Let’s talk about it: Women’s portrayal in reality TV

Ava Razavi

I spend a shocking amount of time defending my affinity for reality TV. Almost every time I admit that watching “Too Hot to Handle” and “Love is Blind” brings me joy, I get the same reaction. People roll their eyes at me, often scoffing while whispering something misogynistic under their breath. 

Other reality TV fans, which make up 40 percent of the U.S., and I fight back in response. Reality TV is fun! There are always weird unrelated challenges and sweet dates on the beach. Sometimes, there are celebrity appearances or a huge prize fund for a seemingly easy task — I’m talking to you, “Too Hot to Handle”; how hard is it to not have sex for four weeks when you could win $200,000? 

But recently, it’s getting hard for me to defend reality TV. Here’s why: The treatment of women, especially Black women, in these shows is horrendous. So, let’s talk about it. 

Most reality TV shows revolve around love – sorry, I meant lust. Shows like “The Bachelor” and “Love Island” pose as an environment where people can come together and find love with others who are ready for a relationship, but they’re not. Instead, they’re a place women are repeatedly shamed and stereotyped, simply for entertainment purposes.

Illustration by Carsen Goltz

 I’ll be the first to admit that watching two women fight over the most mediocre man in the world, probably named Nick or Matthew or some other absurdly basic name, is amusing. But, when producers’ primary goal is to make women look stupid and capitalize off of their suffering, these harmless giggles from viewers turn into something a little more dangerous.

 These shows seem keen on only showing women at their worst points. Last time I checked, this false portrayal of women isn’t really in line with the whole “reality” aspect that these shows are trying to put forth. They begin to set in place an idea of women in viewers’ minds that is entirely false and instead cultivated to portray an unlikable persona. Women can not continue to be categorized as one-dimensional gold diggers who are desperate, boy-obsessed and ditzy based on their depictions in reality TV.

Women are nuanced beings. We can be loving, argumentative, sensitive, kind, picky, strong, stubborn and every other human trait that exists in the world. Why don’t we see this complex version of women on our screens? Because without the manipulation that profits off of female pain, reality TV doesn’t make any money.

Look at the treatment of Black women throughout reality TV history. Too often the casting team only brings on one Black woman, almost as if they’re trying to fill a certain tiny quota. They are treated horribly and their image is manipulated to fit an “angry” stereotype. How many times was Holly Hatcher-Frazier in “Dance Moms” called hysterical for not wanting her daughter to only dance “ethnic” dances? And why was Tiffany Pollard from “Flavor of Love” brought back on the second season of the show just to be humiliated once again and sent home? Black women continue to be the butt of the joke, being stereotyped as angry and irrational. 

Executive producer and star of the reality show “Basketball Wives,” Shaunie O’Neal, finds the tokenized representation of Black women in reality TV to be problematic and offensive. 

“The problem for me is when Black women are portrayed as only [bickering and aggressive] and labeled differently than their non-Black counterparts for the same type of behavior. That’s when it becomes negative and damaging to our image,” she wrote in an article for CNN.

It’s clear that reality TV perpetuates an image of women that is inherently false and harmful. I’m not advocating for us to stop watching the genre as a whole, especially considering the few wonderful non-dating reality shows such as “The Great British Baking Show” and “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” where people come together and do something they’re passionate about. What I ask of you fellow reality TV fans is to be mindful. Don’t buy into these toxic stereotypes of Black women and womanhood as a whole. Horrible people exist everywhere, but these traits of anger and vanity are not exclusive to any gender or race. Instead, see and appreciate women as the complex individuals they are!