status, which leads to the joy of self-importance. Only slightly less strong was the need for vengeance, which leads to vindication. “Some people may watch reality TV partially because they enjoy feeling superior to the people being portrayed,” Reiss said. “People with a strong need for vengeance have the potential to enjoy watching people being humiliated.”
The data shows that many people watch reality TV shows out of a desire for viewing humiliation. In other words, seeing someone else’s messed up life can make us feel better about our own issues, if only temporarily. This is unhealthy because the act of viewing someone else make bad choices does nothing to rectify our own. It’s just a cheap, fleeting way to meet our emotional needs. Tweeting that Kandi’s hair looks horrible skirts the real issue. The real issue is: why do you even care? Does it make you feel better about your own appearance when you spend time tearing down a reality TV star? The research says yes.
Reality TV Encourages You to Judge People
“Judgments of others are alienated expressions of our own unmet needs.” – Marshall Rosenberg
For me, this is the biggest reason why reality TV shows are such an unhealthy form of entertainment. All they do is foster an environment for judgments about people you don’t even know, women in particular. As you watch them, you are being invited into the characters’ (fake) lives and personas. There is a storyline that is carefully crafted by the show’s producers to create enough (fake) drama to keep viewers interested. No one ever watches a reality TV show without uttering some kind of judgment. Look at her hair! I can’t believe she said/did that! Ugh, she is such a b*tch! Really, when was the last time Twitter was silent during an episode of Real Housewives of (Whatever City They’re In Now)? I’m gonna go with NEVER.
If seeing the wives of basketball players cuss each other out rocks your boat, then you have to consider why is this your form of entertainment? What is it about trashy reality TV that gets you to tune in and spend your time engrossed in it? The truth is not that it’s simply a “guilty pleasure” like eating greasy french fries. There is an emotional need you are getting met by watching, most likely one for social status, or a feeling of self-importance. But just because a lot of people do it, doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
The Bottom Line
If you want to be happier, avoid negativity. Garbage in, garbage out. Try cutting reality TV shows out of your media diet and see how you feel in a month. At the very least, you’ll get back all those precious hours of your life to devote to pursuing your goals.
Do you watch reality TV? Do you feel that it affects your psyche or do you view it as just harmless entertainment? What are some more positive ways you might be able to get your needs met?