Reality TV Is Making Us Stupid

Imagine a quiet evening in which the family gathers around the “boob tube” and watches quality programs that don’t feature actual plastic boobs. Maybe you’re watching a favorite movie, a funny sitcom or an educational documentary. You’re laughing together–not at someone, but with the actors, writers and directors–and you’re thinking about themes and compelling story lines. It’s not a fairy tale, it’s how TV programming was until the late 1990s or so. It was TV before the influx of “reality TV”–and none of us felt a gaping need that hadn’t yet been filled. No, we were just fine without watching complete strangers and those famous just for “being famous” do things as dull as brushing their teeth or as stupid as drinking until they puke on a friend’s new shoes.

While reality TV has existed in some form for decades and shows like MTV’s The Real World picked up quite a following in the early 1990s, it wasn’t really until the late 1990s and the early 2000s until you started seeing “reality TV” on every network. It started with game or competition shows, like Survivor and Big Brother. However, these game shows weren’t anything like The Price Is Right. The audience “got to know” the contestants. We saw them (via the editor’s cuts, of course) 24/7 while they competed. We saw them get angry, we saw them cry, we saw them plot against one another without a hint of remorse. They were practically fictional characters–as we know now, more than half the time they were scripted characters–but we got the feeling that they could be us or at least someone we’d gossip about around the water cooler. Sadly, too many of us tuned in.

We Watched, They Scripted

Our ratings translated to the reality TV show boom. Some evenings during prime time, it was (and still is) impossible to flip the channel without seeing some faux celebrity doing some faux thing. Consider a show like Joe Millionaire, a Bachelor rip-off that the bachelor and bachelorettes later admitted was fairly scripted, down to the pre-selected “gifts” the bachelor presented to his dates. Even the shows that seem to have started out of real situations with real people–take Teen Mom, for example–become warped when a reality TV show starts covering the situation. All of a sudden these teenagers with a real dilemma become famous overnight, just for doing something they were warned not to. In one case, one of the teen moms got a boob job and had the experience documented for the show. As if most teenage mothers have the cash and time to spare to such an extravagance.

How many reality shows are actually glimpses of reality? In the land of TV, real reality just isn’t compelling. If we’re not going to watch a TV show about rich people like The Kardashians or the Real Housewives, they at least have to be extremely full of drama. Or they can be both rich and full of drama. There’s always a lot of drama–most likely more drama than you’re ever accustomed to in your own life. If the drama that these reality show “characters” come up with themselves isn’t compelling enough, well, no worries, the TV people will just write drama for them. For example, one bride featured on Bridezillas–although undoubtedly a drama-loving queen in real life–explained without any sense of abashment that the directors of the show requested that she make one extra cake for her ceremony so that her sister could drop it on the way to the church and the bride could have a tantrum. And it turns out her parole officer wasn’t too happy to see her acting out of control once the show aired! Her defense? It was all scripted! Not that anyone with half a brain couldn’t have figured out the drama was staged without the bride’s disclosure. But that’s part of the problem. These shows are rotting our brains!

Reality Shows and Desensitization

When reality shows are watched by as many people as they are and there are so many of those shows clogging the airwaves, we do start to lose some of our intelligence. TV has long been called the “boob tube” and has been accused of making us stupid long before the reality TV show boom, but still, there’s another layer of stupidity that comes from consuming one reality show after another. Reality shows can lead to an unfortunate kind of desensitization. Real reality becomes blurred with faux reality, even if we should know the difference. And in the case of some young kids who have grown up during the reality TV boom, maybe they don’t always know the difference.

Reality shows send a mixed message. We tell our kids not to bully each other. We tell them not to value appearances or money over kindness and personality. We warn our kids not to get pregnant or father a child until they’re older and ready to financially and emotionally support a child. We want our children to be comfortable in their own skin and not desire to change themselves with plastic surgery. Yet every single one of these advised-against behaviors is celebrated in reality TV.

Bratty, spoiled rich kids flaunt over-the-top birthdays on shows like Sweet 16–and still have tantrums when their super expensive cars aren’t exactly what they wanted. Men and women on Bachelor and Bachelorette go through dozens of potential dates and weed through them based on superficial appearances–and they may even go all the way after just a few dates. The Real Housewives shows that marrying for money, marrying for looks, maintaining your appearance, and backstabbing each other are the norm. The Kardashians shows that being famous for being famous is apparently an acceptable way to skyrocket to stardom. Kim Kardashian was who again? A random woman with a sex tape? A friend of Paris Hilton? And who was that again? An heiress? And we should care why…?

Don’t Raise Our Girls to Be Reality Show Women

Women often get the short end of the stick when it comes to their portrayal in movies, in video games and on TV–and unfortunately, reality TV has some of the worst portrayals of girls and women. Why? Because more often than not it’s the women who exemplify the worst behavior in these shows. (But that’s not to say that the reality show men are role models!) Women like the Kardashian sisters, The Real Housewives, and the young women on Jersey Shore place way too much value on their looks. Whether it’s plastic surgery, disgustingly fake orange tans, pounds of makeup or dresses that leave literally nothing to the imagination, these women look fake but think they’re beautiful. They also talk constantly about their appearance.

The men who court these women on reality TV don’t help, either. They like when these women’s boobs and butts are practically spilling out! And forget about it if a woman won’t put out, either–they won’t get any dates. They won’t become a Bachelor finalist. So the girls watching these women on reality shows get this message: You’re not pretty enough as you are and if you want to get a guy, you need to be as fake and as promiscuous as possible.

And there’s a double standard that reality show women exhibit. They’re supposed to be fake and promiscuous and put a great importance on their looks and then… The men and even the other women on these shows can turn around and call these same women “sluts” or “whores.” This, despite the fact that these men would sleep around (and have slept around!) as often as these women and they would sleep even with these same women. This, despite the fact that the backstabbing women saying these things act the same themselves!

What other behaviors are exclusive to the female gender on reality TV? Getting pregnant. 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom are devoted exclusively to women–actually girls–getting pregnant. This is no bundle of joy for a couple that has long tried to conceive; this is a child that a child mistakenly has. And all of a sudden, she’s a reality TV star–she and her often completely irresponsible boyfriend. (Who’s at least more often than not, an ex-boyfriend by the end of the show. Not that it will stop the new mom from leaving the baby at home with Mom and Dad and going out to meet baby daddy #2.) We teach our girls to be careful and to avoid pregnancy as a teen and yet here on MTV, in a show aimed at young viewers, we get to get to know young girls famous for getting pregnant.

While it’s encouraging that MTV tries to claim the show is meant to encourage other young girls to avoid getting pregnant–and sometimes the young girls do find ways to finish high school and start planning a life of responsibility for their babies–the fact is that the shows also glamorize teen pregnancy. These girls get fame and money for their services, enough to finance the aforementioned boob job, which turns the young woman into the first type of reality show woman, the one obsessed with looks. And not all of the girls grow up and learn from their mistakes. When MTV shows teenagers mouthing off to their parents and to their baby daddy or baby mama’s parents, they’re celebrating young girls and boys who have nothing but disrespect for others. And what teen moms from these shows grace the pages of the gossip magazines more often than the others? Not the ones who go on to college and cooperate with their parents in order to raise their babies. The ones who get plastic surgery and the ones who are charged with domestic
abuse, of course.

So what does the message of the typical reality show woman? Do everything right and we’ll never even hear of you. Make a mistake and do the right thing to get your life back on track and we’ll forget you. If you want to stay on the TV and in our collective consciousness, do everything we wouldn’t do and nor would we want our own daughters, sisters, mothers and friends to do.

Okay, Let’s Stop Talking About Them!

Reality TV is like an old fashioned circus freak show. People don’t want to be freaks themselves, but they sure like giving into the guilty pleasure of leering at other people who are freaks. The more you try to look away, the harder it is to keep from staring and gaping at what you see. Reality TV show is practically an unhealthy addiction.

If endless reality TV shows on TV weren’t bad enough, you have to hear about them even when you’re not tuned into the shows yourself. Gossip magazines and TV shows that once only covered movie and traditional TV stars suddenly have more to say about people whose only claim to fame is that they’re showcased on shows about them showing off their lack of values. Actual news programs interrupt actual important news to talk about Kim Kardashian getting engaged… And getting married… And getting divorced in the space of a few months. Friends share clips and express their love for the shows on social media. You can’t watch TV, go online or go to the grocery store without seeing or hearing about the latest reality show scandal.

If we’re going to start growing back our lost brain cells and showing our kids that we mean what we say when we teach them about values, self-confidence and kindness, we need to shut off the TV. We need to watch quality programming or leave the TV behind and do something else, as a family or with friends. We need to stop talking about reality TV and we need to change the channel whenever another program feels the need to share the news about the latest Teen Mom’s child neglect charge.

A group has recently sprouted up on the Internet asking people to help get the Kardashians off of the air. The network isn’t going to cancel the show so long as it has ratings and sponsors. So let’s stop tuning in and call up sponsors, claiming we won’t buy their products so long as they sponsor these shows! And then follow through! We have the power to change what’s on TV–and it starts with a click of the “off” button on the remote.

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