Dark Truths of Reality TV Controversies: Exploitation for Entertainment


Reality TV practically runs on controversy. We love to watch the big blowups, the outsized personalities, and all the drama in front of and behind the camera.

There’s an entire cottage industry of reality TV behind-the-scenes podcasts and blogs that track the behind-the-scenes drama. . We love to watch these controversies for shock value, but they also show us how serious real-world issues can become “Real World” issues.

Reality TV producers cast with an eye towards bringing big, clashing, explosive personalities together to stir up drama and gain viewers…even if that means leaning into troubling stereotypes. They also often shape the narrative of a series to be more sensational than reality, which turns reality TV into something that’s anything but. This can lead to extended harassment and ongoing problems for cast members. But as “scripted” as reality TV can be, it still illuminates something about human nature, and intersects with bigger topics we deal with on a day to day basis.

Here’s our take on some of reality TV’s biggest controversies, and what they can teach us about both reality TV as a whole and the world beyond the cameras.

Casting Stereotypes

The “reality” part of reality TV often comes from how “real” the people are. Shows like Love Island and Big Brother highlight how their contestants are constantly under surveillance, with cameras even in the bathrooms. These days, you can even pay to access a live feed of the Big Brother house to see that “reality” unedited. But even if the feed isn’t being curated, the contestants are. So, how do producers decide who represents reality?

For years, reality shows have taken heat for their homogenous, thin, white, heterosexual casts. The Bachelor franchise has been repeatedly criticized for how its non-white contestants are often eliminated in early episodes. The show began in 2002 and didn’t have a non-white lead until 2017, with bachelorette Rachel Lindsay – and even during that season, the show often talked around race. When people of color do get to become central characters on these mostly-white shows, they’re often made to perform their identities on-camera in dehumanizing ways. For example: One Big Brother producer was reprimanded for pressuring a black female contestant to speak more “stereotypically,” suggesting phrases and behaviors to her during interviews. This tendency to lean into harmful stereotypes when characterizing cast members of color is practically built into Survivor. Ramona Gray Amaro, the very first black woman to appear on the show, says she was edited to fit another popular racist stereotype. These experiences are apparently so commonplace on Survivor, competitors organized a petition to demand better treatment and better representation from the show – something ultimately CBS pledged to prioritize during casting due to the overwhelming response from fans alike.

Reality TV also has a big problem stereotyping queer people. Big Brother season 2 winner Brian Dowling was represented as overly effeminate and campy. While Richard Hatch – the first winner of Survivor who became infamous for his scheming operatics – was represented as an outright predator, a dangerous stereotype about gay men. Kim Stolz, the first lesbian competitor on America’s Next Top Model, was likewise criticized for being presented as too masculine and was depicted as quote-unquote “seducing” a straight woman.Trans reality TV contestants can sometimes be put in uncomfortable or unsafe situations by producers looking to exploit their identity for publicity and controversy. Big Brother producers forced Audrey Middleton to come out as a trans woman on the first day of her season in order to make the production team look “inclusive”. Relatedly, reality dating shows have a long history of sensationalizing and othering queer people by treating them like gimmicks, especially in the early 2000s. There’s Something About Miriam cast a trans woman as the lead in a dating show, but instead of centering her humanity and complexity, it exploited her identity for shock value. Not only did A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila use Tila’s bisexuality as a gimmick – it forced its lead to date men who denied the existence of bisexuality and constantly demeaned queer women in order to drum up controversy.

And Katelynn Cusanelli was cast on The Real World alongside vocally transphobic housemates who she was forced to live with as part of the show.

Casting individuals from minority groups alongside fellow castmates who would undoubtedly stir the pot became commonplace, likely for maximum drama. Will Collins was the very first person kicked out of the house in the very first season of Big Brother, both because he talked about race with the other housemates, and because people were uncomfortable with his ties to the Nation of Islam. Even Omarosa seemed to suspect she was the “villain” in her season of the Apprentice at least in part because of her race.

Fortunately, thanks to the shifting tastes and social justice values of Gen Z, we’re starting to see some improvements in these once tokenizing, stereotypical casting decisions. Survivor and Big Brother have dramatically increased the amount of non-white contestants on the show, to the point where a recent Big Brother season featured an alliance of black contestants. Even The Bachelor responded to controversy around a racially insensitive comment from long-time host Chris Harrison by removing him from the franchise before the season finale and replacing him with a host of color. And, the recent queer season of Are You the One exploded romantic possibilities on a show that is mostly a silly series of hot people hookups.

Reality’s Misogyny Problem

For years, women have faced a double standard on reality TV. Though plenty of reality shows thrive on hookups, men are typically lauded for sleeping with a lot of women, while women who decide to sleep with a guy are slut-shamed. Jersey Shore relentlessly played up the antics of guys like Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino and Pauly D, while Angelina Pivarnack was mocked for sleeping with a guy as part of a broader harassment campaign that led to her leaving the show. The Bachelor franchise distills many popular ideas of romance into a packaged fantasy—it celebrates romantic gestures, roses, and professions of love…while also doubling down on society’s double standard for women who have and enjoy sex. Men who star on the show frequently admit to sleeping with all three remaining contestants during their “fantasy suites” episodes without facing any consequences. But their bachelorette counterparts are not afforded the same luxury. Nick Viall publicly criticized Andi Dorfman for sleeping with him and not marrying him. And again, when Kaitlin Bristowe slept with Nick during her season, the series’ “Men Tell All” special was devoted almost exclusively to slut-shaming the woman who was supposed to be the star. Seasons later, the problem persisted – and Kaitlin had to come to bachelorette Hannah Brown’s defense when one of her contestants tried to shame her for her fantasy suites behavior.

These double standards don’t just impact fan perceptions of the women cast members – they also seep into the culture of these productions and make it easier for men to get away with harassing women at what is effectively their workplace. In Survivor’s Island of the Idols season, contestant Dan Spilo made several women on the island uncomfortable from the first episode of the season, touching them without their consent and refusing to stop. After five cast members experienced this harrassment, contestant Kellee Kim tried to address his behavior on the show. But the incident wasn’t handled by the production like a serious case of workplace harassment; it was handled like fodder for reality television. Kellee had to navigate the politicking and alliances that are typical of Survivor, and ultimately she was voted off the show before Dan. Eventually, Dan was removed from the show when his behavior affected a member of the crew, but the fact that the situation was allowed to continue for so long demonstrates how easy it is for a production to ignore sexual harassment – and how that culture can harm women in the game of the show and beyond it.

Another way reality TV producers have prioritized drama over safety – especially for women – is by encouraging drinking on set from cast members. In the early years of reality TV, producers on shows like Big Brother actively looked for participants who drank a lot, and encouraged situations where they would be likely to abuse alcohol. In some cases, that’s led to, at best, gray areas around consent and sex, which is especially troubling on dating shows where those kinds of interactions are the goal. But reality TV’s disregard for the health and safety of its cast members seems to have reached a tipping point: after two former cast members of Love Island tragically took their own lives, productions have gotten more serious about mental health and safety. In 2019, Love Island and other shows committed to new policies to protect the mental health of cast members before, during, and after participating in a reality show.

Behind The Curtain

Reality TV producers try to stoke drama by casting clashing personalities and creating policies on set that encourage conflict, but sometimes the drama is even more directly engineered. Shows have gotten into hot water for representing so-called “real” events that are completely faked. Producers have used influence, air-time, even money to encourage cast members to behave in certain ways. Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag, cast as villains on The Hills, recounted producers’ efforts to get them to call off their own marriage in an effort to create drama.

But active producer manipulation of contestants isn’t the only way that shows have gotten in trouble for altering what we think of as reality. In editing, the show can use hundreds of hours of footage to make almost anything happen in order to serve the narrative arc or story the show wants to tell—something even the producers themselves admit to doing. Spencer Pratt has alleged that an entire phone conversation on The Hills was stitched together from separate calls with producers. And one particularly infamous clip from Love is Blind shows the amount of food dramatically changing in between moments of a conversation.

When people on reality TV are given dishonest villain edits and made to look awful, the consequences can spill over into the rest of their lives. The Hills ended in 2010 but Spencer Pratt says he still receives angry tweets and online harassment about the things he “said” on the show.


People love to describe reality TV as a quote-unquote “train wreck.” That’s not just an expression: In the same way that people are drawn to tragedies and accidents, we’re also drawn toward the chaotic, messy, and self-destructive people who make up the casts of our favorite reality shows.While there may not ever be a clear-cut way to produce a reality show that doesn’t play into some sort of controversy— we’re looking forward to seeing more improvements that make us feel a bit less conflicted about the trainwreck we all hate to love to watch.


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