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Why Reality TV can be Toxic and not as “Real” as the Name Suggests

Let’s be honest: most of us have watched at least one episode of some sort of reality TV show. The reasons for watching reality TV are multiple: some watch it because its mindless, some just like the drama or some (a minority though) are actually truly invested in the shows. Especially since the beginning of the pandemic, reality TV consumption has majorly increased [1]. I guess this is the case because it’s a good escape to our, at the moment, very mundane, not very exciting and repetitive lives. Watching other people in a villa under the Mallorca sun arguing over a guy seems like the most entertaining way to spend our evening.

In other words, to most of us, reality TV is something light-hearted, to have in the background or to get our daily dose of drama. In that moment, we don’t really think about the negative effects that reality TV can subconsciously have on us. However, these can be rather serious. Therefore, I decided at address a few of the negative effects of reality TV. Just as a disclaimer, in this article, I will be focussing on the negative impact of dating shows specifically (such as Love Island or The Bachelor), since TV reality is very broad genre, and I don’t know much about the other types of reality TV shows.


Dating Reality TV Shows perpetuate toxic gender roles

I don’t know if I’m the only one who has this impression, but I truly believe that dating reality TV shows aren’t of great help to deconstruct the traditional roles that can be highly problematic.On the contrary, I think that dating shows perpetuate these. When one considers shows such as Love Island or The Bachelor, the women all look and act a certain way, usually wear a lot of make-up and spend a lot of time gossiping about the other contestants. Often, when asked about their sometimes rather mean behaviour, most women simply say “that’s the way we women are. We like to gossip.”. Even though it’s said in a light-hearted tone, when one thinks about this phrase a little longer, one notices that it says a lot about the nature of reality TV: it normalizes people stabbing each other in the back, without questioning it. Even worse, it often banalizes body-shaming, which could potentially affect people’s expectations of the way they should act or look. This is even more so when it comes to the impact of reality TV on a young and impressionable audience. To put it in bold terms, 13 or 14-year-olds are given the impression that the main concerns for a girl should be to look good and be as attractive as possible to the opposite sex, all whilst smiling and gossiping about other women. For a man, the ideal is the polar opposite: according to reality TV, a man must be incredibly muscular, confident, should never cry but be a little macho instead.

Of course, this is rather caricatural, but I am profoundly convinced that, unfortunately, there is some truth to it. Therefore, I think it is very important to be aware of it and to watch dating shows with a critical eye.


Dating Reality TV Shows can induce insecurities

Our critical eye is also important when it comes to the topic of body image. I already touched upon it in the last point, but it is very important to remember that the bodies represented in numerous TV shows aren’t necessarily an accurate representation of women’s bodies. Nevertheless, reality TV has truly contributed to the establishment of (often unattainable, as I will address later) beauty standards.

I experienced first-hand what kind of insecurities reality TV can induce: I remember the countless times I was sitting on my sofa in my joggers, with smudged make-up on my face and a chocolate bar in my hands, watching Love Island which is filled with perfectly athletic women in bikinis, where no rolls, stretch marks or scars show, looking absolutely gorgeous and glowing. I know how insecure one can feel when watching such shows and how sad one can be at the idea of probably never looking like that.

But some good news: first of all, we don’t NEED to look like them to be pretty. But second, quite a few reality TV stars (not all of them of course) have undergone heavy plastic surgery in order to achieve the physique they have. This is by no means an attack against plastic surgery, but rather an element to remember when looking at these women with plumy lips and flawless skin. They were not born looking like that but got external help to do so.

What I sometimes think is toxic is the fact that reality TV, in a way, gives its audience the impression that one can totally naturally look flawless, which is seldom the case.


Dating Reality TV Shows can create a distorted idea of relationships

This point has partly been discussed previously but I thought that it is an important point to emphasize. Even though dating shows come under the category “reality TV”, they aren’t truly representative of the real world. In other words, reality TV is often the polar opposite of “real”. When it comes to relationships, it is therefore by no means a bad thing if you didn’t meet your boyfriend on a sunny island, you didn’t have your first kiss in a whirlpool by the sunset and that there was less drama. Love stories in movies are usually unrealistic and the same is true for “reality” TV. And your own love story will always be the best!

silhouette of man and woman kissing at sunset
Photo by Annette Sousa from Unsplash

In conclusion, despite its light-hearted, but often seriously addictive and dramatic content, reality TV can have numerous negative impacts on our mental health, especially if we start to compare ourselves to the actors starring in it. It is therefore extremely important to watch these shows in a detached and critical manner.

European Politics student, chocolate-lover and writing enthusiast
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