The reality of reality TV

Whether you spent your childhood playing dress up with friends, or had the rare opportunity of becoming a child star, women are exposed at a very young age to the idea that image is everything.  Like most little girls, I grew up watching various animated movies and TV shows starring princesses, mermaids, models, and more.  What all these animated “role models” had, and still have in common, is they are all young, thin, and longing for a prince charming.  Furthermore, many of these animated women are somehow “transformed” from an unhappy woman, a woman in trouble, or a woman with a simple look, into the most beautiful woman in the world.  Cinderella, for example, was a young woman who lived with her evil stepmother and stepsisters, was mistreated, did all the chores, and never got anything in return.  One day, she met a man, fell in love, and was completely transformed into this beautiful woman who now had everything.  Although this is a delightful fairy tale, it has also become a reality that so many women believe is the only way to true happiness.  Today, not only do we have both animated and non animated films portraying the ideal life of a happy woman, but pop culture has taken an enormous leap into creating “Reality TV” shows.  The aspects of this “reality” that I will examine include ideal beauty, the (often far fetched) celebrity culture entangled into these shows, and also the ways in which masculinity ties into the bubblegum happiness of reality TV.

What is beauty?  Furthermore, what is “ideal” beauty?  In today’s society, pop culture and the media relentlessly advertise, support, and reinforce this unrealistic, unnatural, and often unattainable image of the “ideal” woman.  From commercials, to magazines, to movies, and so much more, today’s society has been ingrained with this “image” of how women should look.  Advertising focuses a lot on what appeals to people, what catches their eye.  Although bright colors or a catchy phrase may grab someone’s attention,  sex appeal and body image play a more important role.  This “ideal” woman is young, thin, and beautiful.  Her hair is always perfect, and quite often, her gaze appears as an implication that she is waiting for, lusting after, or expecting some sort of sexual recognition.   The ungodly amount of advertising, portraying this “ideal” woman, has affected the way many women feel about themselves.  Contrary to how the media portrays them, these stick figure barbies make up only a small percentage of women in the US.  “Reality TV is not about depth, but surfaces; not about invisible qualities, but visible attributes”(Steel).,%20Jr.&TID=7  An example of a superficial reality TV show is Bridalplasty.  This show is about 12 engaged women who compete to win plastic surgery procedures, and in the end, the last “bride” standing wins a dream wedding.  Each of these women are, in some way, insecure with the way they look.  The idea of “winning” surgical procedures on a reality TV show can cause more harm than good.  For example, if a woman is insecure about her breast size, but other women, both contestants and home viewers, are talking about her nose, the criticism may actually cause that woman to have a nose job instead.  Throughout the show, the host, Sarah Polonsky, continually tells the women that by successfully completing the challenge at hand, they will be one step closer to becoming the “perfect bride”.  What message is this show sending to young girls and women?  It seems that in order to be a happy bride, you must look like, or take drastic measures to look like a fairy tale princess.  Another reality TV show, Extreme Makeover, is completely centered around ideal image.  It “reinforces the very sorts of social stigma that seem to fuel the need for the show-the pain of not fitting in, the judgement for being overweight, malformed, or un-pretty”(Weber, 5).  It sends a message to people saying that if you are able to change your appearance to fit into the ideal beauty category, you should do so.  Choosing not to alter your appearance may come with negative consequences in life.  Nothing in this show is remotely centered around happiness or confidence.  Only when you fit the ideal profile, can you truly be happy and confident.

The next aspect of reality TV that has negatively influenced how women see themselves is the celebrity culture that is incorporated into these shows.  Television in today’s society is completely saturated with all sorts of reality TV shows.  Reality TV shows started off as entertaining and intriguing, such as Amazing Race and Survivor, but have since taken a ridiculous turn that has actually become detrimental to people’s (especially women’s) lives.  The image above is Heidi Montag, a young woman who starred in the MTV reality TV series, The Hills.  This show simply focused on the personal and professional lives of a group of young women living in Los Angeles.  Reality TV shows are much cheaper to make than other TV shows/movies, and “perhaps one of the biggest cost savings comes from the casting process”(Sternheimer, 222).  Hiring ordinary people rather than well established actors dramatically reduces the cost (Sternheimer, 222).  The idea of being a “reality star” gives people this false hope that they will soon become famous.  Although it has happened on numerous occasions, it is not common.  For Heidi Montag, it did become her claim to fame, however, being drastically thrown in the spotlight is not all it’s cracked up to be.  She became very insecure about her appearance because she was surrounded by celebrities and their “ideal image”.  This fake, american beauty image caused her to become so insecure that she had over 15 plastic surgery procedures.  What is sickening is in the celebrity world, this “pin up” girl image is not only desired, it is expected.  Celebrities are always talking about how they want to be role models for girls and young women, but what they don’t ever seem to acknowledge is how many girls and women go to painful lengths to obtain the ideal look.

Another reality TV show that I would like to talk about is The Bachelor.  Although the show is entertaining, and it is exciting to see “who he is going to pick this week” or “who is going to be eliminated”, this form of entertainment can also become deadly.  29 year old Gia Allemand was a contestant on season 14 of The Bachelor.  She expressed on national television how she has been hurt in the past, and doesn’t want to get hurt again.  Like most other contestants, being a part of this show often results in heartache, or even heartbreak.  Gia was eliminated, and left the show to return home.  A few years later, she ended up committing suicide.  Although her death did not seem to be related to anything that happened on the show, the fact that she was on a reality show caused her to be thrown in the spotlight.  Being photographed by paparazzi, being ridiculed in gossip magazines, and being “hated” by people who didn’t want to see her win, can all have serious effects on someone.  Seeing all those women, Gia included, being sent home in tears sends a subliminal message to viewers.  The message that women need a man in their life to complete who they are.  These women audition from all over the United States to meet the “man of their dreams”.  Reality check please!  How can these women possibly meet, get to know, fall in love, and expect to spend their life with someone after only knowing them (on camera!) for a few months?  A common outcome involving many couples who meet on this show is the relationship falls apart.  The media picks up on the news almost immediately, and, again, more publicity and ridicule.  Of course these fairy tale relationships often don’t work.  Both the producers and the viewers know this, yet the show continues, and people continue to audition.  Whether these people audition to be on the show for a chance at stardom or a chance at real love, the reality is often not the reality they were expecting.  “The structure of the entertainment industry, as well as the industry’s focus on youth and a narrow version of beauty rarely become part of the discussion about how fame ends”(Sternheimer, 238).

The last aspect of reality TV that I would like to address is how masculinity is incorporated into these shows.  Reality TV shows such as Big Brother, The Bachelorette, Jersey Shore, and The Real World all portray the men in a hyper masculine way.  In the above image, these contestants who are all competing for the “bachelorette” are asked to wrestle one another.  Based on how well or poorly the men wrestle, plays a crucial role in her decision on who to keep and who to let go.  Since when do everyday women ask various people they are dating to wrestle each other for her love and affection.  Last time I checked, we aren’t attracted to men who behave like a couple of wild lions living in the grassy plains of Africa, desperate to “win” the female.  In shows such as The Bachelorette, these men often end up competing with each other based on masculinity, rather than simply trying to impress the woman.  “Violent behavior is typically gendered masculine.  This doesn’t mean that all men are violent, but that violent behavior is considered masculine behavior”(Katz, 261).  Seeing this “masculine” behavior on Reality TV shows often gives younger women the impression that this behavior is acceptable.  The same thing goes for younger men who watch these shows.  Airing non scripted verbal and physical altercations on TV negatively influences viewers, especially younger viewers.  Yet, for some reason, it is considered entertainment.

Let’s talk about the reality show, Jersey Shore.  What a mess.  The amount of masculinity and testosterone in this show is enough to make someone sick.  From fighting each other, to picking fights with strangers while drunk at a bar, to hooking up with countless random women, this TV show gives viewers the impression that this ridiculous behavior is not only acceptable, but can also be rewarding.  These men on this show are blatantly disrespectful to countless women, but somehow manage to bring them home.  A lot of this is because they are the “Jersey Shore” boys, therefore, their pig-like behavior is tolerated.  It’s sickening because not only is this behavior relentlessly aired on national television, but these boys are praised, even idolized for how they act.  What message is this sending to young viewers?  Young men think they can act the same way, and expect the same results.  Young women view the men who treat them with such disrespect as a “jersey boy” kind of guy.  Shows like this are reinforcing the sexualization of women, bearing no consequences.  The above (right) image says a lot about what reality TV has become.

In conclusion, it is more than obvious that Reality TV is anything but reality.  It is completely superficial, focusing on physical attributes of both men and women.  Whether it be a show about make overs or a show about an (always ideal looking) individual longing to find love, the main idea is always centered around looks, miraculous transformations, and elimination-fueled competitions.  There is no depth to Reality TV shows, yet they are constructed in such a way that they are fairly entertaining.  By analyzing and critiquing these shows, the subliminal messages that the media works very carefully to nonchalantly incorporate into them start to surface, thus, becoming painfully obvious.  It is important for people to understand the message(s) of reality TV programs because they are affecting people’s lives and the way they view themselves.  It must be unveiled to society that these shows are anything but a reality.

Works Cited

Seel, David J., Jr. “Overfed but Undernourished: Reality Television.”Ransom Fellowship Publishers of Notes from Toad Hall and Critique. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Katz, Jackson. “Advertising and the Construction of Violent White Masculinity: From BMWs to Bud Light.” (n.d.): 261-69. Print.

Sternheimer, Karen. “Success Just For Being You: Opportunity in the Internet Age.” Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility (n.d.): 215-40. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Weber, Brenda R. “Beauty, Desire, and Anxiety: The Economy of Sameness in ABC’s “Extreme Makeover”” Genders, 2005. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Heidi Montag Before and After. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Jersey Shore Miami Trailer Is Here. Digital image. Celebridoodle., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Angelo, Megan. Gia Allemand of “The Bachelor” and “Bachelor Pad” Dies at 29. Digital image. ABC, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Lester, Patrick. Bro Loves Bachelor. Digital image. N.p., 14 June 2013. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.


  1. After reading your critique on reality television I really enjoyed how you talked about older shows such as “The Hills”. I like how you spoke about the drastic negative things that happen from the people that are actually on these reality shows. It is very easy to forget sometimes that these people on these shows are being scrutinized by society in positive but mainly negative ways. I feel as if we as viewers have the opportunity to change the way we harshly judge these people, because we often forget that they are just as human as us. Also going back to your paragraph about “Extreme Makeover” I really like how you talked about the pressure that these shows place on the viewers watching more specifically the females that are watching especially the young girls. I remember growing up watching all these shows and imagining that one day I would be as skinny and beautiful as them (in a nutshell) as if that was what really matters. Now I have learned that it is about the character of people and not the looks, but I had to learn that the hard way and watching these shows was definitely no help. Great blog, I really connected to it, it flowed very well, and I totally agree with what you were saying!

  2. I really liked what you have to say here. I think that it is important to highlight not only the effects of reality TV on society as a whole, but the effects of it specifically on women, and even more specifically, on young women. You bring to light many key stereotypes and ideals that are thrust upon young girls, and even adult women across the country. You make a great point of how this media influence reinforces these ideas and how there can be detrimental effects on the lives of these young girls and women, both in the morals they may hold, as well as their own individual perceptions of themselves. You make a great point about the perceived pressures and actual societal pressures that these shows can cause young women in particular to feel. Well done!

  3. I really enjoyed your critique as well. I thought it was interesting how you brought up the ideal image of women and how it is influencing girls at such a young age. I never really thought about how even Disney movies like Cinderella made girls feel like beauty and boys complete them and will cause them to live happily ever after. I also really liked your analysis on the role of men in reality television. I used Jersey Shore as well for an example of horrible reality T.V. and it really does promote disrespect toward women and seems to make it acceptable. It’s really sad that shows like that are popular and are especially influencing audiences such as young teens that are entering that relationship stage. Overall, awesome job!

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