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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Public Cinemy No. 1: Has reality television become more progressive?

While the reality TV landscape has changed over the years, many of the genre’s exploitative tactics remain.


American reality television in the 2000s was infamous. Strange concepts abounded, such as My Strange Addiction” (2010–15), where subjects would confess to anything from eating half a roll of toilet paper a day to being in love with a car and “Bridalplasty” (2010–11), where brides competed in challenges to win a wedding and desired plastic surgeries. One can’t forget “Wife Swap” (2004–20), where two very different families would swap wives, or occasionally husbands, for two weeks. 

The shows are subject to intense criticism today. “My Strange Addiction” is lambasted for showing off people with possible mental illnesses like animals in a zoo while offering them minimal options for treatment. Shows based on women’s attractiveness, like “Bridalplasty,” “The Swan” (2004) and “Are You Hot?” (2003), have come under fire for body shaming, fatphobia and plastic surgery elements. Shows centered around weight were particularly problematic, such as “The Biggest Loser” (2004–20) (contestants competed to lose the highest percentage of weight in grueling challenges), “Supersize vs Superskinny” (overweight and underweight people swapped diets) and “My 600-lb Life” (2012–) (the lives of obese individuals were filmed for over a year). All of these shows have been criticized for promoting eating disorders and unhealthy weight loss methods.

Maybe it’s a good thing that we’ve moved past this particular brand of exploitative reality show. Over the past 5–10 years, many reality TV shows have become more socially aware; less of an overt emphasis is placed on looks, and the voyeuristic peer into other people’s lives that constituted the majority of early reality TV is now viewed as uncomfortable and controversial.

However, bizarre reality shows still exist, albeit in a different format. “Love is Blind” (2020–) is a filmed social experiment where contestants date each other and get engaged without ever seeing one another face to face. At the end, they walk down the aisle, but more than a few end up left alone at the altar. The British series “Too Hot to Handle” (2020–) portrays a group of attractive people who are forced to remain celibate (but are actively encouraged not to) or risk losing prize money. “Love on the Spectrum” (2022–) follows young adults with autism as they explore the dating world, while “MILF Manor” (2023), arguably the most controversial on the list, centers on older women who are dating each others’ sons.

The 2020s have seen more than a few bizarre, contrived reality shows, but in this day and age, they seem to mostly revolve around dating. Why? My theory is that in a time where more people are increasingly devoted to social justice, limiting reality television to dating shows allows networks to pretend they are promoting some kind of public service. “Love is Blind” insists they are teaching contestants to build meaningful relationships, while “Love on the Spectrum” credits itself with allowing non-traditional dating contestants to find love.

However, for all their posturing, these reality shows are still inherently exploitative. “Love is Blind” plied their contestants with unlimited alcohol, keeping them drunk and thus more emotional, uninhibited and entertaining throughout the shows. Viewers with autism have criticized “Love on the Spectrum” for being insensitive and offensive, and the Australian version of the show did not pay contestants for its first season. “MILF Manor” is … well, it’s weird for a lot of reasons.

This new era of reality TV shows that we may not have progressed as far as we think we have. Yes, we may not put women on scales and call them fat anymore, but it’s naive to say that a reality show will ever have a motive beyond using the drunk, the unaware or the strange as vehicles for late-night entertainment. In the 2020s, we’re still taking advantage of people the same way we always have — the only real difference is that now the exploitation has to be sneaky.