Rudrapriya Rathore introduces a month on reality television.
For me, the public has always been an embarrassing place. Given the choice to either go outside and get a coffee, or stay in and settle for tea, I will always choose the latter. The energy required to get dressed, become presentable, and pull together that public face—the only one I’m comfortable letting strangers see—seems too big an expense for little to no reward. Like many, many others (if Twitter accounts dedicated to documenting social anxiety are any indication), I thrive in privacy, where I’m more comfortable being my discombobulated self.
This starkly imagined division between the inside and outside, private and public, chaos and composure is no accident, especially for racialized, sexualized, and othered people: being seen comes with the baggage of knowing that how you appear is, to the public, more important than who you are. John Berger, in the BBC’s seminal Ways of Seeing, says that “a woman is always accompanied, except when quite alone, and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself.” Not being seen can mean not having to oversee and surveil the self, not having to constantly shrink, discipline, or punish it, thus relieving you of an incredible amount of psychological and social labour.
All this is to say that the concept of reality television—meant to expose inner life, strip away privacy, and excavate intensely personal areas of identity—is horrifying and absolutely irresistible. On the one hand, the viewer can’t help but imagine herself in the shoes of the televised subject, and on the other, she’s invited to judge, leer, dissect, and laugh at that same subject’s every move. The particular tension between empathy and contempt sustains the hunger to see more—even if, like most reality shows, the subjects themselves are devoid of any authentic narrative, propped up by transparently artificial framing devices and expensive production budgets.
The first reality show I really watched for longer than a few minutes was the cringeworthy 90 Day Fiancé; my boyfriend’s insistence on having it on in the background, sandwiched between episodes of Dr. Phil and Kitchen Nightmares, had the intended effect of gluing my gawking eyes to the screen every time I saw a character I recognized. In this TLC-engineered hell-scape, the camera follows several couples as they navigate the perils of international romance. Each couple is made up of one American citizen and one non-citizen and they have to marry within 90 days of the latter’s arrival in the US in order to stay in the country. Though each pair is equipped with some drama, ranging from virginity to plastic surgery to infidelity, the eternal question of the show and the thing on everyone’s mind remains, “What if this foreigner is only marrying me for an American citizenship?”
The only thing more interesting than a stranger’s intense inner feelings are that same stranger’s premeditated decisions to strategically perform those feelings until they look real.
That fear of foreignness and its malignant manifestations make up some of the more depressing parts of the show. How does one sustain contempt for Mohamed Jbali’s dishonesty even as his Midwestern ex-wife screams about getting him deported? Or judge Anfisa Arkhipchenko, who coldly repeats throughout the entire show that she knows Jorge only loves her for her looks—so why shouldn’t she love him for his money? (That he lied about having money to begin with is both juicy and unfair.)
There’s an implicit assumption that the lowbrow nature of reality television keeps it at a great distance from complex emotions. But anyone who has heard the call of some strange contradiction lurking beneath a flattened character arc knows that the desire for power and fame always gives rise to an excess of emotion. The only thing more interesting than a stranger’s intense inner feelings are that same stranger’s premeditated decisions to strategically perform those feelings until they look real.
On and off the screen, everyone is putting on a performance as someone else, regardless of whether or not they’re aware of it. We are constantly affecting composure, emotional breakdowns, romantic bliss, and professional achievement. Reality stars behave like they’re already famous in front of the same camera that is supposed to make them famous. There is no “being seen” without the inner, idealized image of what we want to be seen doing. But the in-between, shifting space—the space that can’t contain the “real” person—is always riveting, impossible to tear one’s eyes away from.
Throughout January, my co-editors Kathryn Stagg, Hannah Leadley, Pamela Dungao, Amy Oldfield, and I will be presenting new writing on all kinds of reality television. We can’t wait for you to tune in.
Rudrapriya Rathore is The Puritan’s Head of Publicity. Her writing has appeared in Joyland, Minola Review, Hazlitt, This Magazine, and The Walrus, among others. She lives in Toronto.