5 ways reality shows are eroding civility

I am not a fan of reality shows.  I watched the first season ofSurvivor and enjoyed it but the novelty wore off quickly and I’ve missed the ensuing episodes.  I’ve never watched American Idol or Dancing With the Starsand after accidentally tuning in to Jersey Shore one night, I’ve avoided that channel ever since.  In the early 2000s, I assumed reality programming was an overhyped fad and, as soon as everyone came to their senses, it would pass and we would be back to professionally scripted television.  But as we all know, that didn’t happen and year after year, just when I thought the bottom of the barrel had been scraped dry, it turns out there was more detritus clinging to the wood waiting to be peeled off and served up to millions of eager viewers.

Friends who like some reality shows are quick to chastise me for painting them all with the same brush.  They claim there is a distinction between the ones that are based on talent (So You Think You Can Dance Canada) and those which exist just to follow around a bunch of boring people (The Real Housewives franchise) as they go about their highly-staged lives.  I can concede that there is a difference, marginal as it may be, but from an etiquette point of view, I’m going to speak of the genre as a whole and its negative impact on a society which is already suffering from a downturn in civility.

Devaluing Accomplishment – Last week,former Real Housewife of New York Bethenny Frankel, was third on Forbes list of the highest paid female entertainers.  Think of all the amazing actresses you see on TV, or talented struggling actresses you know, and then think about the fact that someone whose claim to fame is being loud, obnoxious and ungrateful on screen, has “earned” more money than all of them. When the 20-something candidates on Paris Hilton’s dreadful My New Best Friend, were voted off the show, many of them sobbed on camera because “their life’s dream had been quashed”.  Um, shouldn’t those tears be saved for not getting into the university of your choice or landing your dream job?

Rewards for Bad Behaviour – Reality show producers figured out early on that immature, inappropriate and shameful behaviour sells (think the duplicitous Richard Hatch on Survivor Season One).  Since then, they have unleashed a steady stream of shameless contestants who lie, cheat and steal their way to the prize.  Kind, decent people need not apply and if they do make it onto the shows, they are voted off the island early on because they don’t get ratings. What’s more, some contestants (think Omarosa), have been able to parlay their bitchy behaviour into a post-show career.

Lack of Discretion – It has always been considered poor etiquette to air one’s dirty laundry in public and I believe, with the rise of social networks, it’s even more important that we protect our own privacy and that of our families.  It’s bad enough that the people who appear on reality shows are indiscreet about their own lives, but in their unrelenting desire for fame and money, they draw innocent children into it (John and Kate Plus 8), with no thought to the long-term consequences.  In some cases, the revelation of deeply private information can play a role in tragic consequences such as the recent suicide of the husband of one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Glorification of narcissism – We are in the midst of a narcissism epidemic and the proliferation of reality shows is only making it worse.  Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, and a recognized expert on this topic, claims that “the explosion of shallow celebrity culture promotes narcissism as not just acceptable but desirable. Celebrity gossip and happenings are now found on mainstream news channels. The social models we see are often advertisements for a narcissistic lifestyle”.  The result is that, instead of being appalled by the antics of many reality stars, people dream of being like them.

Misplaced values – Kim Kardashian, a child of Hollywood wealth and privilege, rose to fame on the heels of the well-planned leak of a sex tape.  She used that as a jumping-off point for a “career” that includes a top-rated TV show, paid appearances at events and a string of endorsements.  This summer, in the midst of a crippling U.S. recession, she got married before cameras, in an over-the-topwedding that was estimated to cost $20 million. While everyone has the right to the wedding of their dreams, what kind of message does this spectacle send to young girls? Considering that success has come so easy to Kardashian, imagine the message she could have sent if she had donated even 10 per cent of that money to charity?

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