Reality shows are often judged to be shallow, trashy and lowbrow entertainment.
From wine-drunk women getting into fights to young twenty-somethings whose only mission is getting drunk and hooking up, there doesn't seem to be anything beneficial to watching reality TV except to see some mindless entertainment. (And for the record, we see absolutely nothing wrong with that.)
On the surface, the most recent reality TV trend seems to continue supporting that idea, as people are literally stripping down to appear naked on national TV. Granted, all the important—ahem—parts are blurred, but the fact remains the same: these people are still baring it all on camera.
Shows like VH1's Dating Naked, Discovery Channel's Naked and Afraid and TLC's Buying Naked all premiered over the past year. Dating Naked is a modern twist on dating shows, and features a man and a woman who date two different naked suitors on a remote exotic location. Naked and Afraid takes a pair of strangers and drops them into the ultimate survival experience, where they must learn to survive together for 21 days with no food, water, clothes or shelter. Buying Naked follows real estate agent Jackie Youngblood as she shows homes in clothing-optional communities to house-hunting nudists.
Based on the ratings, people can't get enough of naked reality shows. But instead of bringing the quality of entertainment down, naked reality shows are actually doing something good for our country.
"Honestly, we live in a country that can be really prude about nudity and associates it with sex and I think that's so negative," Dating Naked host Amy Paffrath told us. "I'm glad that there are all these naked shows out there now because it actually helps people feel more comfortable with themselves. They see representations of what their body looks like through the different images on TV. We see a wide spectrum on our show of height, weight, color, age, and I think it's going to open up the doors for people to accept themselves more and realize that everything on TV is not model-thin women with perfect bodies. These are just regular people and we all have bodies and it's totally acceptable to love yourself just the way you are, the good, the bad, the ugly. It's all beautiful."
Christina Porcelli, a.k.a. "Wee Wee," was the first contestant on Dating Naked, and while she went on the show looking for love, she's glad that she's helping to make the topic of nudity less taboo.
"People really want to feel comfortable with their bodies and being naked, so by watching this show, it kind of helps them," Wee Wee said. "We're being a little bit rebellious, but in other countries, it's no big deal. And it shouldn't be a big deal. We're all naked. We're all born naked. We die naked. We should be comfortable with our bodies no matter what we look like."
When the idea of Dating Naked was first presented, it certainly sounded controversial. People were going on dates...naked.
But audiences quickly learned that the nudity on the show wasn't shocking.
"The show is not controversial, it's not sensational and it's not what everyone thought it would be before we aired our first episode," Paffrath said. "So now people are embracing it with open arms. You get desensitized to the nudity and I think that's a great thing for our country. We need to learn that nudity isn't always related to sexuality. This was such a simple twist on a classic idea."
Naked and Afraid executive producer David Garfinkle understands why the concept of putting one man and one woman together in the wild, naked, might sound controversial, but the nudity is only one factor of the larger mission on the show: to survive.
"Our show is not about the nudity. It's about the survival," Garfinkle said. "There's never been any sexual experience on the show, it's not about that. They're out there and they're in these extreme conditions. They're hungry, they're tired, and they're trying to figure out as a team how to get through the 21 days. And if you look at our demographics, they're really broad. There are a lot of families watching our show. It's not exploitive and that's part of why it's doing so well."
Garfinkle believes that people shouldn't be focusing on the nudity anyway.
"We are a society that is completely hung up on nudity," Garfinkle said. "If you go to Europe, it's not that way. I think we have gotten better as a society, but everyone still jumps on stories like these when in fact maybe we should be worrying more about people killing each other in wars. People showing their behinds on TV isn't that big of a deal compared to that. You can see more nudity on HBO or Showtime than you certainly do on my show."
While nudity might be a hook to attract viewers, it also presents an important part of why the shows are successful creatively. For Dating Naked, having the contestants date while nude forces them to be honest with each other in ways you wouldn't normally see on first dates.
"We are peeling back layers and showing real honesty and allowing people to really be who they are at their core," Paffrath said. "It's raw and real. They don't have anything to hide behind. It's giving people a different approach to dating when nothing else has worked. These people are at their wits' end and willing to try anything at this point. We've found that it actually helps people connect on a deeper level. Their conversations are more meaningful and personal."
And that's exactly where the concept for Dating Naked came from: discovering that honesty and putting it on display.
"When it comes to dating, people's number one complaint seems to be that there is too much deception," Dating Naked executive producer Rob LaPlante said. "If everyone is feeling this way, we said to ourselves, ‘Let's create a world where deception is eradicated.' And the way to make the most honest and vulnerable dating situation possible is to have everyone naked. When you're naked, you have nowhere to hide and therefore you're left with nothing but what God gave you. It's an extreme answer to a simple question and that's what makes it fun to watch."
Of course, when asking people to go on national TV while naked, there's a certain type of person who would immediately say yes and most everyone else would immediately say no. But according to LaPlante, they didn't run into any problems finding a variety of people to come on the show.
"We were really nervous about finding the right type of people to come on the show," he said. "But once we started casting we were pleasantly surprised at what we were getting and I think that really speaks to how frustrated people are with the modern dating world. They're really willing to go to extremes to find someone because everything else hasn't worked."
After getting fed up with striking out in the modern dating world, Wee Wee decided it was time to take that extreme route and go on Dating Naked.
"The reason why I did it is because I've been single for a while," Wee Wee said. "I was like, 'Why not try something out of my comfort zone?' Maybe that will finally work. And it was actually easier than setting myself up on the internet for like a blind date or Match.com or something like that and it was definitely a lot more fun than putting myself out there online. And that might be weird to say but it's true. I was way more comfortable on the show."
Hold up, how on earth could appearing on national TV in nothing but your birthday suit be comfortable?!
"I'm very comfortable with my body, but don't get me wrong: I was extremely nervous initially," Wee Wee said with a laugh. "But once I took my clothes off, my first date made me a laugh a lot and I felt more and more comfortable and then I forgot about the fact that I was naked. I really did forget!"
According to LaPlante, Wee Wee wasn't the only one who quickly forgot about the fact that she was sans clothes because of how free they felt.
"It was amazing, we have this segment where people have the option to wear clothing, and we had people who, from the moment we started rolling, wanted nothing to do with clothes for the next four days," LaPlante said. "And then we had others that couldn't believe the feelings they were having while naked. We even had one girl quit in the middle of it because the whole experience was far more overwhelming than she originally thought it would be. You can't be in a healthy relationship without being naked, either physically or emotionally, so it's eliminating the factors that get in the way of that."
Paffrath was pleasantly surprised at just how much people were opening up on the show once they lost their clothes.
"It really became a show full of heart and vulnerability," Paffrath said. "People were really sharing themselves with one another. It's a show that isn't just about gratuitous nudity. It's about the heart underneath it all and showing their vulnerabilities and having people that are troubled in relationships find a perfect match. They're really willing to put it all out there."
Like Paffrath, Garfinkle was also surprised at how emotional some contestants got on Naked and Afraid...but for a different reason than dating.
"I was surprised to learn that in these situations, the women are actually proving to be stronger than the men," Garfinkle said. "We have these really tough guys that are ex-marines or cops but the women are the ones who really seem to be able to survive the challenge better than the men."
That's right, even the men weren't immune to the vulnerabilities that being naked presented. Wee Wee was nervous that the guys wouldn't be as affected as she was on Dating Naked, but she couldn't have been happier to be proven wrong.
"I was most concerned about how the men on the show would act. I wasn't sure what to expect," Wee Wee said. "But I was pleasantly surprised to find out that they were actually more sensitive and in a vulnerable state and I actually got to know them and their personalities and got to know personal things about them that you wouldn't normally find out on a first date with clothes on."
Wee Wee is still together with Joe, who she met on Dating Naked, and she credits their successful relationship with how they met.
"I think that we definitely have a special bond and connection because we were willing to put ourselves completely out there," Wee Wee said. "That definitely brought us closer and we're more honest with each other. When you put yourself online to meet people, you can never know if they're being honest with you and telling the truth, even when you meet them in person. When you're naked, you can't hide anything, so Joe and I will always have this deeper connection."
Paffrath knows that there's another, shallow reason people are tuning in.
"And then there's the awkwardness," she said with a laugh. "There's no getting around that! Naked bodies are awkward and it's funny! We don't shy away from that and we embrace that humor and awkwardness. And hey, it is voyeuristic to watch it too so I'm sure people tune in for that at first but at the heart of it, they're staying to watch a couple find a connection. Our track record speaks to that. We had a wedding, and at least six couples that are still dating from the show, and more and more viewers are tuning in because of that."
LaPlante knows that watching the awkwardness unfold onscreen is a big draw, even if it's not the main draw of the show.
"Everyone can relate to being naked in public," LaPlante said. "It's like half of everyone's most embarrassing moments is being naked in public unintentionally! We all have a fear of awkwardness, and we all dread being in an awkward situation, but oh boy do we love to watch other people in awkward situations."
One awkward encounter that is pretty much unavoidable when dealing with naked bodies is...male excitement, to put it politely. What happens on the show if a guy gets excited and has no clothes or objects to hide behind?
"It has happened!" Paffrath said with a laugh. "It happened twice and both times it made it to air. There was an episode when Camille does yoga on a date with a guy and she's dangling him on her legs above her face and he got excited! She was like like, ‘Oh my gosh, what do I do?' And he was embarrassed but that's part of the experience! And then it happened again in one of our choosing ceremonies. A.J. got excited when he chose Liddy! So I had to call out the elephant in the room since it was blurred for the audience. It's a natural part of the show and it's an indicator that the feelings are real."
Unexpected "excitement" isn't the only new factor that showrunners need to take into account when their reality stars are naked onscreen.
"When you're hiring your crew you have to be really blunt about what they'll be doing and what they'll be around all the time," LaPlante said. "Plus, you have to put a lot more time and money in your budget for blurring. That is a long and tedious process that costs a lot so you really have to put more into post-production. In an average episode of Dating Naked there are over 3,000 blurs. And then in our wedding special, there are over 12,000 individual blurs. We were joking that it is the most blurred-out hour of television ever. We're going for a Guinness World record! My mom will be so proud."
Add in tropical locations with nudity, and then there are even more factors to take into account.
"Since we're in the jungle, there are obstacles like bugs and humidity and tropical elements like that," Paffrath said. "One of our daters Cole actually got bit by ants on his male part! That's something that you really don't have to worry about on a date with clothing on, but he had to ice it! But at least you don't have to worry about what to wear to impress someone, so at least we eliminate that obstacle!"
On Naked and Afraid, the risk of ant bites in private places is upped tenfold since contestants are forced to live and survived in the wild for 21 days. Taking away their clothes is just one way to make it the "ultimate" survival experience.
"I didn't want to be a part of a naked reality show, that wasn't how I got into it," Garfinkle said with a laugh. "When we started, we thought about what would be a really primal survival experience and the idea of Adam and Eve came up. What would it be like if two strangers who are survivor experts met and survived together in the harshest conditions in locations all around the world? The human body needs water after three days but it starts shutting down after 21 days so we thought, ‘Let's put them out there for 21 days and make it really primal. Let's strip them of everything, shoes, clothing, food, shelter, fire, nothing. What would that be like?'"
The people that go on Naked and Afraid aren't looking for love like contestants on Dating Naked. They're looking to put their survival skills to the test.
"At the top of our show, we say that it's the Everest of survival challenges," Garfinkle said. "We get the best of the best. The people that come on our show are very experienced survivalists. There are a lot of people out there who want to take on this challenge as a marathon runner or a triathlete would approach a race. They're not getting paid money. It's a very authentic and real experience. They're really surviving on their own. They don't get any food, any shelter. If it's cold they have to figure out how to use their surroundings to stay warm. It's all raw and real and that's why the audience is so drawn to the show."
So why are there so many naked reality shows all of a sudden, even if they're all different in execution?
"Reality shows are, by design, edgy," LaPlante said. "Another show with a bunch of women drinking wine, yelling and flipping tables in a restaurant is not edgy anymore. No one is interested in seeing another one of those. So we were trying to find something new. Naked and Afraid was the first and everyone saw that and said, ‘Hey, let's play with it in different ways.'"
"This city is definitely a bandwagon town, and once something hits, everyone tries to capitalize on that," she said. "It's not surprising at all to see the success of Naked and Afraid and then other shows trying to replicate that. But in the dating genre, it just seemed like such an obvious idea but no one had done it yet. So Lighthearted [the production company behind Dating Naked] got on that and said, ‘This is the perfect opportunity,' and brought it to VH1 and they really ran with it."
Garfinkle and the rest of the team behind Naked and Afraid knew they had a hit even before it premiered and other shows piggybacked off its success.
"As we finished shooting the pilot and were in post-production, we knew that we had something special on our hands," Garfinkle said. "We knew this was something that had never been done before. It was raw and authentic and we felt really, really strongly about what we had created. When there is one successful show, people try and copy it for themselves. That's what happened this year with naked reality shows, and it happens in scripted shows as well! It's part of our business."
But if people are now appearing on TV completely naked, where can reality TV go from here?
"I think there's a lot more reality TV to come," LaPlante said. "As much as everyone wants it to be as salacious as ever, that's just the hook. We're telling interesting, emotional, real stories along with that hook, and without that, that's where you lose the staying power."
Paffrath doesn't believe that having people completely nude on TV is the most shocking reality TV concept out there.
"I heard about one show where people actually have sex on the show and that is pretty shocking if you ask me," Paffrath said. "That's just on a different level. And then I also heard about one where people get married on the first date which I think that's more shocking than going on a naked date. Making light of marriage is shocking to me. So to each their own. Everyone has different boundaries to what they consider shocking."
There's one thing we can all agree on: a naked construction show would be a terrible idea. Naked body parts + electrical wiring = the bad kind of shocking.