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You can be a feminist and watch reality TV

You can be a feminist and watch reality TV

You can be a feminist and watch reality TV
November 13
13:00 2020

It’s that time of the year again. Fans crowd around the television every Saturday night, watching 25 gorgeous men try and impress an equally beautiful woman who probably deserves better. The hit reality show, “The Bachelorette” is back this fall, but with every new season of the show and its spin-offs, feminist critics comment on the misogynistic and racist themes woven throughout the show itself and its franchise. 

Some feminist critics argue if you watch reality shows such as “The Bachelorette” or “Love Island (U.K.),” you can’t support the feminist movement, because watching such television shows only fuels the train of misogyny found in pop culture and is hypocritical to the advancement of the feminist movement. 

While I do agree that many reality shows perpetuate toxic stereotypes and tropes, is it really such a crime to watch something for entertainment? You don’t have to agree with the values portrayed in the show but can still enjoy the show for what it is: entertainment. Moreover, we can watch films and shows that depict Nazis, racism and sexual assault, and still make the distinction that all of those things are morally bad and are not reflective of our own personal values. 

The feminist movement has come a long way from women’s suffrage and there’s no doubt that it’s more important than ever. However, gatekeeping what media feminists can and cannot consume, specifically trashy reality television, is taking a few, detrimental steps back in the movement. 

Although reality television has been around since the 1960s, the contemporary, wild reality shows we know and love rose to popularity after “The Real World,” along with the trove of other reality shows following everything from Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s not-so-simple-life to nudists.

With reality shows costing less than 50 percent than scripted shows, networks saw an opportunity to make cheap shows and compete with cable networks year-round, according to a study from Iowa State University. But within the last two decades, dating or love reality shows have taken the cake for profits, pop culture relevancy and guilty pleasure watching. 

These contemporary reality shows have racked in millions for networks. In 2016, “The Bachelor” brought in approximately $86 million in advertising revenue to the ABC network, according to a report from CNN Business. 

If there’s any doubt of reality television’s cultural relevance, just ask the millions of fans who call themselves Bachelor Nation. The season 24 finale of “The Bachelor” earlier this year was watched by approximately 8.5 million viewers and the entire season had an average of 6.4 million viewers, according to data from marketing research firm The Nielsen Company. 

Don’t mistake dating reality television as just a guilty pleasure. These shows do perpetuate toxic stereotypes and lack diversity. In the dating reality show realm, where there are rarely diverse casts as is, Black women are often shown as having loud, obnoxious personalities, and Asian women are portrayed as geeky or promiscuous, according to the study from Iowa State University

There are a plethora of other stereotypes and diversity issues thrown into reality television, but does that mean our binge-watching and emotional attachments to the contestants constitute an endorsement of these issues? 

This isn’t a question of whether or not a show is objectively good, but rather whether viewers can distinguish between reality and fantasy by using critical thinking skills. Reality shows are not reality. They are carefully constructed fantasies dipping a toe into reality and using the audience’s desire for authentic romance to create the illusion of reality, according to a study from the University of Texas at Austin

If we can make our own judgments, we’re able to understand the contexts of media as well as its meaning, desired thinking and how we can appreciate it yet still effectively critique the creator. 

Using critical thinking to assess media is something we do every day, no matter what type of media you consume. Watching the news, scrolling through Twitter timelines, looking at advertisements or binge-watching Netflix all involve decoding the media’s message, making your own judgment and interacting with the content. 

This critical thinking is known as media literacy and is the ability to identify different types of media and understand their messages, according to education non-profit Common Sense Media

So why do we need to be media literate? Given the number of photos, videos, articles and advertisements we encounter every day, we are constantly swayed toward thinking in a particular way, according to an article from the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative. Due to this influx of media, we must learn to be smarter consumers, think critically of media and identify the role of media within our culture. 

Believe it or not, developing your own media literacy skills is essential to being a member of society. If we believe everything we see, from fake news to advertising, or scripted television to Photoshopped images, we are doing ourselves a disservice by not understanding what the media is telling us or swaying us to think. 

With all of this being said, it’s high time feminists practice their media literacy skills rather than gatekeeping reality television like “The Bachelorette.” Watching “The Bachelorette” and other reality shows doesn’t mean you agree with the tropes and values they are built upon or perpetuate – you’re just watching for entertainment. Furthermore, the Bachelor Nation, or anyone who actively watches television and film, should also practice these skills for future binge-watching. 

Happy binge-watching and I hope we can all understand “The Bachelor” and its contexts, and just let viewers indulge in their guilty pleasure. 

Featured Illustration by Durga Bhavana

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Sarah Berg

Sarah Berg

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