Reality TV and the Harmful Effects of Display

Reality TV exploded as a pop-culture phenomenon around 1999-2000 with shows like Big Brother and Survivor. Before this we had The Real World. Today, the influx in Reality TV and Reality TV Celebrities has blurred the lines between “average” person and celebrity.

In his work Reality TV: More Mirror Than Window author Richard Breyer notes the increased sense of democracy we see within the world of Reality Television. A consistent cycle of nobodies morphing into American Idols or Bachelorettes inspires similar unknown individuals. They, too, can achieve celebrity status in America! This allows audience members to connect deeper with the so-called characters they see on Reality TV shows because they feel as though there is a similar authentic connection shared.

The importance placed on authenticity can be noted in Paradox and the Consumption of Authenticity through Reality Television. Authors Randall L. Rose and Stacy L. Wood site that authenticity is what connects audiences so intimately to these reality series. Even though authenticity is desired and the companies who produce these Reality TV shows promote authenticity within their programing, consumers of Reality TV delight in the mash-up of the factitious and the spontaneous lives of these people on Reality TV series. Rose and Wood refer to this obsession as a “postmodern paradox”.

Our society is faced with a modern dilemma surrounding the reality of Reality Television.

But what of the harmful effects involved for these individuals who find their lives consistently on display in either social media or broadcast media? In the film We Live in Public created by Josh Harris,we see the harmful effects continuous surveillance has on individuals. After experimenting on strangers, Harris created We Live in Public with his girlfriend and they subjected themselves and their relationship to same digital surveillance. Their relationship crumbled in front of an online community.

Extending into the world of Reality Television, we see similar effects of surveillance on reality celebrities. After the Reality Show Newlyweds, couple Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson divorced, even after their wedding was televised publicly. Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries experienced a multimillion dollar wedding on E! Entertainment Television only to be divorced days later.

This authenticity can have a harmful effect on society’s perception concerning what is or what is not “authentically” acceptable. The infamously violent characters Sammi and Ronnie on MTV’s Reality Show, The Jersey Shore became so violent towards one another that MTV posted domestic violence PSA’s after the episodes. Regardless of the PSA’s the footage was still aired and the violence was seen. Social damage had been done.

These issues are considered feminist issues, because this authenticity affects our society simply because it is deemed “real”. On the opposite side of this spectrum, we can argue that these “real” characters on Reality TV shows have become characters of themselves and thus are not held accountable for their actions. Case and point the violence between Sammi and Ronnie. Or the feminine ideology surrounding the weddings and honeymoon bliss of bombshells Jessica Simpson and Kim Kardashian. Who’s reality is this?


Here’s Looking at You

Social Media has undeniably changed us both individually and as a society by providing a platform for exploitation. Music sensations blossom out of YouTube posts (Justin Bieber) or MySpace homepages (Lily Allen).

Beyond the world of celebrity, social media also provides a collective space with democratizing potential. In their work, New Media and Internet Activism: From the ‘Battle of Seattle’ to Blogging, Richard Kahn and Douglas Kellner note how social media can be utilized by a diverse spectrum of people to construct new social and political relations and to further educate and inform others. For example, Iranian Pro-Feminist Blogs demonstrate just how effective social media can be in a feminist society when one is socially restricted by their body and culture.

Whether or not you consider yourself to be an exhibitionist, you are socially “off the radar” if not a member of social media society. This “spectrum of people”, although diversified, is still flawed considering the privilege that comes with social media. Not only are capable computers a privilege but so is the time and education one must have to connect through social media. Although this digital platform can serve as a form of escapism form the female body and social restrictions, it can further isolate women from society if they lack the resources to connect.

Social media is so intertwined with embodiment and visual media that we must ask whether or not we want to escape our bodies online when so much of social media culture condones exploitation. But this exploitation can have potential harmful secondary social ramifications. Think back to Rebecca Black’s “Friday” music video on YouTube.


The extremities to which we release our personal selves through social media allows us to be at the control of everybody by everybody. Within this digital framework we are monitored by the omniopticon which, according to Nathan Jurgenson in Surveillance and Society, is “a democratization of the gaze that has come into reality with the rise of social network sites” (Jurgenson 377). Jurgenson is noting the power of surveillance witnessed in the documentary We Live in Public about the life of internet mogul Josh Harris and his how he used social media surveillance to tamper with the human condition. Harris offered free food, lodging, drink, fun (etc.) to subjects interested in partaking in his bunker experiment, but stated that the footage was his – “that we own.”

So who “owns” us in the world of social media? In their work Surveillance Creep in the Genetic Age, authors Dorothy Nelkin and Lori Andrews conceptualize the harmful effects of DNA banking and surveillance within the military. One can easily make the connection between this DNA surveillance and the surveillance of our online identities. Photos uploaded onto Facebook, are essentially owned by Facebook. Where are all those Twitter posts stored? Credit card numbers?

Can we really escape our bodies (or our mistakes) when every personal update is broadcasted and stored? Or are we reaching an age where the digital self and the physical self are so intimately intertwined that they are one in the same?