🎙 Listened to Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV podcast.

Part fondly reminiscing of reality show days of yore - remember Nasty Nick? - and part analysing the destructive effects some of them may have had on the contestants, and perhaps us, the audience.

Some of the shows that were made a few years ago now seem like extremely bad ideas when viewed in the light of more modern, hopefully progressive, sensibilities.

Perhaps the most egregious offenders that came up were the three below. Fortunately none of them are still being made as far as I can tell.

The Swan

A show which found some ugly ducklings and gave them an extreme makeover over the course of 3 month, using personal trainers, therapists, dentists and cosmetic surgeons. Then whichever one of the modified women was deemed most attractive gets to enter a beauty pageant, with the eventual winner becoming, of course, the Swan.

Naturally it would be too much to hope that this “most sadistic reality series of the decade” is some kind of bizarre wildlife show. The ugly ducklings are in fact, unfortunately, inevitably, actual human women. Many of whom have since gone through all sorts of traumatic stuff, sometimes relating to a lack of follow-up aftercare for the huge numbers of surgeries they had.

It also got into a bit of trouble for splicing together quotes in very misleading ways. This taught me the term “Frankenbiting” which is to create non-existent situations via cutting splicing together footage is misleading ways.

To say nothing of any impact it may have had on its audience and society in general, enmeshed in “a genre of popular culture which positions work on the body as a morally correct solution to personal problems”, to quote Alice Marwick.

Who’s your Daddy?

Upsettingly, the question in the title of this show isn’t rhetorical. Eight men try to convince TJ Myers, an adopted woman, that they are her biological father. If she gets it wrong then the man she thought was her father gets a cash prize. What more is there to say?

Adoption rights advocates were not very pleased, with comments like “This isn’t just offensive, it’s destructive” and “Publicity and contests and deception and money should not be involved” abounding from experts.

There’s Something About Miriam

In this one we have a set of men competing for the affections of Miriam Rivera. That kind of premise has often struck me as a little problematic in most of the near infinite amount of variations it’s received over the years. But in this instance there’s a special, for want of a very different word, “twist”.

Miriam is a trans woman, as the show liked to make clear to the audience with heavy use of innuendo and crass exploitation, but only clear to the participants after one of them had won her heart or whatever winning the competition was supposed to mean.

Naturally it didn’t go great when they did. The show’s release was delayed by the contestants suing it for psychological and emotional damage. Miriam herself unfortunately died some years later, aged 37, officially by suicide (although her husband believes it was murder). The idea that this could ever be anything other than crass and offensive seems extremely unfathomable, and I don’t think that’s just 2023 talking.