For those of you that don’t know, Love Island is a British ‘reality television’ concept that has become a global phenomenon. Arguably deriving from the first global reality programme, Big Brother, which launched in 1997 it is the latest incarnation of this genre.
The premise is one whereby a group of (young, physically attractive) singletons are isolated from the rest of the world in a luxury villa dotted with cameras throughout. The singletons then must avoid elimination (eviction) from the villa through coupling up with another contestant. And like Big Brother the public ‘votes’ to eliminate contestants who do not please them. The ultimate price? Love? Eternal happiness? No, a pot of money.
What is the appeal of watching reality television?
To answer this question we first have to define how reality TV differs from regular TV. Clearly, reality TV is (to a greater or lesser extent) unscripted. And a cynic may argue that it is cheap to produce as the ‘talent’ is free, however I am more interested in the viewers drive rather than the profit margins of the production company.
For the viewer, they are aware it is unscripted – anything could happen. And with offering the audience a piece of the action – the control to vote out contestants, the experience becomes seemingly interactive, almost relational in that viewers feel a form of connection to the contestants.
Reality TV is reminiscent of the Romans and their staged ‘fights’ between gladiators and prisoners, or between imprisoned wild animals and unfortunate humans. And whilst the humble Roman had no direct power over who survived, they could look to their Emperor who would decide with a simple thumb’s-up or -down whether to spare the life of the barely alive prisoner. In turn the Emperor would be guided by the furore of the crowd, hence the illusion of control and investment in the outcome. Fundamentally though, it was entertainment at the expense of an
Now let’s consider how reality TV and regular drama such as soaps – Eastenders and the like – differ. Watching a soap opera is a narcissistic endeavour where the lives of fictitious characters are watched according to a script. All are aware of the ‘pretend’ quality. A performance is being given and the boundaries between real people and characters are clear.
Reality television invites the participants to ‘star’ in a version of life judged by the viewer. And the viewer rewards the contestant through sparing them or eliminating them dependent on how ‘entertained’ they feel. It is a game of exhibitionism and voyeurism. One can argue that unlike prisoners of the Romans who were ‘thrown to the lions’, reality TV stars enter into the ‘game’ with their eyes fully open and can be handsomely rewarded. On the face of it this is true, however, taking ‘Love Island’ alone, there has been significant media coverage of three suicides of people
connected to the show. Whether the latter is causation or correlation, my argument is that both the contestants and viewers of reality TV are being driven by something unconscious.
So what’s the appeal?
I believe that this genre of television has become so extraordinarily popular because it appeals to out innate need to feel part of a community. Unlike soap operas, we know that what happens is real – and even if it is not; both contestant and viewer believe it is so the fantasy is complete.
In reality TV we are invited into the intimate lives of a group of people and can exert influence over them – it creates a kind of pseudo-connection. Exactly the kind of pseudo-connection present in a collusive exhibitionistic/voyeuristic encounter. By definition therefore, it is a form of perverse relationship in that it is rigid and without emotional contact. It is a relationship based on power and control rather than real intimacy.
And like any pseudo-connection, whilst it may feel exciting and glamorous, it has the nasty habit of leaving us feeling less connected and thus more prone to feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness when it all ends. And it always does. For the viewer, they can move onto the next reality TV series thereby keeping their need for authentic connection and vulnerability at bay; for the contestant, they can perpetuate the fantasy through building a career (brand) build on image, or they fall spectacularly from grace or fade away (both are equally devastating for the narcissist).
A loss of belonging
I therefore suggest that ultimately the rise of reality TV correlates with the erosion of community and a sense of belonging. It correlates with an increasingly individualistic world where narcissistic interactions are the norm.
Ultimately though, it speaks of our desire for contact and real relationship, something that can never be fulfilled through reality television or any other kind of perverse relationship where the premise is power and control.
Connection and belonging come from community and from real relationships where two people can take up space and each have their ‘real’ experience validated and understood by the other, rather than one having to be a performing (glamorous) monkey in order to manage to survive (elimination). The latter is pure and simply the definition of a deeply narcissistic and perverse relationship.
Mark Vahrmeyer, UKCP Registered, BHP Co-founder is an integrative psychotherapist with a wide range of clinical experience from both the public and private sectors. He currently sees both individuals and couples, primarily for ongoing psychotherapy. Mark is available at the Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
Further reading by Mark Vahrmeyer