“This is bigger and more consequential for the country than the Russia investigation.” These are the words I texted my friend when Jordyn Woods announced she was going on Red Table to spill the Tristan Thompson tea. Though I sent this text as a joke, it got me thinking about the increasing role reality television plays in our lives. Our news feeds are dominated just as much by reality-TV-derived drama as by reality. Our president himself was a reality TV star. We have a complicated relationship with reality TV: we love to hate it, to dismiss its value, to resent its existence. And yet millions of us choose to watch it, though we might be ashamed to admit it. One of my professors recently described the genre as “abominable,” and maybe it is — but can we learn to allow ourselves to indulge in the abominable?
I keep up with the Kardashians. I’ve watched “Life of Kylie” from start to finish. (I couldn’t get through “Rob and Chyna,” though — I have limits.) I loved all 138 hours of “Love Island.” And if you haven’t watched Jerry Springer’s show “Baggage,” look it up and watch it right now. It’s absurd and brilliant. You won’t regret it. Many share my love for these shows and others like them, but may not be so proud to say so. Reality TV is almost exclusively relegated to the lowly rank of guilty pleasure, signaling to us that our enjoyment must necessarily be accompanied by guilt. But I refuse to feel guilty about taking the time to switch off and indulge.
Why do we feel guilty about enjoying reality TV? The shame seems to stem from our perception of reality TV as trash — in a recent poll, 48 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of the reality genre, with 69 percent of respondents describing it as “trashy.” The conclusion we should draw, it seems, is that we’re wasting our time by enjoying something so intellectually worthless. To enjoy watching this garbage becomes a kind of sin or a shameful secret. But this mentality only makes the time we’ve allocated to rest less restful.
We hold ourselves to increasingly high standards — constantly trying to work harder and be better — and these standards affect how we perceive free time. Rather than really letting ourselves enjoy our moments of rest, a voice creeps in our heads that says “Should I be watching something less lowbrow? Should I be doing something more productive?” Realizing that taking time off to watch garbage doesn’t need to make you feel guilty is an important step towards shaking off the sense that we should be constantly working. We deserve to be a little kinder to ourselves. In doing so, we might actually reap more benefits from our breaks. Enjoying something a little trashy doesn’t mean you don’t have taste or you’re wasting your time. It’s actually a kind of self-respect — caring about yourself enough to let yourself like what you like, without judgment.
Giving ourselves the space to truly rest, free from the weight of guilt, has countless benefits: improved reasoning and willpower, restored motivation, increased productivity and creativity, to name a few. We ask so much of our bodies and minds — it’s natural (and necessary!) to want to switch off. And switching on an episode of reality television might just be the best way to switch off; the beauty of reality TV shows is that they ask nothing from us. All we have to do is watch. There are no expectations, no demands on our minds, no burdens on our bodies. The very thing we might criticize reality television for — namely, being mindless — becomes its greatest strength.
Let’s stop constantly policing our taste and start being kinder to ourselves. Watching reality TV isn’t a guilty pleasure; it’s a legitimate form of self-care. It’s okay to want to escape and indulge. So next time you watch reality TV, own it.
We hear the term “self-care” all the time, but what does it really mean? To whom is it available and in what ways is it attainable? “The Pursuit of Happiness” will explore practical ways for NYU students to take care of themselves, proving that being broke and busy isn’t a barrier to self-care.
Hope Rangaswami is sophomore in CAS majoring in English and Environmental Studies.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 25, 2019, print edition. Email Hope Rangaswami at [email protected]