The reality behind reality television shows

Photo by Dani Sisson Student Publications

Reality television has long captivated audiences internationally. Whether we’re watching contestants sell houses or ruin relationships, the idea of viewing reality as it transpires has become a staple of how we consume entertainment. 

As humans, we have this urge to make a spectacle of other people’s pain, almost as if to celebrate the fact that it is not us suffering. Events that date back centuries, such as public executions, speak to humanity’s affinity to separate themselves from the pain of others and revel in it.

While far less graphic, today’s reality shows equip a similar mechanism to hook the audience’s attention and increase views. 

Challenges on shows such as “Love Island” see contestants constantly placing themselves in embarrassing, humiliating and even painful challenges. 

For example, at the beginning of each season of “Love Island,” women in bikinis line up opposing their male counterparts clad in revealing swimsuits.

 From there, the men step forward one by one, and any women who are interested in that particular man step forward — allowing the men to select one of their women as their desired “mate.” 

This challenge necessarily sets certain contestants up for failure, women who are not picked and men who are not wanted by any of the women on the island.

As Vanity Fair explains it, the event basically acts as a “sexually humiliating version of not
getting picked for dodgeball.”

Challenges like these may seem mild; nothing more than entertainment created at the detriment of a few contestants for a show they signed up for. However, these challenges have a very real and lasting impact on the contestants due to the nature of the fan bases.

Rather than a moment of humiliation being limited to a single scene, contestants now have to face continued ridicule and harassment from large internet communities if they are not deemed to be the “favorite” of the season. 

From comments about their physical appearance to tear downs about their choices in relationships, sex or even life, the internet is unendingly ruthless — drawing and quartering these people for the choice to enter the public sphere.

These hate campaigns have a very tangible impact. In 2020, Caroline Flack, the beloved host of “Love Island,” known on the internet for her “messy” love life, committed suicide. 

She was the third suicide in a three-year period of those involved with the show. Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis, two previous contestants of the show, also committed suicide after being faced with endless coverage and harassment on social media.

Their deaths led to many calling for the cancellation of the show — an unsuccessful endeavor since the show will continue into its 10th season this year. 

The entertainment of the masses is not worth the lives of real people who are left to deal with the fallout for what could be the rest of their life. 

Reality television capitalizes on humanity’s affinity to see others doing worse than we are. 

You might feel like your love life is an absolute mess, but you can turn on “Love Island” or “The Bachelor” and be reminded that other people have it worse.

This type of thinking may seem harmless, but when there is an entire industry built around it, we can forget that these are real people who live a reality outside of these shows, a dangerous and slippery slope. 

While many of them signed up for these shows for reasons varying from fame, love or money, they are still people who deserve kindness and common human decency from viewers. 

Some may respond by saying that if a contestant is acting negatively toward others on the show, they deserve to feel retribution in real time for their actions. 

However, the flaw in this type of thinking is that as much as reality television may claim, it is not, as the name may suggest, actually representative of reality.

It is a heavily cut and edited version of real life that sets out to cast certain people as villains and others as heroes, just for the sake of garnering more views.

Reality television is at its core anything but real, and it is appalling to consequently try to punish people in the real world for it.