Reality Television: Trash, Guilty Pleasure, or Social Mirror?

Cíara Dempsey explores the strange world of reality TV, and what it's doing to us

Every summer, it rolls around. Maybe you wait for it. Maybe you know it’s coming. Maybe you try to forget, in the hopes you can ignore it. But every summer, it comes: a new season of Love Island. Every social media site becomes littered with Love Island memes, Twitter becomes a string of live tweets every time it airs, and this year, for us here in Ireland, there’s been not one, but two Irish girls in the villa to further fuel our widespread obsession with these oiled-up, conventionally-attractive, twenty-somethings sitting around a posh gaff somewhere in Spain. Love Island airs six - yes, six - nights a week, and just in case that wasn’t enough, there’s a companion podcast that airs each morning. If you aren’t familiar with Love Island, it’s a reality television show whereby random people from across the UK and Ireland attempt to find love…competitively. And the best couple win, by public vote. Bizarrely, they all sleep in the same room without any questions asked. In a sense, it’s the weirder younger sister of Big Brother. The winning and losing aspects of both shows seem more like an afterthought, to provide some pretext for a bizarre social experiment and our apparent cultural need to watch strangers under near-constant surveillance. It’s strange, and possibly morally ambiguous, but you can’t deny its popularity.

While Love Island is the dominating reality show right now, reality television as a whole is enduringly popular. To name two examples in a sea of hundreds, Keeping Up with the Kardashians has sixteen seasons and multiple spin-offs and Geordie Shore is already on its nineteenth season. We clearly love to watch other people’s lives and yet, people love to complain about reality television. “Trash” is usually the term thrown at reality television. In part, it’s because it’s cheap to produce, easy to replicate and doesn’t require half the creative work of a fictive television show. However, the enduring notion that reality television is “trash” is really due to the perceived intellectual quality. For every tweet about Love Island, there’s another tweet from some lofty, holier-than-thou faux-intellectual, who feels it’s very important for us all to know that they would never watch this trash. We didn’t ask, but okay. Even for many of us who do enjoy reality television, we feel the need to label it as a “guilty pleasure,” as if to let everyone know that, really, we’re smarter than this! We promise!

Ultimately, reality television is a reflection of our culture, whether we like it or not. Sure, the camera is pointed at strangers, or celebrities, or some amalgamation of the two, but the show doesn’t exist without the audience. Whether we love it or feel the need to constantly critique it, our fixation with reality television is an obsession with our own human nature; we seek to define ourselves by the others that we see on tv. Maybe we like to feel better about ourselves, because we’re smarter, or less narcissistic, or didn’t cry about losing an earring in the ocean while, “there’s people that are dying, Kim.” Reality television offers up human nature back to us onscreen, and we as a species are apparently, really nosy.