Reality Doesn't Have to Bite: Five Shows That Aren't Totally Terrible

Posted by Nona Willis Aronowitz


A new survey from the Girl Scouts Institute confirms what most of us already know: Reality television can mess up our kids. After interviewing 1,100 teenage girls, the Girl Scouts concluded that reality show-watchers are more likely than non-watchers to agree that gossiping is a normal part of girls’ relationships, that it’s “hard to trust” girls, and that girls are naturally “catty” with each other [PDF]. They agree with statements like “Being mean earns you more respect than being nice,” and they spend a lot more time perfecting their appearance. Though the survey also points to evidence that train wrecks like Jersey Shore and Extreme Makeover provide teachable moments—two-thirds said that the shows have sparked important conversations with parents and friends—most of the data isn't very heartening.

But, as others have pointed out, all reality shows are not created equal. At least according to reality television's harshest critic: Jennifer Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV.

"It’s not the format of reality TV that's the problem," she says. "It's what network producers and product placement advertisers have chosen to do with it." According to Pozner, the vast majority of reality television is "exploitative. It's misogynist, and racist, and classist, and homophobic." American women, in particular, come across as "shallow greedy gold-diggers; manipulative, catty bitches; stupid, incompetent losers who want nothing more than to be Mrs. Something." But Pozner says there are some shows out there that have avoided falling into those traps. It's clear that reality TV shows are here to stay, so we might as well model the genre after the non-offensive ones. Here are Pozner's picks for five reality shows that don't suck.

Project Runway

"Shows that are focused on talent tend to be much less exploitative of gender and racial stereotypes," says Pozner. A show like Project Runway, wherein fashioner designer hopefuls compete to create the best ensemble, relies on skill, creativity, and genuine personality—"as opposed to 'personality,' which is code for somebody who brings the drama." Unlike other competition shows, contestants aren't judged by their looks, and they usually represent a variety of ethnicities and sexual orientations.

See also: Top Chef

Watch it instead of: America's Next Top Model

Tune in: Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. on Lifetime for Project Runway All-Stars; season 10 of the regular series doesn't start until summer.

The Amazing Race

The Amazing Race, which challenges teams of people to compete with other teams in a race around the world, "bring[s] parts of the world that most Americans will never see, and never hear about on the news, into our living rooms once a week," Pozner says. It sometimes falls into the trap of the adventure tourism industry—portraying the Americans as interesting explorers while the natives are "passive and weird,"—but generally, the show tries to treat them with respect. Unlike similar shows, The Amazing Race never mocks the cultures their cast interacts with. Not only that, the participants are extremely diverse, and "not in order to poke fun at" racial stereotypes. "It's just part of the fabric of the show," says Pozner. "Because people are not all white, straight, and 25."

Watch it instead of: Survivor

Tune in: Sundays at 8 p.m. on CBS

The Voice

"The Voice has finally taken the music reality contest and turned it into a real music competition," Pozner says. "It’s not about anything except the contestant’s talent and charisma." The Voice seems to truly celebrate vocal quality and unique musical arrangements performed by a diverse group of people. "It's not only diverse in terms of ethnicity and sexual orientation, but gender performance, too," she adds. The Voice stands out for holding men and women to an equal standard, rather than making it a talent show for men and a beauty contest for women. On American Idol, for instance, "Jennifer Hudson was told she needed to lose weight." That kind of thing doesn't fly on The Voice.

Watch it instead of: American Idol

Tune in: Monday, Feb. 6 on NBC for the season premiere

RuPaul's Drag Race 

If any person has mainstreamed cross-dressing, it's RuPaul. So what better mentor for a group of aspiring drag queens? Pozner says that although RuPaul's Drag Race does sometimes rely on stereotypes, it still "push[es] the boundaries around gender presentation. You get to know the drag queens both in the makeup and corsets and wigs and stockings and heels—and you get to know those same drag queens in their regular boy clothes. It’s a real mindfuck for people who haven’t had to wrestle with whether gender and sexual orientation is this one thing." In other words, RuPaul's Drag Race doesn't put sexuality in one little box. It tells us that we're allowed to play with it, to push it, and to mold it to who we innately are. 

See also: Transamerican Love Story

Watch it instead of: bisexual dating shows like A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila

Tune in: for the premiere in January on Logo, exact time and date TBD

The Cho Show

In terms of quality, positive messaging, and entertainment value, The Cho Show is Pozner's number-one pick. The show was a hijinks-based day-in-the-life of comedian Margaret Cho, and in Pozner's opinion, "the only reality TV show in a decade... that actively mocked and dismissed the importance of traditional, advertisement-approved beauty, then redefined it. And it was really funny." Pozner recalls a meta-episode where Cho decides to hold the Cho Universe Pageant, a half-serious contest where any two women could compete on their "real beauty" merits. The contestants ranged from mother-daughter pairs to 70-year-old best friends to lesbian couples, and the talent competition was full of jokes and rock n' roll guitar. The twist at the end was that everybody won the pageant. "In the Cho universe, we’re all fucking beauty queens," the comedian declared at the end. Everyone got a tiara.

Unfortunately (and perhaps inevitably), VH1 only ran the show for one season. But to Pozner, The Cho Show is iron-clad proof that "you don’t have to rely on manipulative tricks, politically backwards ideology, or humiliation to make good television."

See also: Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D List

Art courtesy of RealityBitesBackBook.com.