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INTERVIEW: Taking reality TV seriously (with Danielle Lindemann)
Issue 45: What reality television can reveal about social identities in 2022
Danielle is a sociologist at Lehigh University and an expert on gender, sexuality, and culture. She argues that reality TV, a guilty pleasure for many, holds up a mirror to our societies. The images of human relationships and behaviors these shows reflect back to us are, to be sure, often exaggerated—but precisely because they are magnified, they can reveal dynamics that play out more subtly in ordinary life.
In a recent piece in The Atlantic, for example, Danielle notes that although reality shows’ depictions of motherhood are generally zany and over-the-top, they also expose how societal expectations for mothers remain quite conservative and demanding. “Indeed,” she writes, “the moms on reality TV are not as different from other mothers as they initially appear: They are judged by—and often fall short of—the same rigid standards as those in other spheres. The conceits of unscripted programming may put these failures into sharper relief, but the supposed deficiencies are deeply familiar.”
We were especially interested in what reality TV can illuminate about how people understand social identities—their own and other people’s—and we asked Danielle about that here.
Thanks for chatting with us, Danielle. So what does reality TV have to say about us?
What doesn’t reality TV have to say about us? It’s a “funhouse mirror” of social life. Sure, reality TV is brimming with extreme personalities and situations, but sometimes looking at an object in amplified form helps us to see it more clearly. Ironically, even though it’s a rather zany form of entertainment, reality TV reveals how conservative and unyielding we are, in the way we think about everything from race and gender to what constitutes a “good” mother or a “legitimate” family. It shows us how we tend to think about our social categories in really fixed ways that represent the persistent tug of history. The genre offers us caricatures that reveal the parts of ourselves that maybe we’d prefer not to think about—our racism, our sexism, our classism, our crass materialism, our fat-phobia, the ways in which we sexualize children and ignore old people…I could go on.
BUT! Historically, it has also been filled with groups of people whom you don’t often see on TV. Reality TV was offering queer representation long before other forms of media followed suit. It’s given people of color and trans people a platform in ways that scripted TV has not. It’s shown us some new possibilities for gender expression. So, while it demonstrates how tenaciously we safeguard our social categories and our cultural assumptions, it also opens the door a crack and shows us so many creative, diverse alternative possibilities. And I wouldn’t be such a huge fan if that weren’t the case!
What does reality TV illuminate about the evolving role social identities play in contemporary life?
As mentioned, it shows us how firmly entrenched the categories behind these identities are, while also offering us a glimpse at how we’ve evolved. This is particularly true when it comes to our evolving attitudes around LGBTQ+ people. There has been a notable shift, for example, in the way that RuPaul’s Drag Race has discussed and featured trans people since it first aired in 2009.
But also, by offering us outlandish iterations of our cultural categories, norms, and values, reality TV ultimately teaches us how silly we are to believe that these things are essential, fixed, and unshakeable. It shows us how our perceptions of what is “true,” “normal,” “healthy,” “legitimate,” and “good” have always been socially constructed. The reality genre exposes our contemporary reality, but it also exposes reality itself to be a social fiction.
What was the most surprising thing you learned as you were researching this book?
I generally look at reality TV “as text”—so, I analyze the shows themselves and discuss how they reflect the dynamics of social life. But in my research for the book, I got a chance to review a lot of literature in the media studies/communications field, which looked at reality TV as an object of consumption – i.e., who watches and why and how that relates to other variables. Those findings were really fascinating to me. For example, heavy watchers of reality TV tend to be more likely than other people to drink alcohol, to go on social media, and to use tanning beds and hot tubs on dates!
What’s the biggest unanswered question left on the table?
One question I often get asked by journalists is “Is reality TV ultimately harmful or helpful?” And that’s a question I give a nod to, and then swiftly sidestep (ha!), in the book. Sociologists, generally (with some exceptions!), are more concerned with objectively understanding our social world than with pointing out what’s “good” or “bad” about it. Taking my sociologist hat off, personally, I think reality TV is a double-edged sword. For instance, it offers relatively diverse representations, but these representations can perpetuate harmful stereotypes about marginalized groups. It provides a platform for some views that I personally find reprehensible, but it also shows us parts of our social landscape that we might never see. It can inspire us to behave terribly, but it can also inspire us to behave better. That said, I certainly think that analyzing reality TV is helpful because it’s always helpful to look at oneself in the mirror.
What is your favorite reality TV show – and why?
RuPaul’s Drag Race! It’s such an intelligent show, and I’m so interested in what it has to teach us about gender as performative. Plus, it’s just fabulous.
News and updates
Jay joined the CultureLab Podcast to talk about the role of social identity and leadership in building effective organizational cultures and what high performing teams have in common.
Jay will give a keynote talk at The Aarhus 2022 Conference on Online Hostility and Bystanders. In what promises to be a rollicking two days (June 9-10), “world-leading experts [will] discuss what drives online political hostility, what its consequences are, and what counter-measures can be taken”.
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Catch up on the last one
In case you missed it, last week’s newsletter celebrated camaraderie among competitive snowboarders and discussed “the Olympic paradox”.