Reality TV’s Obsession with Female Suffering

Image description: two different camera shots of two women facing forward from a reality television show. 

After a long day of work or school, the number one thing I want to do is escape from my reality. Why come home and deal with the constant burden of my actual life when I can shift my attention to people’s lives on my TV screen? Reality TV is probably the most convenient way to escape from your own life, because when you turn on any reality TV program, you’re now suddenly immersed in the somewhat real life of someone else. That means you get to experience their trauma, burdens, and drama without it affecting you. Something that I’ve realized about reality TV is that the people who are usually center stage in these shows are women. Mostly every reality TV show that has had a massive amount of success has been carried on the backs of the women who appear in these shows. Another realization that has been increasingly disturbing when examining the reality shows that have consumed so much of my time is that a lot of them are dependent on exploiting women’s suffering. 

To really delve into this topic, I think it’s important to talk about one of the original reality shows that shaped the future of reality TV. “The Anna Nicole Show” is not exactly the type of reality show I could really sit down and disconnect with. This is not the fault of the main subject of the show, the infamous Anna Nicole Smith, but the people who greenlit the show knew this woman was going through very personal problems that needed to be dealt with off-screen. If you don’t know anything about Anna Nicole Smith, you need to know this: during the height of her modeling career, the media boasted her as the 90’s Marylin Monroe. When the media realized that her sex symbol image was something that was hard to maintain, she became America’s punchline and would remain that way until her tragic death. More about her life and career and how horrible the media treated her can be read in this article. You can get a grasp of what “The Anna Nicole Show” is about from watching clips on Youtube, which also has full episodes of the show. Basically, the show is about how a once “powerful” model had hit rock bottom, showcasing her struggles with substance abuse in a manner that had no aim to hold her accountable for her actions or to really help her in any way, it was a way for the people in her life and the people who made the show to make a quick buck off the Anna Nicole Smith brand and name. The point of this show is simple: it was made so the viewers at home could point and laugh at a woman whom they perceived as not worthy of compassion. Throughout her life and in the show, Anna Nicole Smith was punished for not living up to her role and image as an American sex symbol, and for being a “gold digger” (which you can read more about the marriage and subsequent lawsuit that would tarnish her image in the article above) which apparently is the worst crime a woman can commit. The basis of the show, a woman whose life is increasingly getting harder, will be seen reflected in many reality TV shows that came after “The Anna Nicole Show.” This show teaches us that women need to be perfect in order to deserve any type of compassion, or else whatever bad comes your way, you deserve it. You not only deserve it but we’ll make sure to keep throwing it in your face at every corner and turn around and laugh at you. 

However, female suffering doesn’t have to come in the most extreme forms. A lot of what reality TV aims to do is laugh at women or do whatever they can to make women look foolish. Two of the most prominent reality TV shows in my youth were “Flavor of Love” and “Rock of Love”. Both are reality TV shows that would see a group of women coming to live in a house and competing for the love of a singular man. When you actually have to process what these shows are about, like I just did when typing that sentence, you think of how bizarre that premise is. The idea of a TV executive going into an office and pitching this just blows my mind because it just screams yikes. These shows are different from a very similar dating show, “The Bachelor,” where the leading men are somewhat famous people in American media. “Flavor of Love” would be based around Flavor Flav, part of the politically charged rap group Public Enemy, and “Rock of Love” would be based around the frontman of the hair metal band Poison, Bret Michaels.

These shows were made in the early 2000s so quite a bit of time had passed since the height of both men’s careers, but regardless, both shows went on for multiple seasons with a plethora of women hoping to win the hearts of the man of their choice. If you know anything about the “Of Love” type shows, you probably know about the greatest reality TV star of all time Tiffany “New York” Pollard, who since has gone on to have multiple reality TV shows based on her, including her own “Of Love” show, “Big Brother,” and of course, becoming the greatest meme of all time: trust me you have probably seen her image on Twitter. That brings me back to my main point and it’s that shows like this aren’t really about the wonders of love, it’s about how stupid can we make adult women look. These shows were made to either make these women look like “gold diggers”, again the worst crime a woman can commit, or to show these women as delusional, someone to laugh at. 

Also, these shows are just bizarre. The women who were competing had to do some wild things in order to prove their loyalty and love for a man they barely knew. Why do these women need to get literally beaten up? There’s been multiple challenges on these shows that would see women get injured just so they could win the challenge and prove that they are actually in love with some random man that they just met. 

The brightest star to come out of these shows was no exception. New York originally appeared in the first season of “Flavor of Love,” making it all the way to the end, just for the love of her life, her words, to dump her for someone else. That in itself has a lot to say about what we as a society think of women, that women are so desperate for love they’ll jump through hoops for a man. Also, for someone to take you all the way to the finale and then in your face dumps you for someone else also shows that we don’t see women as deserving of nice things, especially when they no longer have any use to us. That would not be the end of New York; in the second season, Flav would bring her back just to yet again bring her all the way to the finale to dump her one more time, it could even be stated Flav, the second time around, really had no intention to choose her this time, she was simply just too good for ratings

In a way, this is a form of female suffering right? To watch a woman be so in love with someone they’ll go through a not so pleasant experience all over again, to maybe even relieve such a devastating moment in your life? There’s also a lot to be said about the power dynamics on these shows and how they closely reflect on power dynamics in real life. These shows seemingly present a large group of women who are at the mercy of one man, one man who can change their lives for the better or for the worse. These men, both in charge of the show, and of course the ones eliminating the women, are pretty much dictating these women’s futures. Furthermore, if you watch either show there is lots of manipulation going on in order to get the girls to do what they want. The audience at home, despite New York being a powerhouse entertainer, laughed at her foolishness and her willingness to do anything for her “man.” We viewed it as funny that she would even agree to come back on the show again just for her to be mistreated all over again. That’s the whole premise of shows like this, to make the female contestants look foolish or even in some instances scary or overbearing to make their boring male counterparts look favorable. Men in these shows are cheered on as someone who can get as many women as he wants, while the women who come onto these types of shows are seen as either desperate or looking for their chance at fame and riches. 

The trauma and suffering doesn’t just end there. As we move forward in reality TV programming, many shows have turned their attention to home life, with shows like “Teen Mom” and the “Real Housewives” franchises explicitly looking for women to show their home lives for millions of viewers. “Teen Mom” was a show that was prominent in my youth, which is still on the air with a lot of spin-offs. It was a show I remember being on a lot of the time and I remember quite a bit of the plotline all these years later. Something that sticks out to me though is remembering how dirt poor the women, or rather teenage girls, were on this show. They were being filmed by one of the most popular TV channels of the time, MTV, yet a lot of these girls could barely afford to keep themselves afloat. We watched multiple members of the cast on this show suffer from very graphic drug addiction, homelessness, and depression, yet it seems like the people filming just refused to intervene. Maybe the producers of the show saw the long term possibility and success of the show and figured this opportunity was enough and would pay off, but when you look back at this after all these years you can’t help but see how exploitative it was for grown adults to decide to film girls who were just trying to survive, make it another day and provide for their child. Furthermore, shows like “Teen Mom” also had very poor depictions of abuse. There was a teen mom on the show that was extremely abusive to her partner, the father of her child, and most of the time the production team would let this onslaught of abuse, both physical and verbal slide, enabling her to act the way she did, she would even remain a cast member for many many years after. To put it simply, reality TV does not try to be complex enough to properly address topics like abuse. A lot of this stuff isn’t necessarily played for laughs, but kind of more like watching animals in a zoo, we think ‘good thing my life isn’t like that’ and dehumanize the real lives of people on our screens. We also need to think about what exactly was the message of this show? To show us how hard it is to be a teen mom? A lot of us have people in our lives that are teen moms, so what’s the point of exploiting and putting some of the worst moments in these young girls’ lives on television, what support were they given during the filming of this show, and franchise? 

That moves us on to the “Real Housewives” franchise. In this show, we take a look into the lives of “housewives,” but whatever you think about the term housewife is really beside the point. The show doesn’t dwell on what a housewife is but instead focuses on the drama that the castmates can bring. A lot of drama is derived from two places: infighting between the cast and at-home drama that subsequently bleeds into the relationships these women have with each other. Despite the fact that this show features a full cast of women and some of which would consider themselves “girlbosses” (ew), a lot of the show focuses on them tearing each other down and throwing their problems at each other’s faces. There is barely any female solidarity on this show, and it comes down to it just being stereotypical “women don’t like to see each other win and are in constant competition with each other.” These fights between the women get extremely nasty with a lot of slut-shaming getting thrown around and name calling, etc.

I can’t imagine being very content and happy working in an environment that is constantly throwing me to the wolves. The way these shows are edited aid in the viewers’ perceptions of the castmates. If a producer wants us to see one of the castmates as the “villain,” then she’s getting a “villain” edit, which in turn throws her to an onslaught of abuse from the viewers at home. It should also be noted that a man runs this franchise which also puts things into perspective. A lot of the time, Andy Cohen fuels the flames and creates drama on the show because he hosts reunions and also has the housewives on his talk show “Watch What Happens Live.” 

In this show, we also see these women living very toxic home lives with their partners, but there’s no goal on the show to get them out of the relationship or to better their relationship. Instead, a lot of the humiliation these women face from their husbands gets played for laughs, which you can read about a particular incident here

“Teen Mom” and the “Real Housewives” have two things in common, and that’s the fact that their goal is only to show the worst moments of these women’s lives. If there’s no drama, the show doesn’t sell. So when a cast member is struggling with substance abuse problems and their family is trying to confront them about it, it’s filmed for a TV moment, the goal isn’t to make positive progress on the issue and possibly shed light on the issue, but to profit off it. 

An important story to tell comes from the“Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” where castmate Taylor Armstrong was dealing with abuse from her husband while filming the show.

The production team and Armstrong’s castmates had no idea this abuse was going on at home, however, Taylor was seen multiple times throughout her time on the show struggling and having breakdowns. Even though these people did not know what was going on, regardless she deserved some compassion because she was very obviously going through a hard time. Her most infamous moment on the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” was a breakdown shouting “You don’t know what I go through!” at a castmate: watching this back, regardless of if the abuse was known to anyone filming, she shouldn’t have had to go through a very intense emotional breakdown on TV, especially since this moment has been immortalized as a meme on the internet. 

Female suffering sells and that’s the only end goal for the producers of reality television. They’re not concerned with helping these women for the better, they just clock in and out because that’s their job. It’s also important to think about how a lot of these women’s worst moments have become memes, probably more popular than they are and seen by people who have no clue where they came from. This is apparent in the recent meme “damn double homicide”, from the reality show “Joseline’s Cabaret,” where a woman started crying because she was relieving the pain she went through having to abort her twins to survive. 

More people know this meme than they know the show, and now this woman has to relive that trauma all over again from all corners of the internet. No one values or has any compassion for women who suffer, women who showcase their ugliest emotions. 

A lot of this is hard to unpack, even as female, male, and gender non-conforming viewers, we also aid in the commodification of female suffering and play an active role as an audience, subsequently fueling this industry made on female pain.

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