When Will We Realise That Reality TV Has Gone Too Far?

From the scarring images captured on CCTV footage of Gaz and Charlotte engaging in jack rabbit sex on ‘Geordie Shore’, to challenges involving the consumption of kangaroo penis on ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’, I have questioned on more than one occasion why I choose to sit down and watch these vile, downright offensive programmes.  Although I try and give off a pretence of superiority, I find myself lingering in the doorway of the living room as my housemates switch on the TV, the dulcet tones of Gemma Collins on ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ raging about her Dolce and Gabbana pumps gripping me as I make my way to the sofa.  These are shows with a singular aim: to invoke shock and horror to a willing audience.  We sit like dustbins, opening our eyes and minds to the rubbish which flows freely from our television screens. I would undoubtedly choose a period drama over watching Gemma Collins any day of the week, and yet even I cannot argue that these programmes do not hold a certain fascination.  

Following a spate of accidents on the new series of reality TV show ‘The Jump’, it is quickly becoming apparent that Channel 4 producers, in particular, need to be told enough is enough.  Already seven of the twelve contestants have faced injuries, including Olympic medallist Beth Tweddle, as she sustained a serious neck injury on the slopes.  In an effort to showcase the valiant efforts of Britain’s celebrities as they battle with complex moves, such as a ski jump the “height of three double decker buses”, it is important to ask where we draw the line and what it will take before shows like this get axed?  Apparently a national treasure damaging two of the vertebrates on the back of her neck and having them fused together with bone from her hip isn’t enough to pull the plug.  Channel 4 are also known for their creation of the notorious show ‘Big Brother’, and the inevitable spin-off ‘Celebrity Big Brother’.  Although it began with an interesting premise, drawing upon Orwell’s 1984, the show, like most other reality TV programmes, soon went to waste with endless casts of Z-list celebrities, possessing too many poorly articulated opinions for their own good, and was subsequently moved to channel 5 (known for other scintillating shows such as ‘Neighbours’ and ‘Home and Away’).  Viewing time is divided between watching the celebrities sleep – someone might as well hit the snooze button in my own brain for all this is worth – and their vicious, virtually psychopathic, cat fights over a stolen shoe or a bitchy look.  Perhaps the most insensitive and invasive moment came this year with the inspection of a contestant’s knickers stained with discharge; a perfectly normal occurrence for young women.  Her humiliation was encouraged by the filming of the programme itself as the knickers were quite literally aired in public for all the world to see (if they cared to tune in, that is).  When a female’s natural bodily processes are being recorded and used for entertainment purposes at her expense on national television, that’s when my hand reaches for the off button on the remote.  For me, broken bones and damaging humiliation go several steps too far.  

Another worrying trend which can be, in part, attributed to the glamour of programmes such as Channel 4’s ‘Made in Chelsea’, is the growing materialism of younger generations.  You only have to scroll through Instagram – the teenager’s social media playground – to see images of 14 year-olds posing with a caramel macchiato from Starbucks, outfits perfectly selected and assembled to match their location, an ‘Aden’ or ‘Mayfair’ filter being used to hide any slight imperfections.  The socialites of ‘Made in Chelsea’, scrimping off their grandparents’ fortune and wasting it on endless lunches at The Phene or Tom’s Kitchen, are becoming today’s role models for the young and impressionable.  Despite their promotion of vanity, superficiality and narcissism, I will be found, without a doubt, lodged on my sofa on a Monday evening, ready to tune in for the week’s instalment of cheating, lying and hedonism.  And why am I so attracted to watching the empty lives of these terrible people?  Most likely, it is a grotesque desire to view life on the other side where money is no object and happiness is just a cream-coloured filter away.  When I’m smelling the milk to see whether I can push it another day beyond the use-by date, it is somehow refreshing to experience the escapism of a programme like MIC, watching those horrendous human beings sip on their lychee martinis.

The most concerning series to date, however, is the reality documentary series ‘The Undateables’.  With the name alone inspiring concern in the nation’s more politically correct individuals, the show joins groups of disabled and 'disfigured' men and women quite simply searching for love.  When the advertisements were released for the first series on Channel 4, the advertising watchdog immediately received a wave of complaints which were eventually cleared, allowing the programme to reach its fifth series by 2016.  With many still believing that the show promotes a negative image, equating disability with an inability to find love, it may be seen that it is largely the marketing which lets the programme down and frames the participants as victims of yet another ratings war between the leading channels.  It is impossible to escape the unsettling feeling that these individuals are being exploited, their conditions paraded on national television not to invite understanding and promote education, but to induce pity.  Ultimately, it must be asked whether these programmes, based on an interrogation of the individual – their quirks, their differences, their oddities – are taking a backwards step, helping to reinforce the division between what is normal and what is ‘Other’.  Kangaroo penis and rampant sex aside, the reality programmes which isolate and alienate certain groups are the ones we really need to watch out for.

Edited by Katie Randall