What Our Fascination With Reality TV Says About Us

I find the success of a specific genre of reality television to be particularly compelling.  All reality shows have an element of twisted voyeurism, but some unashamedly push the limits and let you into the world of the offbeat and bizarre.  What’s with the public fascination and obsession over shows like Hoarders?  Is there really a large market of people that enjoys watching other people bury themselves in trash?  Apparently so.

Why?  There has to be more going on here than mere curiosity.  I think there is.  I think the popularity of shows like this is fueled by something deep and fundamental within all of us; our lives are a mess and it makes us feel better to see messier lives.

So much of the success of reality TV is rooted in a culture utterly desperate to feel better about themselves.  Even shows like American Idol that are intended to showcase talent can’t resist but to throw in the delusional, awkward, talentless, weirdo during the audition rounds.  Even shows like The Bachelor that showcase beautiful and successful people put them in a house together and show us their worst moments so that we can see that even pretty people are messy.  Producers and marketers do it because they know we want it.  In fact, we don’t want it; we need it.

You may not be able to see it, you may not be able to articulate it, you may not be willing to admit it, but deep down you know it.  You’re a mess and so am I.  We are riddled with lingering insecurities, shameful thoughts, regrettable actions, twisted desires, disgraceful secrets, and though we are masterful pretenders, we cannot hide forever from the grimness of self-knowledge (although we give it a good try).

So what are you going to do about your mess?  The most common strategy is to find someone messier to compare yourself to, thus the success of reality television.  This is why we love to get a nice piece of juicy gossip about the downfalls of others.  It’s like a narcotic to our burdened souls to be able to say, “I may be bad, but I’m not that bad.”

But the problem with the comparison game is that it is illusory and temporary.  It doesn’t fix the mess; it just briefly numbs the mess.  Not to mention it is incredibly exhausting to maintain—always comparing, always assessing, always critiquing, always judging; it just never ends because your mess never ends.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just be rid of the mess?  Well for that to happen, it’s going to have to get messier.  You are going to have to choose a new standard of comparison.  Our plumb line is God’s perfect design, not the disordered lives of reality stars.  The restlessness and discontentment we have with ourselves are actually echoes of Eden.  We were designed to be whole, righteous, virtuous, and indeed perfect.  And God is uncompromising in that design.  He says, “Be holy as I am holy.”  And you are uncompromising in that yearning.  You cannot escape your desire to be whom you were created to be, thus the restlessness.

Well the answer is not to lower the expectation and compare yourself to those you perceive as worse off than you; the answer is to let the standard be the standard and own your mess.

If we do that, if we are undistracted by the comparison game and facing the ugliness of our own lives, then Jesus has an offer for all of us.  He would like to take our mess and give us His perfection.  The Bible puts it like this, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”  The Christian gospel in its rawest form offers us an exchange.  Jesus consumes our mess and clothes us with His righteousness.  Unlike self-help strategies and other religions that offer coping strategies for your mess, Jesus offers a decisive and comprehensive end to your mess.

Your suspicions about yourself are true; it really is that bad.  What are you going to do about it?  Don’t look to reality TV (or whatever else) to help you cope with your mess.  Look to Jesus to rid you of your mess.

Kylie Rennekamp