Op-Ed: Are reality TV shows the "freak shows" of our modern age?


In the late 19th century and the early 20th century there was a flare in the popularity of traveling circuses and carnivals. One of the main attractions at these nomadic spectacles, among the exotic animals and dishonest games, was the freak show. People would come to these carnivals and pay admission to see a bearded lady, a 500-pound man, or a child with spots like a leopard. Carnival goers were fascinated by these humans so unlike themselves, and would pay to simply stand and stare. This pocket of history has always fascinated me, because what sort of monstrosity of entertainment capitalizes off of another person’s genetic misfortune? I’m not sure which I find more baffling: the fact that it was someone’s actual job to seek out other people and offer them money to stand around and be mocked, or the fact that these people (usually) willingly took the freak-hunter up on his offer? And let’s not forget that in order for either of these things to occur, there had to be a sustainable demand for that sort of entertainment, which went on for about 50 years.

What is interesting to consider, however, is that this sort of entertainment—gawking at those (supposedly) entirely unlike us—has always been around. It has merely adjusted with each generation, manifesting itself in different ways. What is the “freak show” equivalent of modernity? Reality television.

Have you ever wondered why it is that you watch Jersey Shore, Toddlers in Tiaras, The Real Housewives of Orange County or #RichKids of Beverly Hills when the whole time you are completely horrified by the people you are observing, but you just can’t look away? It’s because you are fascinated by people who are different—people who you could not in a million years ever dream of relating to.

Reality TV is unique because it allows you to intimately observe another person’s life from comfort of your couch. Most likely you will never meet them, and yet you know their name, their favorite dining establishments and even some of their greatest insecurities.

The question we should be asking now is: How moral is this form of entertainment? Is it indeed the freak show’s distant, yet equally harmful cousin?

On the one hand, these people are filmed willingly and receive compensation, which they could use to perhaps improve their circumstances to a point where they would no longer need to be filmed to make a living (not that all reality TV stars are destitute—most of them are pretty well-situated). But this same situation was true of the people displayed in freak shows.

So, if these people are offered the choice between poverty and privacy, or wealth and fame, is that still a choice? Sure, they will be mocked, but most of us come with a price we would be willing to compromise our dignity for—right? At least those people in freak shows and reality TV shows know their price. What is yours?

I think what this all comes down to is viewer discretion. What are you consuming? What is going into your brain that you will never get out? Are you watching these people because you admire them, or because you find them laughable, even despise-able? The producer, leads, and viewers are all to some degree to blame for the immorality of realty TV, in the same way that the circus conductor, “freaks,” and circus-goers were for freak shows.

But in the same way that freak shows eventually died out as their demand died, so may reality TV. It just comes down to what viewers want to watch. As Christians, we should constantly ask ourselves, “What am I seeking?” (Hosea 10:12).

So I entreat you, to be thoughtful. Don’t watch people because they horrify you. Watch people because you admire them. Maybe we can improve television by voting with our viewership; you never know.