Stop Including Reality TV In Your Self-Care Routine
Why do we keep pretending trashy shows represent harmless fun?
Art by Ashley Goodall
Binging on reality TV is an activity that appears on internet self-care lists more often than not. Advocates talk up the warm-and-fuzzy feels doled out by shows like Great British Bake Off, The Great Pottery Throw Down and Gogglebox; the TV equivalents of a valium in a warm bath. But then more destructive franchises get plugged in the same breath, like The Bachelor and Married at First Sight. Shows in which contestants, particularly those who are women, are routinely humiliated or villainised.
Self-care has recently been appropriated as a buzzword by advertisers and wellness bloggers (think chia-loving yoga insta accounts), but its origins are far more radical, rooted in the resistance of systemic oppression. Poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote that: "caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." But I doubt Audre Lorde would have thought there was anything warrior-like about watching shows we know are bad for us. Is there anything revolutionary about sitting down and switching your brain off as self-care? Are we fooling ourselves?
Some reality TV is pure at heart. Shows like The Great British Bake Off revel in quintessential British concerns, like how to achieve a perfect Queen Victoria sponge or the acute devastation felt over split custard. But their inclusive ethos is also notable. People from all backgrounds come together under the big white tent. They mix glib British humour with exacting measurements and are united in their pursuit of the best bake, or one of steely-eyed judge Paul Hollywood's coveted (and probably sweaty) handshakes. In the 2015 season we watched with pride at Nadiya Hussain's tearful victory speech, in which she spoke of never limiting her dreams again. In Australia, Masterchef is one of our only shows that offers a richly multicultural cast. Gender and sexual diversity is, however, extremely limited on our screens.
But these are small victories. We are so starved for anything that portrays a familiar reality that we project our unmet desires onto reality TV, and huff on the toxic stuff too. In her essay on the attraction of watching The Bachelor , Roz Bellamy conducted a survey asking viewers why they watch the show. She found that women watched mainly for the women. A range of heterosexual and pansexual women also claimed to have experienced sexual attraction towards the contestants.
More broadly, there seems to be an illicit pleasure to be drawn from readings that run counter to the hetero-normative impetus of the show. Audiences reveled in the romance that developed off-screen between two contestants in 2016, and when the winner Alex Nation hooked up with a woman after splitting with the awkward Richie Strahan. There is so little racial diversity that it's straight-up sickening Channel Ten made a statement saying that "contestants are considered regardless of race or background." The unbearable whiteness and patriarchal subtext of the show is not something that a self-care framework can erase.
The notion that a Bachelor can perform queer allyship is also questionable. During the most recent season, Matty J showed his support for same-sex marriage on Instagram. This seemed pretty ironic, given the show he starred in parcels out an exceedingly hetero-normative interpretation of love; women on the show are appraised based on their virtue, their vulnerability, and their ability to raise children. Matty J's performance of queer allyship is hollow in the same way as politicians' attempts to co-opt youth and marginalised groups' vernacular to effect "wokeness" (think Hillary Clinton's cringe-worthy appearance on Broad City). This echoes reality-TV-as-self-care discourse, absurdly conflating corporate responsibility and individualistic consumption with ethics.
When not attempting to frame their shows as politically sound, these shows make villains of contestants in irresponsible ways. You see this dynamic at work in shows like Unreal, and Gena Lida Riess' upcoming documentary Creating A Monster, which follows reality contestants after the shows. While initially ambivalent to the effect it had on these people, as she thought that they had signed themselves up for it, she soon realised most were unprepared for the consequences. In one case, a woman on The Bachelor had no idea she was the villain until the show aired, and she was sitting down to watch it with her family. The psychological damage caused by appearing on these shows should not be underestimated. There is little value in self-care that is at the expense of others' wellbeing.
There is stress and drama in environments like the GBBO and The Great Pottery Throwdown but it occurs to an expected, healthier degree. Bad bakes and bad firings are inevitable. In Throwdown, which derives much of its formula from its baking-based predecessor, contestants must innocently compete to spin the best pot. Throwing and firing pottery is a stressful and tricky process, but any possibility of having a traumatic time is outweighed by the show's emotional heart. The judge, Keith Brymer Jones, oozes vulnerability from his Lurch-like frame. His highest praise comes in the form of unabashed tears. He cries when a man crafts a toilet that looks like a beautiful sea turtle (despite its grotesque euphemism). He cries at the beauty of a perfectly weighted pot. The stakes are there but they are lower, and they don't seem to be planted by the producers, or over-worked through editing. There is less to lose, as there is in Married at First Sight, where the contestants' emotional buttons are pushed just for the sake of it. There is no walk-of-shame, like when you don't receive one of Matty's roses. There's not as far to fall.
Watching reality TV as self-care is kind of like GoggleBox. It is comforting for its mind-numbing qualities but it also reinforces a false equivalency that all media is the same; to be idly luxuriated in, Shiraz in hand, dog by feet, as you chill out and forget the world after a hard day. It is mindless mindfulness.
It's good to remember that most reality TV is also not our friend. I find its ubiquity in self-care discourse worrying, but then I am also part of it. I say one thing and watch another. I roll in it like a pig in shit TV. Maybe it's because we are waiting for those infinitesimal moments when reality TV becomes transcendent. When you can bask in the magic of a grown man weeping over the weight of a perfectly spun pot, or the tearful eyes of a contestant who just made their best-ever meringue.
There are rare glimpses of humanity in reality TV. Blink and you'll miss them.
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