Movies + TV

Real As It Gets

A love letter to unscripted television.

Illustration by Hattie

Illustration by Hattie

People say that reality TV is bad for you, but so is candy, and I consume reality TV like it’s candy. By which I mean a lot. And unironically. I don’t refer to it as a “guilty pleasure” because I don’t feel guilty about it. And I don’t use that cowardly trick where people say they watch Jersey Shore because it makes them feel like their lives are great in comparison, or the Real Housewives franchise because it reassures them that Those rich people? They’re actually miserable. There are better places to get therapy than television, and your life is not going better than Snooki’s because Snooki gets paid millions of dollars to hang out with her best friend all day.

Here’s how reality TV is not actually like candy: It has improved my life. And not in some “thank god I’m not like these shallow, boring people” way. I get the same thing from “unscripted” shows that we all hope to get out of any book, movie, whatever, the thing that I would argue is the whole point of stories: They reflect back to me some of the difficult stuff that’s going on in my own life, and help me sort through it, while providing entertainment. And by showing me that, for example, even the Kardashians have massive insecurities, reality shows remind me that everyone has something in them that you can grab hold of and love. Yes, I’m saying that reality television makes me love people more.

I got really into my first reality show, MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County (the precursor to The Hills), as a pop-culture-obsessed 16-year-old. I was initially drawn in by the exaggerated hokey glamour and beach-y lifestyles of the cast, a clique of unrealistically beautiful teenagers navigating a privileged high school existence. But then a weird thing happened: I got sucked into the actual storylines. While other shows that were popular that year were about solving mysterious deaths or escaping death row, the drama on Laguna rang true. Even though the cast were much richer and better-looking than anyone in my high school, the personal politics they had to navigate were a lot like mine: My crushes became my friends’ crushes and vice-versa; best friends grew apart and got close with former enemies; people got in fights, were betrayed, and seemed like they were doing OK on the outside, but inside were desperate for love.

In the spring break episode “What Happens in Cabo,” the whole underage gang goes to Mexico together, seemingly without chaperones (except MTV’s crew), and on their first night there they end up at a rowdy bar. When mean girl Kristin’s over-the-top good-time dancing gets the better of her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Stephen, he snaps. This scene is hard to watch not just because it’s recorded on a phone pointed at a TV, but because he is so cruel to her. I winced when he called her a slut, but I also identified with his desperate jealousy and his inability to sort out his raging teenage hormones. I remember seeing my first girlfriend have an amazing time without me after we broke up. My heart, stomach, and brain felt like they were all spinning in different directions. I wasn’t drinking in bars or going on beach vacations with my hot pals, and I have never called a girl a slut, especially not in a drunken rage, but I recognized the pain that sent Stephen spiraling down. When I saw someone mirror that pain back at me and actually act on it, I knew I had to get my feelings in check. Watching that scene again now, I still feel ashamed for ever relating to Stephen, but also weirdly protective of this kid I’ve never met for making a fool of himself by disrespecting someone he obviously cared about.

Maybe this is part of the reason people don’t just criticize reality TV, they get angry about it—this thing they claim they would never watch. It’s uncomfortable to have ugly or awkward parts of ourselves blown up and put in front of our faces. It’s hard to admit that these overblown characters that we call “trashy” or “blank” or “dumb” are actually a lot like us. And it’s also hard to admit how fucking boring we actually are. No matter how scripted (very) reality television gets, for some reason the producers haven’t figured out how to avoid long stretches where nothing really happens. Or maybe they don’t want to: What’s more “real” than total stultifying banality? Sometimes you’ll watch two people on a reality show sit across from each other at an outdoor café and avoid a touchy subject for three full minutes. Sometimes their conversations are superficial, stilted, trivial, or nasty—the word bitch gets thrown around a lot—which is unfortunately exactly like some conversations I’ve had with my own friends. I don’t know about you, but I would never want my awkward teenage dates broadcast to millions.

I’m not here to argue that all reality TV is a gift to humanity. Some of it is just absurd. A lot is unwatchable to me (personally—I won’t judge you!). The Real Housewives universe has too much screaming for me, Intervention and Teen Mom get too dark, and competition shows (especially singing or weight-loss) feel schlocky. Even The Hills, my love for which I have never hidden from you, went totally bonkers toward the end, when the Heidi and Spencer relationship overshadowed all other storylines. (Having just entered the steep-descent part of the fame cycle, she turns to plastic surgery, he to healing crystals.) But even under all that, there are always glimpses of realness: People fall in love and shut out their friends, people grow apart for no good reason, people allow themselves to be guided by jealousy, pettiness, or insecurity. Or they rise above those base instincts: Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Keeping Up With the Kardashians are, in the end, about family and loyalty and love (not to mention body positivity). The City (another Laguna spinoff) was about a young woman creating and running her own career. Jersey Shore is about the importance of friendship.

Real life, like these shows, can be terrible: filled with heavy silences, uncontrollable crying fits, and humiliation piled upon humiliation. (Just ask Kristin and Stephen.) It can also be silly and fun and full of redemption. The ride is unpredictable and exhausting. What a relief, then, to be able to get off every once in a while to just sit back and watch. ♦


  • July 2nd, 2013 11:09 PM

    Sometimes we hate something because we are told to. Like Justin Bieber. Or Nickelback. It’s annoying.

    Reality shows doesn’t have to be necessarily bad. And The Osbournes and Hulk Hogan TV shows were GREAT

  • paige.xo July 3rd, 2013 12:44 AM


  • insteadofanelephant July 3rd, 2013 1:53 AM

    i never really watched any reality shows except the kardashians, but you do have to agree that some viewers must have felt a connection on some personal level with the people on the shows. it does help knowing that even people who are on tv have similar life problems. relatability is always a big part of a show’s success

  • jessie.r July 3rd, 2013 3:29 AM

    There seems to be a lot of articles on Rookie about how to accept the “guilty pleasures” that are looked down upon by left-of-center, artistically-minded people: pop music, reality TV, etc. I’m hoping that readers can be encouraged to look at the dissenting points of view as well and not feel like they’re being pretentious for having a less-than-stellar opinion about shows like “Keeping UP With the Kardashians.” I know that lots of Rookie readers are cool, and articles about why it’s ok to like reality TV and pop music are in some way subversive here, but I do think there’s something to be said about being critical about what’s put before us.

    That being said, Rookie is still 100x better than any magazine out there for girls that I had growing up. I look back at my teen magazines from high school and laugh at the misinformation about drug use and at the weight loss articles that I truly believe can contribute to teen girls feeling bad about themselves.

    • Anaheed July 3rd, 2013 5:04 AM

      This is a good point, and I’m sorry that we gave the impression that we’re not into pretentious things, because believe me, WE ARE. (I mean, we do long-form articles on Sylvia Plath and multipage interviews with people like David Wilson and Neil deGrasse Tyson, for chrissakes!) I will always defend pretentious art! I think most of us at Rookie will. That said, we don’t exist in a vacuum. The rest of the culture is really not concerned with giving people permission to like whatever the hell they want and not to worry about what it “means” about them, because the more people form tribes around things you can buy, the more devoted they will be as consumers. If we can be one little voice in the wilderness saying you are not what you consume, that you should never feel ashamed of your tastes, that snobbiness is a way of making your world (and yourself) smaller, and that you can find beauty in anything if you look for it, I don’t have a problem with that message.

      • Chloe22 July 3rd, 2013 9:25 AM

        I personally think Rookie is trying to get rid of the entire idea that certain things, like One Direction or the Kardashians, are bad at all. Pop music in my controversial opinion is just as respectable as any indie album. Rookie wants people to know you can read Jane Eyre, while listening to Katy Perry. Like in their book lists, they’ve included Jane Austen novels, and then another has Judy Blume. And even if they hated every ”serious and intellectual” thing on earth, who cares? You have the rest of the world to tell you boybands are the end to intelligence ( when in reality people just plain don’t like anything girls like).

        And honestly. Rookie is one of the few (VERY FEW) girls mags that has a feminist bent. How is that not serious?

        • whiskeytangofoxtrot July 3rd, 2013 10:43 AM

          Agreed! Growing up, people always judged me for going to the symphony, then heading to a basement punk show, then going dancing in a warehouse all night. Nobody could understand how or why those things could possibly mix. Art, like reality shows and boy bands, definitely don’t exist in a vacuum.

      • alisatimi July 3rd, 2013 11:28 AM

        I appreciate the message Rookie is trying to send, and I do think it’s an important one. But at the moment it seems more like on one side I’m getting “all pop-culture is crap and you should be embarrassed to have anything to do with it” and on the other “you should love everything and never be negative about anything.” It would nice to have something in the middle – appreciating the good parts, but being critical of the problematic aspects of things like reality TV/pop music. Ultimately everyone should make their own decisions about what they want to consume – ones that aren’t based on what Rookie approves of or society scoffs at. I think it’s perfectly fine to watch and appreciate reality TV for what it is, but I also don’t think avoiding it for legitimate reasons makes someone a snob.

        • Anaheed July 3rd, 2013 11:39 AM

          I don’t think Joe is saying that you should love the same things he loves. In this very essay he says there are reality shows that he does not like. And I hope that we have never said anywhere on Rookie that everyone needs to love everything all the time!

  • Kimono Cat July 3rd, 2013 3:34 AM

    If anyone is looking for a new reality show to get into, I highly recommend Made in Chelsea. It is literally the best/worst thing ever.

    • hellorose July 3rd, 2013 7:21 AM

      what is it about reality tv stars named spencer?

    • llamalina July 3rd, 2013 6:50 PM

      Another recommendation I would add for awesome reality shows is Pretty Wild. I never found reality shows entertaining until I discovered that show- God, I love Pretty Wild. Whether I’m watching it by myself or having a marathon with a bunch of friends, I still end up dying of laughter. One of the best shows I’ve ever seen and you could easily finish it in 3-4 hours straight.

  • Moonshoes July 3rd, 2013 4:21 AM

    I love this, seeing as I’m guilty of watching Pretty Wild over and over and over again with no shame whatsoever. Gotta love Alexis Neiers!

  • GlitterKitty July 3rd, 2013 9:27 AM

    Oh man how I love reality TV. Even though it’s fake and silly a lot of the time, it’s really fun and amusing. I get so into some of those shows. My friend and I will have serious conversations about what happens on Breaking Amish and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. And the Bachelor is pretty much just amazing.

  • raggedyanarchy July 3rd, 2013 10:16 AM

    The thing with most reality tv shows is that it humanizes many cultures and lifestyles otherwise ridiculed. I, and everyone else, expected shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo to poke fun at this out-of-the-box family–”Hey, look at these silly rednecks! Ha! Childhood obesity is hilarious! They’re so stupid!” But, what I found was a real family, with its own struggles and its own happiness–a family that deserves respect like any other. And I think it made people feel BAD for making fun of them before–the dad’s a volunteer firefighter, Alana buys toys for the local children’s hospital with her pageant winnings, and the whole family supports their pregnant family member, even if she is a teenager. That’s more than most “normal” American families can say! Not to mention Mama June and Papa Bear–a relationship based on love instead of appearances? Compared to the way relationships are portrayed on the media, this is a ground-breaking idea.

  • Jes July 3rd, 2013 11:21 AM

    It really makes me angry when people bash the Kardashians. If the Kardashians are even somewhat like their on-screen personalities, it means that they are some of the most kindhearted, hardworking people out there.

  • Abby July 3rd, 2013 12:34 PM

    I think deep down, the reason I don’t like reality TV is because it annoys me (more than I care to admit) that these people get paid millions of dollars to hang out, get in catfights, and just generally BREATHE, while I have to have a job in order to get paid a LOT less. I’m just grumpy lol. That being said, I like this article and the comments it has brought up, because I think it’s totally acceptable to like “pretentious” things, but also like pop culture. And you know what? It’s also acceptable to not like pretentious things and like pop culture.

  • Pocket Cow July 3rd, 2013 12:38 PM

    I’ve never seen Jersey Shore, or the Kardashian’s show, but I do love me some Honey Boo Boo, Toddlers and Tiaras, Gypsy Weddings, Urban Tarzan, and World’s Worst Tenants. The thing that gets me about reality TV, even the scripted stuff, is that it’s just people living their lives. And I’ll be sitting there watching Jo Frost help some family and realize… I’m spending an hour just watching a few other people doing what they do every day. And that feels weird and wrong to me. I could be doing so much with ME and my time, and I’m using it to idly observe others…

    Still, Honey Boo Boo foreverz!

  • emlyb July 3rd, 2013 12:52 PM

    Over here in Britain we have ‘Made in Chelsea’ (my personal fave) (also if u r american and have certain stereotypes of brits watch this and feel smug) and ‘The Only Way is Essex’ (or TOWIE). I follow these religiously and to me these are my guilty pleasures (they are SOOO BAD IT’S GOoD). I think people should feel they can like whatever, whether they feel ‘guilty’ about it or not.
    bc let me tell u if someone walked in on me watching TOWIE i would hide in a box somwhere

  • emlyb July 3rd, 2013 12:54 PM

    Okay what I didn’t properly put across is that I don’t think anyone should be made to feel guilty about feeling guilty about liking something or about genuinely liking something or ironically liking something etc

  • ArmyOfRabbits July 3rd, 2013 2:48 PM

    The majority of these shows aren’t really my cup of tea, but hey, whatever floats your boat– so, cheers! However, mockumentary series like The Hills and My Life as Liz can be quite addicting. My Life as Liz was actually pretty relatable to me.

    And gosh, I remembered my two favorite characters(Jay and Austin Scarlett) from the first season of Project Runway, they’re were loads of fun!

  • sweetsweetsweat July 3rd, 2013 4:31 PM

    Hey I’m all for questioning what we’re told to hate. (Long live those beliebers, man) On the one hand, I totally love that Rookie likes to revel in all the and inconsistencies of teenagers’ identities, but I’m not a fan of labeling certain likes/aversions as pretentious. I read that really great article in the Nytimes called “How to Live without Irony” and it rocked my world!
    I think irony has its place and anti-movements do too. But as a fan of art that is not Kitsch and music, books, and icons that I think are really moving us forward as a culture… I can’t help but be constantly thirsting for total unadulterated sincerity, authenticity and thoughtful criticism.
    That being said: fun is fun, pleasure is pleasure, and I have some totally kick-@$$ memories of watching The Bachelorette with my best friend.

  • barbroxursox July 5th, 2013 5:36 PM

    I used to object to all reality tv shows (except competition shows, like American Idol and Project Runway, which is da best imho). I still cannot stand watching Jersey Shore or Real Housewives or the Bachelor(ette), but I am more open to reality tv in general. I definitely watch more reality tv, but it always seems to leave a bad taste in my mouth… For example, Duck Dynasty is silly and random, but the messages sent sometimes come across as sexist or heteronormative. Dance Moms involves a lot of yelling at/punishing innocent kids and unfair treatment, and that doesn’t sit well with me. Breaking Amish seems to be exploiting kids who are just trying to get by after being ostracized by literally everyone they knew and trusted their entire lives. I understand that it’s good to notice the imperfections that we have in other people, and I don’t judge people for watching reality tv, but I find many to be exploitative and sending across toxic messages just to get higher ratings.

    • barbroxursox July 5th, 2013 5:41 PM

      BUT, that’s not to say that all reality tv is bad. I don’t watch Honey Boo Boo that much, but when I do, I feel so glad that more body types are getting represented in the media (same with the Kardashians). Idk… There are pros and cons of reality tv, and I can only stand to watch so many before I get enraged at every flaw that doesn’t mesh with my views, or at the fact that people actually live their lives that way and get paid to do it (even though many are scripted).