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Escaping into reality television

staff note

Over spring break, I made an unforgivably heinous choice: I decided to start watching “America’s Next Top Model."

It might seem like an odd choice to spend what precious little free time I have as a student voluntarily watching Tyra Banks psychologically terrorize group after group of young women in the name of “industry realness”, but reality shows have been a staple of my media diet for years. I’m a “Project Runway” zealot who can and will rattle off the name of nearly every contestant in the show’s sprawling history at the slightest provocation; my childhood was spent watching Stacey and Clinton rip apart wardrobes on “What Not to Wear." Not only have I watched “Dance Moms” in its horrifying entirety, but I religiously followed the show to its grueling end and I still own a Jojo (with the Bow-Bow) Siwa cup gifted to me by some equally fanatic friends.

I reflect on these obsessions with fondness, not shame or regret. Reality television is often framed as trashy, unintellectual, a cheap alternative to developing a scripted series that would require paying actors and writers. Some of these accusations are justified — it can’t be denied that a few reality televisions are downright exploitative and inexcusable in their treatment of its subjects and audience — but on the whole, reality shows are unfairly maligned. It is viewed as disposable entertainment, unworthy of analysis or dignified discussion.

What so many fail to realize is that reality television has a heart under all that gloss and glitz. These programs are about people, the sort of people who would never be granted a platform under typical circumstances. We live in a world now where a competition show about drag queens is one of the most popular, frequently referenced series on television. Reality shows opened the door for putting marginalized people on the small screen, with programs like “Project Runway” having openly gay contestants and “America’s Next Top Model” casting multiple girls of color. 

Even if these contestants and characters weren’t aware of how monumental their presence on television was for their respective communities, their freedom to tell their stories and share their passions fostered a genuine sense of representation matched by any fictional scripted series. Before the Fab Five of “Queer Eye” — who are doing tremendous work dismantling harmful stereotypes and breaking new cultural ground with a simple makeover show — there was Mondo Guerra of “Project Runway." He was a gay Mexican-American designer who decided to reveal his HIV status on the runway during one of the episodes, which has since become the show’s most memorable moment and catapulted Guerra to fame despite being the season’s runner-up. This is the magic of reality television: no writers striving to manufacture a sentimental moment or audiences who can complain about “forced” diversity. It is simply a sincere snapshot of an individual’s life that brought comfort and hope to so many, and changed many minds about a highly stigmatized disease.

When my ferocious love of reality television is questioned, these are the talking points I like to throw out, but at the end of the day, my central argument is merely that I enjoy these shows. They are not a guilty pleasure for me: They’re just a pleasure. I love the people and I love what they do, what they make, what they say. Reality shows aren’t just about drama and petty arguments, they are also showcases of human kindness and perseverance. When I think about the nightmare that is “Dance Moms,” what comes to mind isn’t the staged fighting and yelling. I remember the dancing. I remember watching a group of young, talented girls mature and flourish. I remember tuning in each week to see their gorgeous performances. It’s the same reason why I’ve watched 23 seasons of “Project Runway” and started binge-watching countless other programs about everything from modeling to cooking to beauty pageants. I want to see people create, perform and thrive. 

Reality television is a nexus of art and anti-art, entertainment at its most heartlessly jaded while still retaining an indelible core of unpolished humanity. As much as I adore the lofty heights to which art can soar, my personal standards are hardly that high. At the end of a stressful day, I don’t find myself seeking relief in the prestigious dramas or realistically bleak pop culture that I otherwise laud. My escape from reality is reality itself — or rather, the shiny, structured, sinful world of reality television.

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