Reality Television: Helping or Hurting People?


By Taylor Shanley


Reality television shows have become a growing phenomenon in American culture over the past decade. As viewers, we have learned to find amusement through the content of the shows and have been sucked into putting ourselves in the character’s shoes. Reality television successfully captivates our attention by portraying ideas such as the American Dream and shows that take average, under par people like ourselves and change them into beautiful, successful people living up to a new standard. Has reality television truly brainwashed our generation through its fake qualities and 45 minute episodes?


A major genre prevalent in reality television is lifestyle improvement and only achieving this through the assistance of an individual or group of trained professionals. The shows usually present an individual or family that has major issues in their lives compared to a certain set standard established by the show. In their article, “TV’s Constitution of Citizenship, Ouelette and Hay refer to the manipulation of reality television on the lifestyle of individuals as a “game of citizenship.” They recognize that the way in which reality television takes a hold of government in the United States is through the household and neighborhood relationships of families that define a civil society. They stated, “While ‘good citizenship’ may involve a particular relation to the State, it is also performed daily though the rules and government of ‘healthy’ households, ‘good’ neighborhoods, and the other private entities that comprise what currently is considered a ‘civil’ society. These are rules and informal guidelines for belonging, proper behavior, rights, active participation, and making a specific kind of place to live.” These shows try to promote this “good” behavior through coaching by the figure Ouelette and Hay define as the “governess” and this person tries to reform the one in need to a certain “good” standard of American citizenship.


Another idea strongly valued among reality television shows is self-improvement of one’s physical assets to meet a certain beauty standard. Shows often take a individual who is below the established beauty standard for his or her age, condition, or other circumstance and spend the program transforming him or her into a more attractive person. The individual then appears more relieved or happy by the end of the show. He or more often, she is elated and acting as a new person compared to her “old” self prior to the makeover. Weber, in her article defines this as “relief only through beauty.” She explains that this “new self” goes in hand with new self confidence, empowerment, and a self-monitoring, internalized gaze. This new gaze is constantly reviewing the “new” self’s body image and reminding him or her that it is necessary. Viewers are hooked through this emotional transformation. Weber says, “For the particular makeover shows presently on the air, the premise is simple: alteration equals entertainment.” Viewers look at the transformation from what one was to the new, highly improved individual and are captivated by the change that one television show could do in that small span of time.


The video clip above is a summary of one of the episodes of the show, “10 Years Younger” that airs on TLC. The show takes women who look, according to a standard set by society, many years older than an average individual should look at his or her age. Throughout the show, the man or woman’s body, hair, and attire is changed to look like the societal standard of a person their age. Looking at some of the comments found under the video, many support the idea of aging and find the show to be reinforcing incorrect values. However, the show does reinforce the concept of reality television transforming individuals to improve their self-image and beauty to a certain set standard.


A final aspect of reality television that has especially been increasingly popular is the portrayal of the American Dream and celebrities who are famous because of this “dream” and simply the reality life they are living. Several networks present not just shows trying to improve people’s lives, but shows following the lives of usually wealthy, successful individuals and their petty drama. As a majority of lower to middle-class Americans, we enjoy watching what these characters are able to do and try to picture ourselves living this American Dream. As stated in Sternheimer’s article, celebrities are switching from being famous for acting and singing to being famous for living or behaving a certain way on their reality television show.

     For example, the image above shows the cast of the show previously on MTV, The Jersey Shore. The show, a great hit among America, presented four boys and four girls who lived in a home off of the New Jersey shore. The series, full of plenty of sex, alcohol, and drama, captivated viewers and made them imagine themselves in the place of the characters. Also, reinforcing Sternheimer’s point, the characters became famous for their behavior and even spurred the creation of sister reality television shows depicting just a few of the characters. The show also featured a number of the characters in Posner’s “Reality TV’s 9 Worst Stock Characters.” The boys of the show, hooking up with many girls and acting cocky, filled the role of the Despicable Dude. This character is often associated with tool like behavior, excessive drinking, and other crazy, frat boy actions. The girls were associated with Sluts: easy girls who pursue sex on their own terms.

Another example of reality stars famous for their roles on the show includes the Real Worldas described on the following Jezebel cultural critique: The critique humorously describes the drama that will pursue with a coed home filled with alcohol, sex, and later by surprise, the exes of all the members of the home. The author, Callie Beusman recognizes and directly points out the drama associated with the show as well as the reality stars made famous for living this dramatic, pathetic life.

Overall, reality television has sneakily incorporated itself into our every day lives. It’s the drama we talk about with our friends and the juicy gossip associated with it is the first thing on our news channels. Though it is constantly reinforcing societal standards and even those above and beyond that to create an expensive American Dream, as average citizens, we can realize that we can define our own values, not staged television shows.



-Ouellette, Laurie and Hay, James. “TV’s Constitution of Citizenship.”Better Living through Reality TV. Ed. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2008. Pg 170-202.

-Weber, Brenda. “Beauty, Desire, and Anxiety.” Genders. Ann Kibbey. 2005. Web. November 21, 2013. <>

-Sternheimer, Karen. “Succes For Just Being You.” Celebrity Culture and the American Dream. Ed. Routledge. 2011. Pg 218-240.

-Pozner, Jennifer. “Reality TV’s Nine Wost Stock Characters.” Newsweek. IBT Media Inc. 2013. Web. November 21, 2013. <>

TLC Hoarders Preview: Woman Faces Clothes, Shoes Shopping Addiction After Divorce. Dir. ABC News. Perf. Cameron Mathison. Youtube. 2012. Web.

10 Years Younger – Nicole. Dir. TLC. Youtube. 2008. Web.

-Beusman, Callie. “Real World: Ex-Plosion Will Be a Circus of Misery.” Jezebel. n.p. 2013. November 21, 2013. <>

-Wraithlette. “Jersey Shore Season 1 Cast Wallpaper.” Photograph. Fanpop. Fanpop Inc. 2013. Web. November 21, 2013.


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