The real dangers of “reality TV”

Staff Editorial

Time and time again, our past election cycle has been compared to reality television. Some have voiced approval of this change of pace, claiming that by carrying himself like the reality TV star he used to be, President-elect Trump has struck a blow against a culture of “political correctness”.

To be clear, this is not an editorial about policy. Rather, it is a critique about style, and the President-elect’s brash, flashy style. This reality-show mentality is fun, but it signals problems ahead for our society and its politics.

It is rather apparent that there is very little real about “reality TV.” But because reality stars are so often portrayed as caricatures of real people, producers get away with wrongdoing far more serious than false advertising: they enable stereotyping and intellectual laziness among their (oftentimes young) viewers.

The young adults that are oftentimes the targeted audience of reality TV shows are at a very formative time in their lives, when they can be easily influenced by what they see on television. This is especially true of those who live in insular communities, who otherwise have few real experiences of the people and places on their television screens.

Perhaps the most famous show within the genre, Jersey Shore, is a prime example of this phenomenon. The series ran for six seasons on MTV between 2009 and 2012. From its very beginning, the show marketed itself with the casual use of the ethnic slur, “guido”, to refer to Italian-Americans. Between that and copious amounts of hair gel, it repeatedly emphasized that the show’s characters were stereotypical crazy Italians.

In no other setting would it be to present blatant stereotypes, or use such hateful language. This problem is not limited to Jersey Shore. The short-run series Buckwild assigned titles to their West Virginian stars like “Shae, the spicy Southern belle”, and depicted stereotypical activities like squirrel hunting and mud racing, making its cast out to be rednecks.

It seems that many reality TV shows profit by banking on stereotypes. The portrayal of these stereotypes in reality TV is emblematic of societal bias. The longer we pretend it’s okay to use the word, “guido” and make fun of Southerners as hicks, the longer we allow similar oversimplifications in the rest of society.

A reality-show mentality – flashiness and style over substance, the breaking down of complex people and places into easily-digestible stereotypes – has an understandable appeal.

It is much easier to be judgmental about “Shae, the spicy Southern belle” than it is to be judgmental about a real person with complex emotions and values. By the same token, reality-show style politics can be enticing. It is much more fun to chant “build the wall!” than it is to have a serious discussion about the real problem of illegal immigration.

It is easier to talk about “draining the swamp” than it is to actually set standards by which members of the next President’s administration will be appointed. President-elect Trump did not invent the meme-ified, reality-show style politics of today. But he has done little to elevate the level of our debate. We, too, wish that the President-elect is successful in making our nation greater. We simply wish that we could be more serious about what that means, and how it will be accomplished.