When I was living in London, I was invited to audition for “Big Brother,” that show about the slow and steady breakdown of your mental health charmingly named after the surveillance state in 1984. I’m slightly embarrassed to say I considered it for a minute. What stopped me was not that I wouldn’t be allowed to write or read, or that I might be forced to eat slop.
It was the rumor I had heard about contestants receiving six months of paid therapy after the show, because it was that traumatic. Six months that were often not enough to even begin undoing the damage of the 24⁄7 observation of a reality show.
As a porn performer, I’m pretty accustomed to people assuming that my job and workplace is unethical, emotionally damaging and morally corrupt. I’ve done a lot of research into the adult industry, and I’ve seen a lot of shit. Yet nothing prepared me for the world of reality television, a workplace that depends on riding the line between performance and the real world.
Reality television is booming, which isn’t surprising. It often costs far less to host a reality show than to have narrative programming. One thing that’s useful for keeping those costs low is that reality shows, while often nudged along and edited to create narrative arcs, don’t officially declare themselves as scripted. This means that writers aren’t paid for original content. Instead, “story editors” are uncredited, often go without union support or benefits and are paid far less for “sculpting” the reality show storylines.
Another money-saving measure is that reality show stars or contestants are often paid far less and receive less legal workplace protections than an actor. On top of that, not all reality shows pay for daily living expenses. The Real World, for example, only paid the rent and docked participants’ pay if they refused to do what producers told them to.
The question of producer coercion is a huge issue, one that has recently come to light around the Bachelor franchise. “Bachelor in Paradise” originally halted filming because of an accusation of sexual assault while under the influence between two of the contestants. I’m pretty late to the “Bachelor” game, considering I only started watching the franchise during the last couple of months. I started watching it out of morbid curiosity because of how frequently my Twitter was flooded with people, mostly women, commenting on the various storylines. But even in my brief sampling of this colosseum of heterosexual lust for sex and attention, I could tell that there was a huge problem with this reality show and consent culture.
“Bachelor in Paradise,” a show that revolves around getting a bunch of heterosexual folks drunk and encouraging them to awkwardly hook up to prevent being kicked off, seems like it’s always been a fertile ground for consent violations. The alcohol is free and plentiful, and sexual behavior is what can keep you in the camera’s spotlight — not only saving you from elimination, but ensuring you get that valuable screen time.
From the season I watched, I could name multiple instances where I would expect the intoxication levels of the couple to be considered legally problematic for consent. It made me wonder why the producers and crew, knowing that this was a festering petri dish of rape culture, would not have considered the legal repercussions of filming potential sexual assaults under the influence without intervening.
Especially concerning is the report that producers informed DeMario and Corinne that their storyline would involve hooking up. It seems coercive to inform participants who and how they are to romantically and sexually engage with each other in order to be part of the show. Is it possible in such a situation to give informed consent?
These developments raise questions about workplace protections for reality stars. Surely participants should, at the very least, feel physically safe, especially if their emotional breakdowns serve as fodder for viewers. Yet, physical and sexual assaults have long been an issue on the sets of these shows, with cases often brushed under the rug — and those involved silenced. Child labor laws have come up as well, without a definitive answer on whether reality television contestants are considered workers or something else.
This trend lays bare the biggest issue with the set of a reality television show as a workplace. In order to offer the sorts of protections exploited workers need for ethical and safety reasons, these shows would have to come clean about just how scripted they are. Would that lead to viewers being less intrigued?
Would that lead to producers and crew being held more accountable when something goes wrong as the people who directed the action?
It’s a tricky area, and one that is unlikely to find any clear solutions anytime soon. Perhaps we, the viewers, are too uncomfortable with the reflection we see in the mirror of reality television, wishing to think we would handle it better if we were in front of the camera. Deep down, I think we all know that there, but for the grace of temporary fame in exchange for our sanity, goes us.