Reality TV shows such as 'Real Housewives' could normalise problematic behaviour

They're very different today than when I was a teen watching 'Big Brother' season one

Reality television emerged as a distinct genre in the early 1990s. Getty Images
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I want to get one thing clear from the start: I have watched — and enjoyed — reality TV shows. But while many see series and docusoaps such as Real Housewives, The Only Way Is Essex and Made In Chelsea as fun, frivolous forays into lifestyles of the filthy rich and famous, I can’t shake off the feeling that there are far more sinister undertones to the caricature-like portrayals.

While I, from Britain, like many others now in their thirties, was very much taken with the first season of Big Brother UK back in 2000, for the past decade or so I’ve watched as the industry and its stars have gotten ever more jaded and cynical, dreaming up more ostentatious ways to hold viewers’ attentions by amping up the levels of drama and conflict.

It was in 2011, when Misha B appeared on The X Factor, that my illusions were first shattered. Judge Tulisa Contostavlos alleged publicly on the show that the contestant was bullying others backstage. Despite Misha’s clear talent, and what turned out to be false accusations, her fate was sealed; she wasn’t long for that show. And neither was I.

To me, it was transparent what was happening; the puppet masters' strings at work, engineering the outcome, manipulating the public vote, and I was outraged. Misha later talked about how she felt suicidal.

Tulisa Contostavlos, right, was a former judge on 'The X Factor'. PA Media

Recently, I’ve been listening to a great new podcast called Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV by BBC Radio 4. The hosts, journalists Pandora Sykes and Sirin Kale, self-confessed reality TV junkies, watched hundreds of hours of popular shows and spoke to more than 60 stars, producers and experts to unpick dilemmas in the unethical underbelly of the genre.

By now, even the most naive of us understand that shows like these hardly reflect reality and are mostly scripted and staged. (The Hills, the American show that popularised the staged reality of docusoaps, demonstrated this well in its final scene where the Hollywood Hills backdrop is pulled away to reveal a production set.) But there’s no doubt that many of these reality stars have become some of the most formidable influencers. Just look at Kim Kardashian.

Scroll through the below gallery to see Kim Kardashian's style evolution:

“I thought I knew how the story would shake out,” Kale writes in a column for The Guardian on creating the podcast. "I envisaged a lighthearted recap of my favourite shows, accompanied by deep dives into unresolved questions that linger to this day.”

But what emerged was a dramatically different story, she says.

One of the biggest causes for unease in this genre of television has been the consideration of after-care for the stars, not to mention contestants, in the case of competitions such as Big Brother, The X Factor and Love Island, the dating series that has raised serious concerns after three former contestants committed suicide, as well as former host Caroline Flack.

“There are no two ways about it: creating an entertaining reality TV show, and an ethical one, can be irreconcilable objectives,” Kale writes. “Historically, audiences have wanted conflict, even if it sometimes comes at the expense of contestants’ well-being and personal safety.”

Reality TV turned me into a monster, but producers didn't want to look after the monster they created
Kirk Norcross, reality TV star

The stars are pushed to play into stereotypes (Vaz Morgan, the first and only black star on TOWIE, said on The Reality of Reality TV podcast that he felt “intense pressure to perpetuate the black stereotype of the angry six-foot-two black man” in order to win camera time). They're made to live up to the roles that have been drawn up for them, start arguments and cause drama because “that’s what makes good television”, despite what level of backlash and trolling they might experience in real life.

In 2019, Kirk Norcross, who also appeared on TOWIE, said: "Reality TV turned me into a monster, but producers didn't want to look after the monster they created."

At the same time, questions and concerns have arisen over on-screen examples of manipulative, controlling relationships, clear and frequent demonstrations of toxic masculinity and sexism, and disingenuous, fickle friendships that end with people being iced out of social groups, alienated and outcast.

Unreal asks the question: how much of the responsibility lies with producers to ensure the people in these shows are safe and mentally well? Are they simply flies on the walls, alongside the audience, watching, not meddling? Or should they step in when something blatantly unethical is going on? If they don’t, does the show then only serve to normalise this kind of behaviour?

What perhaps concerns me more is that naive, unwitting audiences — our children, and those of us who were introduced to the genre young — are watching these shows and thinking that this kind of behaviour could be normal, even accepted. If someone can shout expletives and display aggression towards another person on TV and still have a huge social media following, brand deals and popularity outside of the show, then why wouldn’t they start to think that’s normal?

I’m not saying reality TV needs to go, but that it needs to evolve. Granted, the shows are growing up; the makeover show has moved on from the extremes of American series The Swan — in which contestants, or “ugly ducklings”, undergo surgery several times to achieve some kind of narrow-minded beauty ideal — to today’s Queer Eye, during which people are taught to cook, have their houses redone and even embrace culture.

Competitions are bolstering their after-care, too. And you certainly won’t see Simon Cowell telling a contestant she’s too fat to sing any more (yes, that happened).

Now it’s time for the faux-reality docusoaps to step up as they purport to reflect the real lives of the elite few, but actually are based on a bunch of characters hamming it up for the camera. As can be seen in the recently broadcast The Real Housewives of Dubai.

People are demanding better, and some shows, at least, are aiming to heed that call.

But while that happens, you’ll find me watching Stranger Things.

The cast of 'Real Housewives of Dubai' — in pictures

Updated: June 02, 2022, 10:17 AM