Life&Style writer Marina Ley discusses the impact that reality TV has had on our society

Written by marinalirialey
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Picture the scene. It’s your first lecture back at the start of a new academic year and the lecturer (making a humble attempt to break the ice and establish some half-baked sense of community) decides to throw in a cheeky ice breaker question for the room. Would you rather be asked to say your name and an interesting fact about yourself, or asked who your favourite Love Island couple is? I know my answer, because let’s speak our truth and finally let people know that one ‘interesting fact’ is never actually that interesting and those two stress-inducing words send an unmatched shiver of panic and fear down my spine (anyway, why limit it to just one interesting fact?).

To summarize, in the style of Sparknotes summary points, we have become a nation obsessed with Love Island, and in general, reality TV. I mean just look at ITVBe, there’s whole channels dedicated to the institution that is, the delicious comfort of trash telly. Television lies in the patchwork of British culture, it is the cultural references that make up our most prized private jokes with our mates, and it is the nuances that make for comforting, one hundred percent success rate conversation starters with strangers. Television is everywhere, and to some extent, everything (yes, BBC Three and Channel 4 raised me).

Television lies in the patchwork of British culture

The world in which we live is reflected in the television of our time. Essentially, every generation has their own time capsule in the form of television. In this sense, television is the great harmoniser, and not the great divider that its anti-social face-value may appear as. Telly is a shared experience, helping to establish bonds, community, and routine as we revel in animated discussions crowded around the telly together, or for the post viewing debriefs. Could we then say that watching TV is adaptive as it builds our social networks? If only nine-year-old me had that argument for when I wanted to watch double billings of Tracy Beaker.

However, where our parents may reminisce about Top of the Pops and the golden era of Eastenders, it is more than likely that reality television will be the poster child for our squared-eyed generation. The 2000s brought about a new style of telly, from makeover shows such as (the questionable, yet iconic) Ten Years Younger in Ten Days, behind the scenes reality series following celebrity lives such as Katie and Peter, to reality television sensationalising the lives of normal people (who have now become celebrities in their own right), such as Made in Chelsea.

Television is a hot spot for sociological theory. The first time I truly realised my future potential as a Sociology academic was when my lecturer spent an hour dissecting the politics of Snog, Mary, Avoid. Glorious. Reality TV is its own social experiment, just without the hateful menace that is social research methods. Fine, fine! Looks like once again I have no choice but to bring in Love Island (any chance I get). Chuck together a diverse, mixed group of people, pop them into a controlled environment, watch as we see what happens; the bonds created, the fights, the whole human experience condensed into a microcosm of sunbeds and heart-rate challenges.

The appeal of reality television is obvious. It allows us to indulge in a cathartic trip of vicariously living through people’s experiences that we recognise from our own lives. There’s something comforting in observing someone else’s heartbreak as it is sound tracked to another acoustic cover of a Becky Hill song. Heartbreak is a universal experience but it can feel like the most personal, lonely, slap in the face when you are the one affected by it.

However, the relatability of watching and empathising with fellow heartbroken reality stars can be comforting. Being able to relate from a third-party perspective provides an unusual catharsis. Whether we watch people sob and argue and get their hearts broken, with our own special someone in mind, or, watch to feel relief that you’re not the only one going through it, humans enjoy a cathartic release. We all have those sad girl hour Spotify playlists that we play to indulge in our own sadness.

It allows us to indulge in a cathartic trip of vicariously living through peoples experiences that we recognise from our own lives

And if the social sciences aren’t enough to convince you that reality TV is stunning, gorgeous, beautiful, peng, then perhaps I can sway you with some neuroscience. Research shows that listening to sad music releases the hormone, prolactin, which helps to deal with grief. Similarly, watching sad content (and you cannot tell me that Amy and Curtis’ breakup was not devastating to watch) can increase endorphins, helping to build pain tolerance and encourage social bonding. Our body literally seeks a tough watch in order to stockpile the much needed happy hormones.

Essentially, bottling up emotions, and masking the intense, punch-to-the-stomach sadness that heartbreak can induce does not help in the long run. If anything, it elongates the pain, tripling the recovery time. Therefore, cathartic viewing in the form of reality TV may be the radical approach to finding the keys to Heartbreak hotel, and locking it for good. And if the Love Island shaped hole in your reality TV endowed heart causes concern (and it does), I’ve heard that the Real Housewives of Selly Oak has just started filming…

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