Your guilty pleasure might actually include some important life lessons.
This week saw the return of UnREAL, Lifetime’s explosive drama set behind the scenes of a dating show, inspired by series creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s own experiences as a producer on The Bachelor. In UnREAL, executive producer Quinn (played with deliciously dark aplomb by Constance Zimmer) will stop at nothing to get ratings, and has no qualms about sabotaging the wellbeing of her contestants, or “meat puppets” as she calls them, to achieve her own goals.
It’s a searing satire of reality television that works because it skewers well-worn tropes we’re familiar with, from “surprise” twists to the paper-thin archetypes like “The Bitch” or “The Crazy One“ that are so often projected onto women in TV. And sure, plenty of scripted reality shows mirror the snake-pit portrayed in UnREAL; after all, viewers live for that drama.
But there’s also a different, kinder sort of reality programme.
Take First Dates, for instance. Who hasn’t felt their heart go out to one of the many hapless singletons who crosses the threshold of that restaurant? Far from feeling exploitative, First Dates actively tries to match people with Mr or Ms Right, and encourages empathy in the viewer. Participants in First Dates are of all ages, ethnicities, sexualities and gender identities, some with disabilities, others living with HIV. When we find ourselves rooting for a specific couple to hit if off, it’s a reminder that people of all backgrounds deserve their shot at romance.
The recent Queer Eye reboot is a similar exercise in empathy. While packaged as your bog standard makeover show, Queer Eye sees gay men forging bonds with self-proclaimed “rednecks” across political and class divides, and teaching men that expressing emotions and tenderness won’t damage their masculinity. When news of the revival first broke, there were concerns that it would lean on the same tired stereotypes and clichés that made the original such a time capsule, but it turned out to be refreshingly relevant.
I’d almost say Queer Eye is the greatest, gayest reality show of all time, but we haven’t talked about RuPaul’s Drag Race yet. If you haven’t seen it before, get thee to Netflix and start binging; it’s like Project Runway meets America’s Next Top Model, with added shade (and lip-syncs). Celebrating creativity and queer culture, Drag Race invites drag queens from all over the United States to compete in a series of fashion, acting, comedy and dancing challenges, eliminating a queen each week until one of them is crowned America’s next drag superstar. But it’s more than just a guilty pleasure; it’s gay liberation in microcosm. Drag queens (and trans women) have always been the flagbearers of the gay rights movement, and it is only right that they now have an audience which loves and respects what they do.
With its move to VH1 last year, the show found itself a much wider viewership than when it aired on Logo — and while the format of the competition remained the same, conversations about elements of the LGBTQ experience, including HIV/AIDS and the Pulse shooting, were incorporated into the usual workroom chat. Some fans found this ‘Very Special Episode’ direction jarring, but the producers clearly saw and took an opportunity to educate mainstream audiences.
Speaking of RuPaul’s Drag Race, one of the show’s season six finalists came strutting back into the reality TV spotlight this year; Australian drag queen and singer Courtney Act, aka Shane Gilberto Jenek, won Celebrity Big Brother in January. Courtney won over viewers by simply being herself, and by having open and honest conversations with other housemates about the differences between drag, gender fluidity, and trans issues. By being patient and empathetic, even when baited by fellow housemate (and eventual runner up) Anne Widdecombe, Courtney was able to bring a relatable human face to a complex subject.
And that’s the power of television in a nutshell. Up and down the country, families will have sat down to watch Celebrity Big Brother and ended up having conversations about politics, gender and sexuality, and how they all intersect. These programmes take you out of your comfort zone for an hour a week, put you in somebody else’s shoes, and invite you to be more considerate of other people’s experiences.
They also teach us that being comfortable in your own skin is an important first step in being able to relate to other people. As Mama Ru always says: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”