Are Reality Shows The New Freak Shows?

Anna and Josh Duggar

Anna and Josh Duggar

Why are there people designated spectators while others are put on display? Are the people on display performers, are they being exploited, or is it a both/and situation? Why does this happen? And, despite the smaller numbers of freak show performers and circuses, is the freak show atmosphere alive and well on our television screens?

The Duggar family is facing cancellation of their TLC show, ’19 And Counting’, after their son Josh’s molestation of underage females got revealed this week. Another TLC show, ‘Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo’ was cancelled after it was rumored Mama June was dating a registered sex offender. His victim? Her oldest daughter. Now ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ LOGO’s most successful show ever, is under suspicion of fixing the end results of the contest. Our roundup includes the E! Networks’ ‘Keeping Up With The Kardashians’ that reveals that Bruce Jenner is transgender. And in case your were wondering, Bruce Jenner new name has not gotten released to the public.


Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo

Of course, what this means for these reality shows is a spike in social media presence. The buzz created by viewers debating whether the shows will continue, be canceled or ported to another network is publicity at its finest.  Then everyone has to spout their opinion about what should or shouldn’t be done, who was to blame, and why we shouldn’t watch reality shows in the first place.

While I do enjoy some reality shows (skill-based such as Project Runway, or sometimes even The Real Housewives of Orange County), I do question my attraction to them. Why do I enjoy watching the antics of other people?

When Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show On Earth” was in its heyday, it employed many people who would otherwise have had to depend on their families for everything. They were billed as “freaks” and exploited, but they sometimes had more of a say when it came to earning their money, establishing their independence and their quality of life.

People flocked to these “freak shows” to point and stare at people who they deemed “lesser” or “different”. Do we do the same with people like Mama June and her family, or the Kardashians, or Tyra Banks’ Next Top Model?

RuPaul's Drag Race

RuPaul’s Drag Race

There’s two sides to this, I believe. We like putting people on pedestals, but we also enjoy seeing people fall off them. We’ll root for our favorites every week, vote for them, spend hours talking to our friends about them. Once that love turns to hate, we stampede and trample them with tweets, statuses, posts, and e-mails.

While I wouldn’t condemn the entirety of reality TV, I do think we should take a careful look at how networks portray these people and how we react to that. While it does feel good, at times, to watch someone else’s antics while we sit laughing at them in the comfort of our living rooms, how does this affect our social behavior? Probably not in a positive way.

Reality TV is many things. It can be educational and entertaining. But the shows that focus on people deemed outliers by ‘cultured society’ are often demeaning. It ultimately depicts these people as caricatures, which in turn leads us to believe in stereotypes and generalizations instead of considering each of the individuals on their merit.
My question is, are these the greatest shows on earth, or are they just hoaxes intended to maximize network profits? Can they be both?

Image Credits: TLC
K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone is a story nerd, particularly for the episodic stories told via the medium of television. When not parked in front of the TV, K.M. Cone can be found writing kooky urban fantasy on her personal site, attempting to learn German, or making a huge pot of soup for her friends, who are probably coming over to join her in her latest TV or animated film obsession.
K.M. Cone

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