I love Jersey Shore as much as the next well-educated Midwesterner – and with as much guilt. I also get a thrill seeing people get thinner on The Biggest Loser, and cackle with delight at every shot of Mary Murphy’s super-Botoxed facehole on So You Think You Can Dance. I can’t help myself. Despite the obvious reasons why reality TV is cheapening our lives and corrupting our youth, I really like it. Chances are you do too, so don’t get all self-righteous on me.
In fact there are a few benefits to liking reality TV. It helps me bond with people I otherwise have nothing in common with; it makes me aware of the humanity of the idiotic; and it helps me consider ideas of morality. What episode of House can do all that?
First and foremost, reality TV helps with the complicated business of making new friends. Most people first changed social groups after elementary school when we were first becoming aware of the strangeness of our family lives or reading the What’s Happening to My Body? book with a flashlight in our closets. We were insecure, and so, naturally, we talked about the flaws of others to make up for it. Gossip was the glue that masked our insecurities and held our new friendships together, and although we’ve figured out divorce and body hair, there is still an element of grade-eight gossip in university life. Shared stories are shared experiences, and if you’re just meeting someone, the lives of reality TV stars are go-to gossip topics without the risk of betraying those close to you. Scripted shows aren’t as easy to bond over because the uniformly beautiful cast members with extensive medical knowledge are too obviously fake. At a fundamental level, reality TV features real people making real decisions (no matter how artificial it may seem after post-production). A discussion about reality TV can ignore the issues of education and class. It’s readily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, and no post-secondary education is needed to rag on Heidi Montag’s new face. If the conversation builds into a discussion of the patriarchy’s control over women’s bodies, then that’s great. If not, there’s still a sense of community fostered by mutual knowledge.
Reality TV also helps me be slightly more understanding of some of the idiots I come into contact with. I have a habit of being incredibly uncharitable in my character assessments. When describing people – even those who I like – I often tend toward the brutally accurate details, instead of toward the sympathetic version of the truth. However, I’ve found that I’m much more likely to recant my indictment of personality for a TV star than for a real person, simply because I know more about the things that made them who they are. I don’t want to sit through a four-hour monologue about an enemy’s childhood, sexual history, and genealogy to understand why they irritate me. MTV knows this. So they give me small slices of Snooki’s life to help me understand why she has such a vapid, grating personality. It doesn’t mean I grow to like her, but it helps me stop dehumanizing her, and sometimes the other people in my life as well.
Watching reality TV “stars,” especially those whose lives are diametrically opposed to mine (My Super Sweet Sixteen, anyone?) also helps me form my own set of social norms. Because I don’t practice any religion, aside from the vague Christianity of “secular” North America, I’ve cobbled together my views on personal decorum from the media, my mother, and Ayn Rand. Given its genesis, there are obviously holes in my guidelines and reality TV helps me find them. By putting “normal” people in real life situations, reality TV helps me figure out who I would ally with to stay alive on a desert island, whether an apprenticeship in New York City seems fun, and whether T-back binikis are acceptable beach wear (no, unless you’re on Elimidate). Deciding that I never want to be eligible to appear on Half-Ton Mom nor Toddlers & Tiaras is a big help in terms of life planning.
Obviously, reality TV is stupid, manipulative, and probably a sign of the Apocalypse, but at the same time, it’s doing me some good, so I’d rather rally behind it than burn Jeff Probst at the stake.