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How Reading About Reality TV Changed the Way I Watch It

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In 2022, I am 36, which means that the majority of my upbringing has been happening alongside the surge of every thinkable type of reality television. This, combined with my misguided but fiercely held opinion that if I wasn’t going to be traditionally hot, I was going to have to embrace counter culture, led to some deep seated misogynistic and judgemental views. As a teenager trying to impress nihilistic guys pretending they hated capitalism, I would agree with statements about how disgusting, superficial, and literally useless shows like The Bachelor were. I would make derisive comments about people who liked to watch Laguna Beach and how empty someone’s life would have to be to watch other people fight over brainless boys. It was pure pathetic desperation to not be like the other girls. I’ve lost a lot of cool experiences in trying to appeal to scruffy dudes who didn’t have bed frames.

Meanwhile, there are reality shows about cooking, surviving, singing, finding love, being rich, being mentally ill, and every type of family situation possible. There is no end to the combination of situations that are presented on reality shows, and no end to the audiences that consume them. Obviously, not all are created equally. Some showcase genuine competition, some glorify excess, and some are just there so we can watch people scream at each other. But one thing that has gotten blurred in a real-life-as-entertainment world is the fact that even when they’re over the top, even when there is an orchestrated situation taking place, you’re watching actual people.

Where did my deep thoughts about reality TV come from? Obviously, from books. I initially picked up all three of the books I will mention because of their fat main characters. At this point in my life, I am fat — shedding misogyny helped me stop desperately shedding weight — and I love reading about fat people, women especially, living their lives. It wasn’t until later that I realized all three of these titles actually featured a behind-the-scenes look at reality television, particularly the way that participants are humanized while experiencing the sometimes emptiness of posing for the cameras. Without getting too deep, sometimes it was just interesting to look at the process from a production angle.

The three books I most recently read that are about reality TV are The Love Con by Seressia Glass, If the Shoe Fits by Julie Murphy, and One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London. Both If the Shoe Fits and One to Watch feature dating contests. The Love Con hits its romance component when the lead, Kenya, gets to the last round of a cosplaying reality show and needs her best friend and roommate to pretend to be her boyfriend in order to get a leg up in the competition. All three make the reader face the fatphobic predicament of being a larger woman on national TV, and the belief that many judges and producers hold that says that fat women are undesirable or the butts of jokes. This was a perspective I already understood. Kenya’s character additionally has to fight against the Angry Black Woman stereotype when trying to advocate for herself. These are themes I appreciated and expected to see, but there were other interesting threads throughout.

I loved how the books developed characters beyond the one dimensional appearance we usually get in reality TV. In If the Shoe Fits, Cindy is a shoe designer feeling a little lost after college and the loss of her father. Her stepmother is the showrunner for Before Midnight (this book’s Bachelor counterpart) and, against her stepmother’s wishes, a friendly producer gets Cindy a spot. Her goal? Exposure for her shoe designs. Great setup for our main character, right? But I loved meeting other characters and figuring out who they were when they weren’t angling for the main bachelor’s attention. Each time a character revealed some back story about what brought them on the show, that humanizing tidbit struck me. And despite their motives, emotions become involved with or without the contestants’ permission. Julie Murphy did such a good job of balancing the fullness of her characters against the undeniable competition we see in dating reality shows.

One to Watch features Bea who has become the lead on Main Squeeze (the Bachelorette of this universe) after she writes a viral blog post about unrealistic body representation in the media. Written epistolary style, One to Watch uses backchannel memos and interview transcripts to move the story along, and features a lot of the audience’s reactions via Twitter and Slack conversations. This particular story gets a lot deeper into the emotional stress that can result in being so vulnerable on television. Even dissecting the audience reactions can make the reader feel defensive of the characters. In The Love Con, a lot of the stress comes from producers seeming to want shots that belittle Kenya and cast incredulity on the fact that she could be in a relationship with her traditionally hot partner. Sure, they are faking their relationship, but not because Cam isn’t totally into Kenya. The manipulation of the way the producers were setting up the shots made me feel so icky — until I remembered that this is how reality TV is made.

Reading these three books didn’t make me like or dislike reality TV in any way. I’ve already grown into the pleasure of enjoying several reality shows and recognize that I appreciate drama for entertainment value. However, I definitely find myself more mindful of how I discuss what I choose to consume. No matter how awful their choices seem or how single-minded a character is presented, these are real people.  Despite the urge to be snarky or meme every embarrassing moment, I reach back into these full stories and remind myself I’m only seeing a small, edited slice of whatever is really going on.

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