Cruel voyeurism: why reality TV shows are inherently bad for contestants’ mental health

For every success story, the genre has created many more incidences of mental struggle, financial instability and limited professional success.

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When I was 17, the women’s clothes store where I worked in Birmingham crowned me the all-time worst sales rep. I had no talent for flattery, but it was a chance encounter with a former Big Brother contestant – somewhat lost and looking for a pair of jeans prior to a local nightclub appearance – that would finally see me banished to the stock cupboard for several months.

Over the years, as I neared and passed the age that she would have been at the time, and read tidbits about her financial struggles and personal misfortunes, the memory of my barely repressed laughter while serving the reality TV contestant became a source of shame and embarrassment. The thought returned to me again recently with the cancellation of the Jeremy Kyle show, following the suicide of former participant Steve Dymond, and the recent suicides of two former-Love Island contestants, Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis.

Last week, the UK media regulator Ofcom announced a new set of rules to protect those who appear on TV, guaranteeing care and support to all contestants and limiting the extent to which their distress and anxiety can be engineered by producers and directors. It’s a long overdue intervention into a genre that, for every success story, has created many more incidences of subsequent mental struggle, financial instability and limited professional success. 

For decades, shows like Jeremy Kyle have preyed on vulnerable people. More innocuous formats – from reality TV like Love Island and Big Brother to audition shows such as X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent – have baited contestants with insurmountable challenges and devices to manipulate dynamics and provoke conflict and distress. The narrative arc of reality television involves the creation of villains, victims and oddballs, fictional constructions created by the editing process, of which contestants may only be partially aware.

Take the case of Susan Boyle for example, who rose to fame in the third series of Britain’s Got Talent and later became a public spectacle for her struggles with Asperger syndrome. Without any prior experience of public exposure, and while navigating the unfamiliar world of profit-makers and media bosses trying to secure their next scoop, Boyle inevitably broke down. Yet in the pantheon of miserable reality TV show tales, hers was supposedly a success story: Boyle attained the highest ranks of the reality TV show dream, escaping the abject cruelty of other formats and the mass ridicule aimed at other, less fortunate contestants of the same show (and all this despite actually coming second to dance troupe Diversity).

Boyle’s mental health was pivotal to her success. Her condition was undiagnosed at the time, but her uncomfortable persona during initial auditions made it easy to portray the singer’s talent as all the more unlikely – and therefore all the more TV-worthy. According to the logic of reality TV, she seemed an outlier – an inexplicable anomaly whose novelty value could be mined for all its worth. This might have been justified on the grounds of greater inclusion, were it not for the subtle strain of mockery and pity that accompanied her segments, goaded by a sentimental soundtrack and stock looks of surprise on the judge’s faces as she delivered her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables.

This is because the reality TV genre relies on a quiet form of dramatic irony, a disjuncture between how the contestants see themselves, and how they’re actually perceived. Boyle did not apply to go on Britain’s Got Talent as an eccentric; likewise, young applicants to Love Island don’t apply with a view to being mocked for their botched aphorisms or entry-level psychological analyses.

But humour and entertainment value lies in that very tension; a dynamic that leaves contestants partially oblivious and naïve to the origins of their popularity, or lack thereof. This creates figures of public mockery, but it also poses questions about the nature of consent. The few reality formats that give participants more agency are those that limit observation – like Gogglebox for example, or scripted reality shows where contestants are able to create fictional characters for themselves.

As I grow older I’ve developed more sympathy for the graduates of reality TV. When working as a teenaged shop assistant, I’d not yet experienced the humiliation of professional and financial hardship, despite growing up as part of a working and lower-middle class family. Big Brother had quietly mocked its contestants, emboldening me and countless others to do the same. Years later, reflecting on this dynamic from a place of relative stability, I’m both more aware of my own bigotry, and of the role that class stereotypes play in the manufacturing of popular entertainment.

Stories of financial hardship are central to the reality TV show narrative. The sweet, humbling tale of a person seemingly without hope, plucked from obscurity and set on the road to success, is a compelling one told time and time again in the opening sequences to Britain’s Got Talent and X-Factor. But it also reflects society’s obsession with upward mobility – and the notion that the working class’ only hope is a fortuitous escape to the middle. 

The financial imperative for applying to these shows, as I reflected when meeting the person who tried to buy the jeans, can’t be ignored. It’s why the winners rarely present as financially stable. As a regular consumer of reality TV, sad though it is to admit, it’s almost impossible to separate the causing of harm from the enjoyment of the format itself. Most reality TV shows speak to a part of us that is cruel and ultimately, exploitative.

How else to explain my regrettable actions as a teenage attention-seeker, than by a dynamic that frames us, the audience – who feel otherwise small, tired, perhaps somewhat downtrodden in our jobs as sales assistants and uncertain of our futures – as the smart ones? We, the all-knowing audience, would never be so stupid as to go on TV and reveal our deepest desires. We can see the dynamics plain as day, while the hapless idiots on the island or in the house or on the stage dreaming of success – which will be short-lived at best and riddled with tabloid drama – fall into every trap that has been set for them.

Because, in our urge for escapism, it’s easy to forget that what we’re witnessing isn’t fiction, but an episode in the lives of real people who will one day need to buy jeans without the worry of being teased by their teenage sale reps, or for that matter, anyone else. 

Nathalie Olah is the author of Steal as much as you can, published by Repeater Books (October 2019).