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Psychosinematics: Behind the Guilty Pleasure of Reality TV

2 June 2020

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Psychosinematics: Behind the Guilty Pleasure of Reality TV

All the shows mentioned in this article are available on hayu, reality on-demand, and you can check them out with a free trial.


When it comes to reality television, there are two polar opposite views – people either love it or hate it; both with equal passion. Reality TV has catapulted many ordinary people into superstardom, leaving the general public wondering when and how they made it so big. Yes, I am taking a jibe at the Kardashians. However, what causes this divide between the masses?

I belong to the group of people that absolutely love reality television, ie: allowing my previous jibe. It is my guilty pleasure and while I constantly complain about it, I am religiously up to date with the latest happenings in that universe. There’s something about the escapism factor to reality television that makes the genre so popular, with larger-than-life characters and the illusion of being a fly on their wall.

Undeniably, a bulk of the genre is made up of shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians (KUWTK) or The Real Housewives series, which focus largely on a family or a group of people navigating various phases of life. The cameras follow them through births and deaths, recording every moment of their meltdowns and celebrations. While it may not be the most educational content available, it is entertainment gold to follow the drama that is orchestrated. Often, we see snippets of our own relationships through these shows and that keeps us on the hook. 

(Real Housewives of Beverly Hills)

A large part of reality television that is overlooked, however, are shows that highlight the trials and tribulations of a profession. This includes shows like Below Deck, Married to Medicine and Camp Getaway. Following the lives of yacht crew members, doctors and camp instructors respectively, the audience is presented with a comprehensive understanding of professions that are otherwise not expanded upon. When an unfamiliar premise is introduced, we devour its content as we are driven by curiosity and intrigue. 

Competition is also an integral part of the genre. With shows like Top Chef and Battle of The Ex Besties, the reality of outrageous competition is brought to the viewers. While some shows under competitive reality television thrive because of the sheer skill on showcase, most thrive because of how much they push the envelope of a ridiculous premise for competition. Competition reality television shows have stood the test of time with some going into 40 or 50 seasons. There’s something about pitting fellow humans against each other and then taking sides that keep the audience always wanting more.

Is Reality Really Real?

It is no secret that reality shows are heavily scripted. It is, of course, too much of a coincidence that the various cast members happen to have major social events and/or explosive fights just at the time of filming, with enough content to fill an entire season. From the wardrobe to lighting to dialogues to even the premise, everything has elements that are staged. At this point, the production teams are not even trying to hide it because is it really such a bad thing?

If reality shows are a semi-fictional extension of real life, there is plenty to love about it because it gives us respite from the mundane day-to-day. Escapism is defined in the Oxford dictionary as the tendency to seek distraction from normalcy that has to be endured. According to Sigmund Freud, who is the father of psychoanalysis, a quota of escapism is a necessary element in the life of humans. He famously said that “They (humans) cannot subsist on the scanty satisfaction they can extort from reality.”

From watching reality shows, I often feel like I have travelled through the world. From Los Angeles’ Million Dollar Listing to Miami’s Family Karma to New York City’s Real Housewives to Philippines’ It Takes Gutz To Be A Gutierrez, reality shows fulfil the very human need of wanderlust – also a form of escapism or illusion. The glamour quotient of their lifestyles are so fantastical that it is surreal to watch. Additionally, each show features a different culture or lifestyle that the audience has an array of content to choose from. 

(Family Karma)

The fact that there isn’t as much reality, unlike what the title suggests, is just another reason why I love reality shows. It is necessary and human to get lost in illusion or seek refuge in someone else’s “reality” for a while and that is the unique selling point of the genre.

Control or the lack thereof?

The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment is notorious until today for its questionable ethics. In this social psychology experiment, researchers attempted to understand the psychological effect of perceived power and control on human behaviour. Volunteers were made to assume the roles of prisoner and guard, while obeying respective instructions. Some agreed while some protested. Eventually, they resigned to their roles, internalising their responsibility while some took it too far. The “guards” exploited their position of power while the “prisoners” did as they were told.

The relevance? The psychology of reality television is much like the experiment, just far less morbid. Those who hate these shows often state intentional exploitation and humiliation as the reason for avoidance. They are unable to come to terms with the elements of surveillance and voyeurism that comes with the genre just like the “guards” who refused to be part of the experiment and see those in the show as the “prisoners” (I.e: retaining the control).

(Married to Medicine)

However those who enjoy reality shows take on the perspective that they are simply watching content that was created for that sole purpose, throwing the control back to the cast and crew of any given show. Here, the viewers are taking on the role of “guards” who are simply acting based on the instructions of someone else. When one relinquishes control like that, they are more liberated and willing to pass comments and judgement – the fiery gossip that reality shows generate. 

It is this game of hot potato with the perception of control that makes lovers of reality television feel absolved of responsibility when watching. They view it as nothing more than entertainment, unapologetically privy to the lives of reality stars because they know full and well how much money reality stars make, in compensation to having a scripted version of their lives aired.

Reality television could be regarded as voyeurism – a thought that I don’t entirely disagree with. Defined as drawing pleasure from watching the distress of unsuspecting people, the question of voyeurism has sparked ethical debates about reality television. However, the main distinction of what remains ethical or not is the line of consent. These shows give viewers the false satisfaction that they are salaciously watching something they aren’t supposed to be. The reality remains, though, that consent is very much given to allow the prying eyes of the world.  

In a study published in the Journal of Media Psychology, it was found that viewers of reality television are driven by empathy, not humiliation as their central motivation when watching reality shows, as they are looking for something to relate to outside of their own realities. Seems like a win-win for both, if you ask me!

(It Takes Gutz To Be A Gutierrez)

Ultimately, we live in a filtered world that has been edited and tweaked in order to present the best of reality. It is no secret and it is not done with the aim of hiding the truth. As such, reality television is unparalleled for its entertainment, as long everything is taken with a pinch of salt. Give the genre a chance and travel into the lives of your favourite personalities – you’ll never know what you may learn.

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Read More:
Psychosinematics: Examining the Destruction of Mother and Son in Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Mother’
Exploring The Marxist Themes Behind Bong Joon-Ho’s ‘Snowpiercer’
Psychosinematics: Is There More to ‘Kaatru Veliyidai’s’ Megalomaniac Hero?

Stacy is a self-proclaimed wordsmith who tries to see the good in the world.