Lately, a lot of nostalgia-inducing TV shows like Friends, The Simple Life and Dawson’s Creek have come under fire for being the very opposite of woke. Your 14-year-old self may have known a fake Juicy tracksuit when they saw one, but they didn’t pay as much attention to problematic gender roles or white-washing in their favourite TV shows. As it turns out, two millionaire heiresses asking a family in Arkansas if they hang out in Walmart is actually not that funny, and Ross is really just a bit of a dick.
With greater collective awareness comes the demand for producers to give us programmes that accurately reflect our lives and the people in them, without tired stereotypes. This rings particularly true in the realm of reality TV, which is, erm, meant to represent reality. Disappointing, then, that it is historically one of the worst places to turn if you want to watch something progressive or diverse; scripted reality TV shows like TOWIE and MIC vastly underrepresent the BME population, and programmes like Geordie Shore typically have none or only one BME or LGBTQ participant, which gives rise to tokenism.
But hope for change has come from an unlikely place. This year’s Celebrity Big Brother was a far cry from its usually un-woke self (in 2005 there was only one non-white contestant, and in 2007, Shilpa Shetty was the subject of racist bullying). This series featured a diverse cast, welcoming several non-binary contestants and in turn a stream of mature, respectful discussions surrounding race, sexuality and gender.
Rachael Wilson of EW Group, a diversity consultancy that addresses unconscious bias and has worked with the BBC, says: “Big Brother has always had lots of angry, angsty debate which has kept it going all this time, but if we’re starting to see people now championing difference and debating in a formed way, then that’s important.”
While CBB’s ‘The Year of the Woman’ seemed like a gimmicky and reductive way to celebrate 100 years of women's suffrage, the outcome forced contestants to think about political issues, giving way to thought-provoking, nuanced discussions. For example, former footballer John Barnes said that anyone engaging in homosexual activity could not be "in his club", the response to which was not pillow-throwing and plate-smashing but a measured conversation with Shane J, also known by the drag name Courtney Act (Act ended up winning the show). The two of them went through why John thought that, and how he could work towards positive change.
At other points, glamour model Jess Impiazzi, who has also appeared on Ex on the Beach, debated Brexit with staunch Conservative politician Ann Widdecombe, and the UK’s first transgender newsreader, India Willoughby, called out actress Amanda Barrie for her incorrect use of pronouns. Reasons for nominations included people being "too heavy handed in debates" and "an unwillingness to listen to other people’s points of view". It’s not perfect – watching famous misogynist Dapper Laughs defend his career-ruining rape jokes was particularly sickening – but there was a clear attempt to address divisive political issues. “I’d be interested to see how others follow CBB, and I’m sure they will,” says Wilson, “because diversity and inclusion is becoming more front and centre in people’s minds.” And the audience response has been overwhelmingly positive – according to executive editor Tamsin Dodgson, the number of people engaging on Facebook and Twitter was considerably higher than last year.
Over the past six months, the public has responded to both Strictly Come Dancing and Love Island with a call for same-sex couples. In an article for the Guardian, writer Fay Schopen stated that the heterosexual couplings on Love Island are "relentlessly fake, vanilla and vacuous. Some LGBT action would at least make the reality show more real."
Audiences are going to switch off if they can’t see themselves represented
As Wilson puts it: “People want to see themselves, because it confirms our sense of self. Audiences are going to switch off if they can’t see themselves represented. If you aren’t catering to your audience in its entirety, you’re missing out.” Unfortunately, neither Strictly nor Love Island have met the demands for same-sex couples. On reaching out to Love Island, I was pointed to a comment made by executive producer Richard Cowley last year, that “the format doesn’t really allow it.” It appears that for now, they will not be shifting their stance.
“There are some reality TV programmes that seem to be more ahead of the curve than others," says Wilson. “As toe-curling as Naked Attraction is, from the outset they have always shown body diversity, racial diversity, and different sexualities. First Dates is another good one, they have particularly picked up on mental health.”
First Dates’ executive producer, Barnaby Coughlin, says that diversity is always a focus on the show: “We have a huge diverse casting team whose job it is to audition weekly across every sector of society. We make sure everyone is represented and we target minority groups if we think they are being underrepresented.”
I’m not suggesting that anyone deserves a medal for inclusivity, but actively working to shift unconscious bias and opening up important conversations is a positive change. A nation’s reality shows don’t come from nowhere – often they at least somewhat reflect what is happening in society – so the fact that non-binary contestants are being represented, and balanced conversations about race and sexuality are taking place on TV, means we’re heading in the right direction.
People are tuning in to listen to thoughtful debate, and hopefully that will mean we see more diversity and decorum on reality TV in the future. There is definitely a shift happening everywhere; this week, The NY Times Magazine ran a story arguing that RuPaul’s Drag Race is the most radical show on TV. Love Island and Strictly take note. Your viewers are begging you for more diversity.