In my home, my parents dictated what we could and couldn't watch. My mother made her expert opinion clear: watching dramatic people on TV made you act that way. She once pointed to a particularly attitude-filled teen in my Girl Scout troop and said she was lashing out because she was watching The O.C. and mimicking the show's lead Marissa, not because the girl's parents were going through a nasty divorce (similar to Marissa's parents on the show, come to think of it…).
MTV was blocked on our cable box, but that was it. It's likely my parents assumed that was the main "bad" channel and didn't research others. Their oversight resulted in my stumbling upon one of the main pillars of my life: Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The Kardashians have seen me through many crucial periods of young adulthood. I started watching when I was about 15 years old, aspiring to their well-shaped eyebrows as I was awkwardly dealing with mine. I kept up through college, even while I lived in Amman, Jordan, where I made the costly commitment to streaming Kardashians almost every night and ended up with a $300 Internet bill.
Once I entered the adult world, the Kardashians were my safe space. When work-related travel was too intense, or socializing too costly and tiresome, the Kardashians were my stabilizer. I began traveling with a flash stick of Kardashian episodes. I'm at my most comfortable, and most vulnerable, watching Kardashians under a blanket while simultaneously scrolling through one of the many Kardashian-related Instagram accounts. It's often more restorative than sleep—sometimes when I tell someone I'm off to take a nap, I'm really enveloped in my Kardashian cocoon.
Because of my deep affinity for the Kardashian family—and the fact that I viewed my mother's disapproval of reality television as typical mom opinion, one of those that slides off your back as soon as you move out—I never really considered her warnings about the genre's ability to warp the minds of otherwise sensible humans. It came as a shock, then, when not one but two of my exes presented the very same theory to me… about myself.
The first of these exes was keen on blaming the Kardashians for any number of society's afflictions. "They represent everything that's wrong with the world today," he'd snap when he caught me reading Kardashian gossip in ritualistic preparation for another episode. In one of our last fights, in the final throes of the relationship, he told me I watched the Kardashians because I aspire to be like them. (Rich, famous, and with perfect eyebrows? would have been a perfect comeback, in hindsight.) We broke up shortly after.
I took it as a one-off. But years later, it started happening again with another guy I was dating. He winced if I brought up the Kardashians, even jokingly. Then, during our dramatic break-up, held in public as I sobbed over a glass of wine, he said watching the Kardashians was making me act this way. I was stunned to hear the same vein of criticism yet again. How was my watching the Kardashians becoming a common theme in my failing relationships?
The irony of it is the Kardashians are very un-dramatic. It's what makes the show hilarious: They deal with extremely exhausting public lives and an unending onslaught of drama with unfathomable stoicism. Their confessionals and commentary are always delivered with the classic Valley girl affectation; they're totally flat, calm, and usually barely change facial expressions. Whether that's the result of extensive facial implants or anti-depressants or both, their clan is not the sobbing-over-a-glass-of wine kind. OK, maybe Kris Jenner is, but she usually recovers so quickly that it barely counts.
Of course, this isn't true for the bulk of reality TV stars—take, for instance, The Real Housewives of Literally Anywhere, which I began mainlining shortly after discovering Keeping Up with the Kardashians. They imbibe freely on camera. Most don't have the executive producer credit almost all the Kardashian family holds as well, thus losing the privilege of editing and staging scenes to their liking. The Kardashians use their show as a bully pulpit and marketing strategy. The Ramona Singers and Teresa Giudices of the world arguably have some of those benefits, but they are more than anything martyrs, humiliating themselves with the help of pinot grigio or cab sav respectively as audiences gleefully clap at home.
After I left my most recent break-up, I started to take stock of some of the more dramatic periods in recent memory. I wracked my brain to recall whether I was on a RHOBH bender the night before I picked a fight with my boss, or whether I verbatim quoted Bethenny Frankel while arguing with customer service about my phone bill. The dots were slowly connecting: Were the Real Housewives the unseen specter that hung above all these moments of intense conflict?
I turned to my friends, who anecdotally confirmed this theory. One told me her boyfriend says she gets an attitude after a RHONJ binge. (I confirmed this with him directly later.) Another told me she accused her friend of being "boy-obsessed" after she went on multiple dates in one week. She apologized to her soon after, and told her she didn't know what had come over her. She later realized she had been watching a Vanderpump Rules marathon the week before, and concluded that might have had something to do with it.
The logic behind this theory is straightforward: monkey see, monkey do. I never had the urge to throw a glass of wine in someone's face until I sat, unblinking, and watched Lisa Rinna threw a full glass of wine at Kim Richards, with my eyelids propped open like that scene in A Clockwork Orange. Now, it's my go-to daydream when I'm feeling particularly irritated with an individual. I have yet to throw a glass of wine in someone's face (beware), but the action has bore its way into my psyche.
But does actual research confirm these suspicions? I asked Karyn Riddle, an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who tried to find out how reality TV affects our perceptions in her wonderfully-titled study "A Snooki Effect?" Her survey found that "heavy viewers of the [reality TV] subgenre… overestimate problems in romantic relationships compared with lighter viewers of the subgenre." Riddle also discovered that heavy viewers tended to overestimate women's bad behavior, particularly in the assumption that other women are manipulative.
Brian Gibson, experimental faculty at Central Michigan University, conducted a study about the likelihood of aggressive behavior in viewers of reality TV, and came to similar conclusions. "In our study, we had a group that watched physically violent TV shows, shows that were pretty violent, like Dexter," said Gibson. "In fact, later, the people who watched reality TV were actually more aggressive than folks who watched the violent content."
So… OK. According to these people with degrees and a rigorous understanding of the scientific method, my exes may have been right. But my knee-jerk reaction to defend my love of reality television will never fade. I asked Riddle whether there was some merit in the fact that many of the women on these shows are self-made moguls, millionaires, and successful entrepreneurs who just happen to cry a lot. "I should note that I didn't measure any positive effects," she responded. "It certainly could be that maybe watching these shows also can mean a bunch of positive things. I wouldn't close the door on that, but my research was focused on negative things."
Though the pervasive belief that reality television is on the whole bad for you is relatively new, the attitudes that inform it aren't: Studies in the early 90s found that women felt "embarrassed" about watching soap operas because they felt the programming was ''silly'' and ''inconsequential.'' Years later, a University of Florida study reported that female viewers were similarly modest about self-reporting their reality TV consumption. It seems that TV genres created and consumed by women are often lumped into the "guilty pleasure" category, while even the most insipid male-targeted programs are simply pleasurable.
The fact that neither my myopic exes nor media academics have considered the positive effects of reality television is telling; it reflects a wider bias. But, as Riddle kind of acknowledged, reality TV does have its good aspects: Its female leads are unafraid of confrontation, taking on scandals, abusive partners, and raising children, all while managing million-dollar businesses. While few would argue that emulating Ramona Singer is a path to empowerment, the world of reality TV is one in which women are assertive and multifaceted, even if some of those facets are somewhat terrifying.
Like Vicki Gunvalson refusing to listen to her friends' warnings that her boyfriend was faking cancer, I will not heed my detractors. I will continue to keep up with the Kardashians and to defend the Countess Luanns of the world—the women peddling their Skinny Girl Margaritas and tell-all memoirs. I'm unashamed to admit that their melodramatic antics may have a profound effect on my mental state. There are worse ways to process anger than to picture myself throwing glasses of wine at people's faces.