Last year on the US Bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay, who just a few seasons earlier was unlucky in love, declared her affection for Bryan Abasolo, her chosen partner, and received a diamond engagement ring.
Though Lindsay was thrilled with her fairytale ending, some viewers questioned the authenticity of her union. Could Abasolo really achieve true love in eight weeks given the pressure of being on national television and the allure of free dates in exotic locations? And considering the competitive format, was Lindsay merely a trophy dangled over a bunch of starved men, unable to resist their competitive instincts?
Cynical as these criticisms may be, they point to a trend that belies the classification of shows like these as “reality TV”. Increasingly, we turn to reality TV as a form of escapism. The worlds that these shows create exist within unique conventions—see for example how contestants on The Bachelorette must temporarily suspend notions of romantic exclusivity, or the celebration of flamboyance and bending gender norms on RuPaul’s Drag Race. And yet, despite this, the shows remain curiously tethered to aspects or rituals of real life, such as cooking or dating.
Part of the appeal of reality TV may be the way shows impose a satisfying structure on the everyday—apparent, for example, in how interpersonal disputes are solved between characters from different walks of life: tension builds, fights occasionally may break out, but ultimately the meritorious candidate comes out on top.
The word “reality” also implies that the way a person acts on television reflects their true selves; that, therefore, persons performing particularly repugnant a c t i o n s deserve to be condemned by viewers. However, to make it easier to sell a narrative within 90 minutes, producers often edit footage so contestants reflect archetypes. “Yes, you sign up to be filmed and edited,” says Anneliese Wilson, a contestant on the second season of Australian Survivor, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t be annoyed at it … it’s sometimes impossible to tell 24 stories of 24 contestants in detail.”
Additionally, Wilson found that the physical and mental challenges of Survivor—constant hunger, cold and isolation from the real world—changed how people made decisions. “You see people crack in a weird way, and you wonder if that is a consequence of being in an extreme environment.” Jake Ellis, who placed third on The Bachelorette Australia in 2016 and courted controversy on Bachelor in Paradise, notes that “there are public forums where you can outlay how it actually went down.”
Wilson and Ellis are quick to point out that their shows weren’t scripted. “We have to take responsibility for the things we said,” says Jericho Malabonga, winner of the second season of Australian Survivor. While gameplay intensified as the $500,000 prize came within reach, Malabonga believes that his cast “came in to play the game over money.” They understood that devious behaviour from other players wasn’t malicious, and rather was done to further their chances to win.
Throughout her season, Lindsay was shamed for insisting that the final man be ready to propose, and for eliminating fan favourite Peter Kraus for his hesitance to commit. But the climactic proposal has long been tradition in US Bachelor history. The world in which this requirement exists is unusual. But willing participants understand that the entire process is unusual, and accept this requirement as a rule of the game.
“There’s no outside influence, there’s nothing except conversation and exploring the other person every day,” says Ellis, who left Bachelor in Paradise in a relationship which is still going strong. “Your emotions are sped up and magnified [compared to real life] … it’s like speed dating on steroids.” That high-pressure environment “forces you to make decisions” which might reveal a person’s character, but “there’s so much more that the public never sees.”
All agree that the shaming contestants receive online is unwarranted. “The public is brutal,” says Ellis. “Some people hated me and that’s something I can’t control.” Malabonga was more concerned with how his loved ones would perceive him “when my integrity was completely questioned … [but] I came home to people who knew the real me.”
“As a viewer, play devil’s advocate,” recommends Wilson, who revealed that some castaways received death threats for their choices in the show. “Take the story as an entertaining thing to watch … [but] taking it into the real world is a little bit devastating.” Ellis believes that, possibly, “the media do think they have a right to know about every detail of my relationship now.”
It begs the question: are there some moments of distress, shame or personal trauma on reality TV that deserve to be hidden from the public, even if hiding them would make for a confusing narrative? In 2017, the US version of Survivor showed Zeke Smith being brutally outed as transgender. While tribemates rallied around Smith, condemning his assailant and sending them home, the important social conversations started by that episode came at the expense of Smith’s wellbeing. Survivor involved Smith heavily in the production of that episode. “It was tragic, and it reminded us that there are real-world ramifications outside this game,” says Wilson.
“Going into that environment you need confidence in yourself,” says Ellis when asked about whether he would’ve kept some of the rawer moments on the show private. “I don’t think shame is the right word, it’s reflection—you learn a lot about yourself very quickly.”
In a context where public humiliation and invasions of privacy are common, networks and production companies seem very aware of their obligations towards contestants. Wilson, like all Survivor and Bachelor contestants, had unfettered access to a psychologist and publicist during and after the show. “Production always treated us with respect [and made us] feel as healthy and supported as possible.”
Similar to employer-employee relationships, the shows are under a duty of care to maintain a safe environment.But how far that duty extends is another matter. The prevalence of villainous or foolish characters on reality TV suggests that shows don’t protect their contestant’s images, though defamation law may help contestants discredit false imputations.
Lindsay and Abasolo are still together, which can’t be said for the majority of Bachelor couples. Once the prize is won, be it money, love or something else, contestants need to plan a way back to reality. “Part of my motivation was that chance for adventure,” says Ellis. “It’s a weird world but something very unique. I loved every second, high point or low.”