Reality TV is a genre that typically features women screaming at each other (The Real Housewives franchise), simpering and competing for the affections of a lacklustre man (The Bachelor, Love Island), being derided as ‘sluts’ and ‘slags’ by their suitors (any episode of Ex on the Beach) or viewed as objects for the male gaze, to be tinkered with by cosmetic surgeons (The Swan) so they can glow up, complete the heterosexual video game and get married (Bridezillas).
Reality TV is also one of the most feminist formats in TV today. Hear me out. I didn’t expect to be saying this either! When I began working on my forthcoming 10-part BBC podcast series Unreal, co-written and co-hosted with the journalist and broadcaster Pandora Sykes, I thought I knew that reality TV was my guilty pleasure. Trashy, exploitative and certainly anti-feminist: something I felt bad about enjoying as someone who’s long written about and campaigned for women’s rights. I’d grown used to defending my passion for reality TV to men who can think of nothing better than watching people kick a ball up and down a pitch for hours on end or cycle very fast in circles. Yes, I’d say wearily, I know it’s bad. But it’s so addictive.
Then I began rewatching many of my most beloved shows and researching the history of the format and I was surprised by what I came across. Historically, women have been front and centre of the genre. The pioneering 1973 PBS documentary An American Family is widely credited as one of the first reality TV shows. It followed a middle-class family from California – Bill and Pat Loud and their children – and was groundbreaking in its portrayal of divorce, then not much talked about, still more rarely depicted on TV screens. To the public, Bill Loud was a roguish scoundrel and Pat his charming, intelligent, forceful wife. The audience’s sympathy was firmly with Pat, particularly after she divorced her husband on grounds of infidelity.
Since An American Family, reality TV has made space for difficult but necessary conversations about the reality of women’s lives. I’m a huge Real Housewives fan, even if I recognise that the show’s emphasis on female feuding is in many ways regressive. When launching a passionate defence of the show, I often point to the way in which it’s normalised conversations about female ageing. I think of Kyle Richards complaining about how fellow housewife Camille Grammer is making her wear a cap-sleeved bridesmaid dress, and the impossibility of wearing cap sleeves as a woman in your 50s. I think about Kim Richards, a mother of four, jumping up and down on a trampoline while joking about her stress incontinence. I think about how rarely middle-aged women are allowed to discuss their relationships, ambitions, children and sex lives on camera while being their eccentric, endearing and loveable selves. (A plea to producers: do whatever you need to do to get Kathy Hilton her diamond. I adore her.)
As a reflection of our lives, reality TV is a format that facilitates difficult but necessary discussions about topics as diverse as HIV/AIDS, domestic abuse and sexuality.
As a reflection of our lives, reality TV is a format that facilitates difficult but necessary discussions about topics as diverse as HIV/AIDS, domestic abuse and sexuality. Lance Loud, son of Bill and Pat, was one of the first people to be openly gay on US TV; after learning he had HIV in 1987, he campaigned for better public awareness and understanding of a much-stigmatised disease until his death in 2001 from complications from hepatitis C. Taylor Armstrong, a former Housewife, wrote a New York Times bestselling autobiography about her experience of domestic violence at the hands of her husband and spoke candidly on camera about how women with seemingly perfect lives can be victims of violent and controlling men. I grew up feeling ashamed and embarrassed of my sexuality but a generation of young women watch top shagger Maura Higgins waft around the Love Island villa boasting of her 'fanny flutters' and rightly conclude that women can be as sexually free, and liberated, as men. More recently, watching Selling Sunset’s Chrishell Stause agonise about her desire to have children in her 40s reflects the lived experience of many of my friends.
Reality TV has also always been a platform for women to launch lucrative post-reality TV careers. After An American Family aired, Pat Loud, who had previously been a homemaker, worked in publishing and wrote a bestselling book. Bethenny Frankel of The Real Housewives of New York City created a low-calorie liquor brand, Skinnygirl, which she sold for a reported $100 million. And of course, the Kardashian family has created a multibillion-dollar empire out of cunning, chutzpah, a complete lack of inhibition and a willingness to confect drama for ratings. Kim is a billionaire, Kylie a near-billionaire, and the rest mere multimillionaires.
And reality TV gives space to women who might not typically appear on our screens. Jade Goody was a young, working-class woman from Bermondsey when she became the star of Big Brother 3 in 2002. She went on to become one of the most famous – and successful – celebrities in the nation before dying at the age of 27 from cervical cancer. Alison Hammond, another Big Brother alumna, is a hugely beloved TV host. As a working-class Black woman without TV experience or contacts, it’s hard to imagine her ending up on the This Morning sofa without the exposure reality TV gave her.
The format is certainly imperfect. When it exploded in the mid 2000s, it was into a febrile period of scurrilous gossip magazines that slut-shamed young female celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears (all of whom, incidentally, had reality TV shows). That misogyny worked its way into the shows and we’re only now beginning to unpick it, like chewing gum from hair. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve watched women ground up as grist for the reality TV mill, like the women carved up on extreme cosmetic surgery show The Swan. (Afterwards, the women have the taut, emotionless visages of identical Stepford wives; what individuality they had is erased by the surgeon’s knife.)
What became clear, in my conversations with over 60 reality TV contestants, critics and producers during the course of reporting the podcast, is how resilient and adaptive the genre is. If reality TV has at times been archaic and anti-feminist, it’s largely because those were the times we lived in. And if now it’s being dragged into a more enlightened version of itself, that’s because we as a society have evolved. Outdated and regressive attitudes linger in the genre because they linger in society as a whole. But overall I’d wager that reality TV offers more space than most other formats for women to be their complicated, messy selves and for this (and the drama, and the ridiculous outfits) I’ll defend my beloved genre to The Hills and beyond.