Bullying and humiliation: That’s entertainment?
A new report has found that women on MTV reality television programs call each other rodents, skanks, trash bags, tricks (whatever that is) and hoes. The study condemns reality television’s negative depictions of female and male behaviour, as the networks compete to reach the next level of shock value. It can’t be denied that reality television often exploits and humiliates its participants for entertainment value.
There is, however, a notable exception in Junior MasterChef 2011, which has made a visible effort to protect the emotional and mental health of its young participants. I’ve observed the previews of both Junior MasterChef seasons with a resolve not to support a competition that places unnecessary, national pressure on children. But I’ve been won over by the optimism and resilience of the young participants.
The challenges are colourful, the judges gentle, and each negative comment comes wedged in a compliment sandwich. Children aren’t alienated from their families – a stark comparison with its adult counterpart, where participants must resign from society. The judges focus on celebrating the leaders of the scoreboard rather than exploiting the losers, and deliberate strategies are implemented to build upon the children’s self-confidence.
On the other hand, the (adult) MasterChef series seems to operate under the theory that oldies should be resilient (whilst exploiting the moments that indicate otherwise). This is symptomatic of a broader trend in reality TV in which ‘regular people’ (often young adults) with minimal TV experience are humiliated for the sake of light entertainment. Between Australian Idol and The X Factor, most of us have seen one of those awful (but moreish) mass-audition episodes.
According to reality television expert Dr Winnie Salamon, reality-show participants are more willing to give away personal information and talk about themselves than other celebrities. She adds that she was often pressured by her employers to get the old “fat photo”, and obtain information on ‘hot’ topics like drugs, family conflict and weight issues. This tendency to take advantage of the naivety of contestants can have longer-term impacts upon participants and their families.
A well-known subject of ridicule is Susan Boyle, of Britain’s Got Talent fame. While appearing to be a feel-good story about the underdog, the most memorable piece of footage from her performance was during her original audition, thrusting and swinging her hips at judge Simon Cowell. Despite her vocal talents, viewers and the media made fun of her; this came with an unfortunate consequence, as Susan was later admitted to The Priory clinic.
A wealth of evidence is building on the virtues of positive psychology, and the theory that happiness leads to greater success (perhaps explaining why the last season of MasterChef produced such mediocre dishes!). This should be the baseline standard for reality TV: a positive experience that protects participants’ physical, emotional and mental health. Unfortunately, this outcome is secondary to what viewers really want – drama.
Reality TV embarrasses, humiliates, bullies and exploits people because we want it to. We thrive on the internal dramas, outright failures and emotional pain. We want to see what it looks like when other people ‘break’. One of the most controversial shows was There’s Something About Miriam, in which a number of young men vied for the attention of Miriam, who, unknown to them, was a pre-op transsexual. The contestants successfully sued the producer for psychological and emotional damage.
One very specific difference between Junior MasterChef and other reality television is the absence of a ‘villain’. Think of almost any reality show and you can identify its villain: Masterchef Australia 2011: Dani. The Celebrity Apprentice Australia: Deni. The Amazing Race: Entrepreneur Joey and that guy who regularly screamed at his girlfriend. (I’d discuss The Renovators but I don’t think anyone actually watched it.) In reality TV, we wait for the downfall of the villain. In every season of The Biggest Loser, we watch with relish as the trainers break the bad guy like a horse.
Winner of The Celebrity Apprentice Australia, comedian Julia Morris, criticised viewers for bullying the program’s ‘villain’, Deni Hines, describing the backlash as a “lynch mob”. I must admit that I was furious with Deni – but also recognised I was being manipulated by the program’s puppeteers, who had created the villain (and ‘created’ is the word). Dr Salamon identifies that reality television relies heavily on archetypes, and the villain plays an important role.
Whether reality TV mirrors real life or the other way round, it’s clear that while there may be benefits, there are also far-reaching negative consequences. Reality television also provides a sad reflection of the way our society currently operates.
It’s possible that the “good practice” presented on Junior MasterChef is motivated by a society of viewers that is protective of its children. But the fundamental difference between our treatment of children compared with our treatment of fellow adults indicates that we are far less “evolved” than we’d like to think.
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