The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In ‘True Story,’ reality TV tells us a lot about society. Maybe more than we want.

Author Danielle Lindemann defends the pop culture staple against knee-jerk mockery.

Stop us if this scene sounds familiar: You’re at a gathering and you bring up a reality show you enjoy — “Real Housewives,” perhaps, or “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” or “90 Day Fiancé.” All of a sudden, a smug onlooker cuts in. “You actually watch that garbage?” they might say, rolling their eyes, before going on to tell you about their superior taste in pop culture — or maybe boast that they don’t even watch television, and really prefer to read.

On one hand, it’s hard to believe that these kinds of conversations still occur, especially after a reality competition show paved a path to the presidency. On the other, it is a genre associated with female viewers, and we know how society treats things that women enjoy.

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Danielle J. Lindemann, an associate professor of sociology at Lehigh University, has heard it all before, particularly when she shares with new acquaintances that she teaches a class on the sociology of reality TV. In her new book, “True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us,” she explains that people will frequently tell her that they don’t watch reality TV, even if they sure seem to know a lot about the shows and the stars. Others are mortified if their spouse spills that they watch “The Bachelor.” And a common question when she mentions her college course: “Is it about how the shows are all fake?”

But Lindemann argues quite convincingly that despite people’s knee-jerk mockery of reality TV or reflexive embarrassment at being “caught” as a viewer, studying the genre gives us a better understanding of our world and ourselves. The book takes a deep dive into reality TV through a sociological lens, looking at how the genre reveals American thinking on gender, race, sex, families and more, repeatedly reinforcing Lindemann’s point with evidence from social scientists, anthropologists, philosophers and media psychologists.

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“An often ridiculed form of entertainment, seemingly marginal to the serious business of life, reality TV is in fact a pop-cultural touchstone that illuminates our everyday experiences and can help us to make sense of complex social forces,” she writes. “The genre is a fun-house mirror, to be sure, but one that powerfully reflects the contours of our social world. It takes the elements that are central to our culture — our collective preferences, our norms and taboos, and the jagged edges of our social inequalities — and beams them out to us in frenetic detail.”

Lindemann is quick to acknowledge that experts and researchers have long discussed the impact that TV has on our lives and that some of her points may seem obvious: Reality shows like “The Bachelor” are hyper-focused on gender roles, for instance, and racial stereotypes proliferate on shows from Bravo to VH1. But Lindemann’s academic expertise, as well as her enormous amount of research (including many hours of watching reality shows, of which she is a fan), gives readers a more thorough understanding of what this genre exposes about society.

“While I personally like reality TV, this book is not a love letter to the genre. And while I recognize that many of these programs are deeply problematic, neither is it a critique,” she adds. “If anything, the chapters that follow are a love letter to sociology — to its capacity to show us how a form of pop culture often belittled as lowbrow, frivolous, and nonredeeming can so vividly illuminate our own social worlds.”

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One major theme is that our culture is nowhere near as progressive as some might like to think it is. “While conservative groups would be unlikely to endorse most of these shows, they’re havens for some of the most old-fashioned values that pulse through contemporary American society,” she writes. “They show us how steadfastly we cling to conventional ideas about, for instance, families, marriages, sex, women’s roles, Black bodies, and queer people.” While that may not be shocking, she remarks, “What is surprising, perhaps, is that these often outrageous programs would serve as beacons of our retrograde values.”

For example, shows like “Sister Wives” illustrate how uncomfortable some viewers still are with anything beyond a nuclear family; and the eighth season of “Are You the One?," featuring all sexually fluid cast members, was still considered groundbreaking in 2019.

Lindemann peppers the book with such outrageousness, keeping it from feeling too much like a textbook — especially with famous scenes that fans would remember, such as Shereé Whitfield’s legendary “Who gon check me, boo?” on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” Each chapter kicks off with an anecdote that supports its overall theme. Examples include Alana Thompson’s appearance on “Toddlers & Tiaras” (and how the spinoff, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” can serve as an examination of class structure) and the woman on “My Strange Addiction” who ate couch cushions (for an exploration of “deviants,” defined as those who fall outside the norms of society).

And, of course, Lindemann knows you can’t have a book about reality TV without the most consequential star of all. Former president Donald Trump is only mentioned in a few asides — such as how he was a caricature of the classic “mean judge” on “The Apprentice,” a trope carrying on in ways that audiences generally tolerate only from White men — until the end, when Lindemann ties many of her conclusions together.

“The thick intergrowth of fiction and truth confronts us everywhere. Although we can’t lay this development at the feet of Trump or reality TV writ large, the fact that a reality star was installed in the Oval Office is crucial evidence of our continued synthesis of art and life,” she writes. “Indeed, Trump’s ability to blur the two may have been buffered by our decades of watching reality TV.”

While this may be the most famous example of reality TV’s impact, Lindemann brings up many more. At times, the tone almost feels defensive as she reiterates, over and over, the lessons of the genre — which makes sense coming from someone who teaches a class about a subject that causes many to scoff. Fans of reality TV can relate. And now, when confronted with such snobbery, they can say that if the person likes reading so much, they have the perfect book to recommend.

Emily Yahr is an entertainment reporter for The Washington Post.

True Story

What Reality TV Says About Us

By Danielle J. Lindemann

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 352 pp. $30

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