Recently, I’ve been tuning in to Jon & Kate Plus Eight at the gym. I watch on the sly like I’d rubberneck on the highway: The crash is too gory to view directly, but I can’t take my eyes off the drama. Some research suggests viewers watch reality TV because deep down they believe, someday, they too might be a star. I’d argue it’s even more basic than that: Reality television plays on our ugly, but very human, need to take someone else — especially the rich, attractive or famous — down a peg.
Call it the “Can you imagine?” factor: When Playboy Playmate Kendra hands her soon-to-be parents-in-law a signed copy of her nude centerfold, the at-home viewers can screech in horror and delight. “Can you imagine? Wow, I might do a lot of dumb things, but I would never do that!” When the 911 Nanny looks on disapprovingly as a family’s children melt down around helpless parents, we say to ourselves, “Can you imagine? At least I’m not that bad of a mother.”
From The Bachelor and its many, many spin-offs, to family dramas like Little People and The Real Housewives of New Jersey, there’s something for everyone to love (or hate.) Perhaps reality TV can be divided best into: the shows that encourage competition — Top Chef, Dancing with the Stars, Project Runway and the like; and the shows that encourage B-list celebrity voyeurism — including The Hills, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.
A bad influence?
But is this leading us astray? Do viewers watch reality shows and say, “Well, hey, if they are doing, so can I”?
No: Reality television neither encourages poor behavior nor serves as a cautionary tale, because viewers are watching for entertainment, not as a model for “real” life. Since MTV first aired The Real World in 1992, hundreds of shows have freeze-framed on life’s tense moments as producers cut and craft for maximum effect; and viewers know it.
As family life crumbles for Jon and Kate, it’s too simplistic to draw a monkey-see-monkey-do correlation: The fact that more than 10 million viewers watched this week’s “announcement” doesn’t predict a spike in divorces this year.
But pushing the shock-value boundaries only moves one way — and if upping the ante on televised deviance follows the same pattern of pornography and cinematic violence, we are unfortunately in for more (and worse) displays of heartbreak, idiocy and cattiness, all edited to amp up the anxiety.
Perhaps what’s most tragic of all is that when the cameras stop rolling, it actually is someone’s real life — a life that must go on and deal with the damage wrought by the quest for 15 minutes (or 100+ episodes) of fame. Not to be clichéd here, but what’s going to happen to the eight Gosselin children? The impact of their parents divorce — not to mention the odd childhood with cameras rolling 24/7 — may have significant emotional and spiritual consequences.
We egg it on
Still, it’s entertainment — and we, the viewers, egg it all on. One of my colleagues at The University of Iowa said she watches reality television because, after that feeling of embarrassment for the “stars,” she doesn’t feel so bad about her own life “when real-person peers are making bigger farts of themselves — and on the national stage. I’m willing to grant these folks fame by tuning into their shows, but in return I get to judge them mercilessly and watch them humiliate themselves, or be humiliated by the show and editors.”
So why do we keep tuning in to reality TV? It’s similar to why we read women magazines or drink margaritas: They’re delicious, and while they might have some useful bits, we know they aren’t really good for us. The models in magazine ads are airbrushed and few “real” housewives of New Jersey fill their days with Botox. But watching another’s unreal reality is frothy, fun and salaciously captivating. And from the comfort of our treadmills or couches we watch as the “stars” embarrass themselves, sighing with relief that at least we’re not that bad.
This story originally appeared on the New York Times blog, Room for Debate.