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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, February 22, 2024

Public Cinemy No. 1: Reality television in the digital age

Now more than ever, American reality TV shows perpetuate unrealistic beauty standards.


Compared to the rest of the world, American television is infamous for its glossiness. Whereas British soaps and Italian reality TV shows tend to feature girls-next-door and regular Joes (Giuseppes?), US shows are chock-full of toned abs, low-cut tops, gleaming white teeth and other trademarks of the young and fit.

This trend has worsened over recent years, as a development of the digital age. Take “Survivor” (2000–), one of America’s longest-running reality shows. While the earliest seasons of the show cast Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life, later seasons have shifted away from grocery store workers and cab drivers in favor of white-collar workers and influencers. In season 4, the contestants were introduced along with their professions. While classic reality competition professions were still present, such as “student” and “account manager,” there was also a fishing boat captain, a limo driver, a bowling alley owner and a local judge. Other early seasons have featured gravediggers, lunch ladies, used car salesmen and mechanical bull operators. This was one of the hallmarks of  “Survivor”: the ability to see Americans from all walks of life gathered together and forced to build a rudimentary society. It was a voyeuristic look into the lives and mindsets of people just like you.

Nowadays, “Survivor” has become a breeding ground for influencers searching for their big break and superfans desperate to prove their chops. The naturalness of the show is gone. The new contestants never put their foot in their mouth and never look imperfect. On early seasons of “Survivor,” confessionals would feel like a conversation or a rant from a friend. Contestants would routinely tell personal secrets, make wild proclamations of love or accuse each other of possessing small penises, because at the end of the show, they planned to fade back into obscurity and resume their normal lives. Now, in the era of beautiful, white-collar contestants well-versed in media exposure, every confessional sounds like a “Shark Tank” (2009–) pitch or an HR defense.

The devolution of “Survivor” is a microcosm of the trend that has had American television in a stranglehold since the year 2000. American media loves beautiful, youthful people, and it’s not always easy to find normal-looking people on television, especially women. Even cooking shows, one of the more innocent forms of television, have female hosts and judges with perfect bone structure and gleaming white veneers. In the era of social media, where we are inundated with beautiful people that we can look at whenever we want, you would think television would reorient itself to find subjects who can entertain us in a more unique way. Instead, television seems to be playing a catch-up game with Instagram. 

In the era of social media, plastic surgery and reality show subjects who enjoy the fruits of both, normal physical imperfections are becoming less and less tolerated. There is no middle ground between the Kardashians and “My 600-lb Life” (2012–); the girl-next-door is the new radio star. Yes, celebrities have always been beautiful, but contestants on reality TV and cooking shows aren’t meant to be the next Julia Roberts — they’re meant to be real people. Audiences in this new age of television, particularly children, are going to be affected by the absence of normal, down-to-earth people in the media, if they haven’t been already. This is a direct result of a post-Kardashian world, where reality television has become glossy and product-oriented rather than the microcosm of real America it was originally intended to be.