One of the series of articles we worked on with journalist, Kate Delmoder published on Irish Independent online platform.
After two decades of watching people being embarrassed in formats ranging from talent shows to pranks and Bushtucker Trials, humiliation has become an on-demand service. But has our taste for public vilification, first sparked by reality TV, given rise to online trolling and cancel culture?
Reality TV has come a long way from the heady social experiment that was Big Brother in 2001. An Orwellian concept marrying our need for celebrity with a growing thirst for post-Clinton authenticity, the idea was a hit for some 20 years until interest in 24/7 surveillance waned. Our fascination with voyeurism, however, didn’t.
Enter The Circle, in which contestants live in separate rooms of the same apartment block, permitted communication solely within a centralised social media platform. An instant hit, the show – which returns to Channel 4 next month – piqued interest with a fake-news-obsessed era, while also providing ample fodder for online trolls.
“I wanted to show that it’s something I, as a disabled person, could win,” Paddy Smyth, winner of The Circle 2019, tells me. The Dubliner, who has also appeared on First Dates Ireland, won over his fellow contestants on The Circle when he revealed that he has cerebral palsy. The reaction from the show’s viewers on social media was largely positive, but Smyth was also a target for trolls who accused him of playing up his disability to garner sympathy, and a cash prize. “I used my disability – something that has been used against me my whole life – and that rubbed people up the wrong way,” he says. “I was villainised for it, which led people to believe that mine was a ‘pity’ win. Now, I’m boxed in in terms of my reputation as this controversial, wild-child disabled guy. Of course I have some regrets, but at the end of the day I played the game and I won. And I won fair and square.”
Emotion has long been recognised in sociology as crucially important, but few feelings boast the social control shame has. Shame is coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence. And for those boasting even a mild interest in pop culture, the concept of public reproach is near impossible to avoid.
From the vantage point of television, reputation is everything – as reality-TV participants such as the late Jade Goody learned to their cost. It’s social comparison, explains psychologist Anna Nauka; we look at the choices people make on TV and think, “I would never do that”, and, “Look at what happens to people who do that”.
“Often, it’s on a very subconscious level,” Nauka says. “Nobody really enjoys consciously cruel behaviour, but there is a part of people that seems to feel better when they see someone not doing well. It’s a certain type of coping mechanism, a projection of our own insecurities, and if we see someone else doing worse than us, it feels good.”
Understanding that audiences tire of the same humiliation format, producers have to push ever further. Hell’s Kitchen leans more into degradation than menu prep, dating shows have gone from a drink in the green room to Married At First Sight and Punk’d has thrown down the gauntlet for shows such as Put Him In Bucca – a candid-camera-style Iraqi television programme in which fake bombs are planted in a celebrity’s cars for them to be stopped and harassed at military checkpoints.
Pranked celebs aside, the majority of reality-TV contestants enter with a full awareness of the risks to their reputation. So why would anyone put themselves forward as a potential target for a public shaming?
Pamela Laird, founder of beauty brand Moxi Loves, featured on series 15 of The Apprentice in 2019. She says it was a desire to showcase her personality and eschew boardroom officialdom that pushed her to consider reality television.
“I was looking for investment at the time,” she says. “And a friend suggested it to me. I had done Dragons’ Den previously and noticed a jump in sales so thought, ‘Why not?’ The first two episodes were fine, but when I took the lead for the first time in episode three, Twitter came for me. Past candidates directly mentioned my name and called me a disgrace. Then it was totally forgotten about by the next episode.”
It’s on this pass-the-parcel humiliation that reality television feeds. The threat of being ‘next’ is so omnipresent that it buries inside and changes your way of thinking. “You know when the cameras are on you after a long day that they’re looking for a one-liner, so you say something that you would ordinarily filter to create a storyline,” Laird says. “So much of what I said on The Apprentice I’d never say in real life.”
Just as contestants find themselves constantly upping the ante, so too must the programme makers – especially in the face of low youth viewership. Germany’s take on Love Island is played out completely nude. In India, revenge show Axe Ur Ex sees jilted lovers play ‘pranks’ such as kidnapping and holding their exes at gunpoint.
Darkest of all, the Czech Republic’s Holiday In The Protectorate, which first aired in 2015, sends three generations of a real family ‘back in time’ to 1939 Czechoslovakia to survive on a remote backwater under the yoke of the Nazis.
“We’ve become numb to reality TV in a way and so it needs to be more shocking, more outrageous to grab audience attention,” Paddy Smyth acknowledges. “But when does that become too much?
“It’s a Catch-22 because, as a viewer I love it, but as a person in there, it’s a strain on your mental health. We all know what reality TV is at this stage. I’m not going to say I didn’t put myself in that decision, but it was a really tough time in my life. It made me feel like less of a person.
“Everyone thought I was on the ride of my life. But there were no offers coming in, I was getting trolled online and my dad passed away shortly after. I felt like a black sheep.”
Following allegations of an absent duty of care by producers on Love Island and the cruelty of the Roman thumb-signal structure of the X-Factor six-chair challenge, there has been public concern voiced over the fundamental moral values of reality television.
As woke Gen Z-ers align themselves more and more with internet-adjacent entertainment rather than terrestrial television, humiliating ordinary people to increase viewing figures, or profits, is not just ethically wrong, it’s also increasingly bad business.
In a Covid-19 world, the hurdles are higher again for TV producers. We’ve seen I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! migrate to Wales and The Cabins replace Love Island – but does opting for perfunctory fixes illustrate just how dependent TV schedules have become on humiliation?
Yes and no. While Big Brother and other ‘lockdown’ reality shows now offer a frisson of much needed recognition, TV networks are also struggling to fill schedules with big events – from the Olympics to Glastonbury – put on hold. Relatively inexpensive to make, unscripted TV boasts escapism and intimacy at a time when it’s needed. However, the opportunity for trolling of contestants is also peaking as a literally captive audience turns to social media to vent its lockdown frustrations.
None of us want to believe that we thrive off the misfortune of others, but this sort of evaluation-comparison strategy is inbuilt. From a sociological viewpoint, our desire to understand behaviour helps us understand and predict our social world. Watching others being humiliated, it would therefore appear, is helpful – but only when on our terms.
Mercifully, new ground covered brings new understanding, which has led British media regulator Ofcom to repeatedly update (the most recent of which was in December 2020) new broadcasting rules to protect the “welfare, well-being and dignity” of individuals who take part in its programmes.
This could radically change the reality-TV landscape, many believe, for better or for worse – depends on who you’re talking to. As Monica Lewinsky succinctly put it in 2015: “Public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry.” Whether that interests you or not remains entirely on whether you deem yourself in control as the viewer or the subject. Could you handle being up next? l