Stop calling reality TV a “guilty pleasure”
Binge-watching Real Housewives can be good for you, actually.
Like many people, I’ve recently been binge-watching The Circle, a reality show that features contestants who live in isolated apartments and can only communicate with each other via a fake, voice-activated social media platform. Participants rank each other based on likability, a totally arbitrary measurement determined mostly by their profile pictures and the small talk they make within a group chat. At the end, the most popular participant wins $100,000.
Growing up in my immigrant household, I was told that watching shows like this would rot my brain. I was encouraged instead to watch informative series on Animal Planet or The Discovery Channel, but a person can only tolerate so much footage of lions chasing impalas. So whenever I could, I snuck in viewings of America’s Next Top Model or MTV’s Next — shows that not only captivated me, but also still shape the way I see the world.
For many Americans, watching so-called lowbrow, “mindless” reality TV — the type of content that doesn’t further our intellect in any tangible way — is just part of our culture. As I’ve grown older and allowed myself to fully indulge in such shows, I’ve realized that watching reality TV is one of the few ways I blow off steam on a regular basis. Even so, that whole “rotting the brain” warning lingers in my mind, so I spoke with experts to find out my binge-watching habit is actually turning my mind to mush or if it might actually be adding value to my life.
First, let’s get something out of the way: Just because a TV show is entertaining to watch and feels mindless doesn’t mean you’re not actively using your brain when watching it. People often refer to reality TV as a “guilty pleasure,” but I take issue with that. The implication there is that enjoying something frivolous (and effortless) is inherently bad, a notion rooted in capitalism and the pressure to make everything we do “productive.”
Admittedly, a big part of the appeal of series like The Real Housewives is the drama, but what ultimately makes those shows really interesting is the relationships among the casts — and it turns out that when we watch, our brains are actively processing and learning from the complicated social dynamics we’re witnessing. “Reality TV is very generative in the sense that it allows us to hopefully better critically consume how we understand our identity and how identity itself is a performance,” Brandy Monk-Payton, Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, tells me. “It’s crucial to how we are social creatures and how we create relationships with each other.” When I think about it, this has been completely true in my own life: TV definitely helped me form and articulate my identity.
When I was a teenager, some of the first queer people I ever saw on TV were on America’s Next Top Model, including the late André Leon Talley. Watching Talley, as well as the other flamboyant makeup artists and judges on the show, bring their larger-than-life persona to the show each week, inspired me to perform their confidence in my own life — even when I may not have felt it innately. By emulating their “extra” personalities, I was able to express some deeper essence of queer personhood.
When our social media feeds are constantly filled with news of our communities being targeted, there’s an added need to escape into entertainment that feels uniquely low-stakes.
Whenever I think about the stereotypical audience for reality TV shows, I think of a suburban wine mom or a flamboyant gay man who lives to spill the tea. This isn’t totally inaccurate: A majority of people who consume reality TV are women, and, anecdotally, many of my queer friends are obsessed with reality shows.
It’s not a coincidence, either. Mindless TV seems to serve a unique function for marginalized groups like queer people, women, and people of color. “Even though reality television has these claims to the ‘real,’ it’s also about escape, and escape is really important when you’re dealing with other issues [and] microaggressions on the ground,” Monk-Payton tells me. When our social media feeds are constantly filled with news of our communities being targeted, there’s an added need to escape into entertainment that feels uniquely low-stakes. Feeling an emotional connection to a character on TV, while also having the understanding that whatever happens to them won’t affect your real life, is actually an important emotional space to inhabit.
Beyond the catharsis it may provide, watching mindless TV gives us another avenue for connecting with friends, without centering ourselves or current events. “Being able to chat about the messy drama between two characters, to be able to talk about who won Drag Race or Survivor, these are all also important,” Monk-Payton says.
Please, just let me watch a B list star’s messy divorce in peace.
Of course, when we’re really into a reality show, there’s always the risk of falling into a binge watching hole. I’ve been guilty of putting off an entire day’s worth of work to finish watching a series from start to finish — which, admittedly, doesn’t seem great. But it turns out that even binge-watching reality TV can have some benefits. “Increasing evidence suggests that binge-watching may act as a maladaptive emotion regulation strategy (e.g., escapism) to cope with adverse emotional states such as anxiety,” Maèva Flayelle, a postdoctoral researcher in Switzerland who studies the psychology of binge-watching, tells me. Some studies have even shown that binging can help us regulate negative emotions and offer us instant gratification.
The habit can turn negative, though, when we frequently use it as a way to actively avoid dealing with our problems. “The difference lies in whether or not one's extensive binge-watching behavior is characterized by loss of control and associated with negative consequences in various areas of life,” Flayelle says.
But for most of us, our relationship to mindless TV isn’t an issue; in fact, it can be a perfectly accessible way to cope with everyday stresses. So from here on out, I’m abolishing “guilty pleasure” from my vocabulary; reality TV is one of my pleasures, period. Enjoying reality TV, especially in this political climate, simply shouldn’t trigger guilt. Please, just let me watch a B list star’s messy divorce in peace.