The old joke about reality TV is that not much of it is all that real.
It's a cliché, but clichés come to exist for a reason. And much of the reality TV that we consume and obsess over does carry a level of excessively produced artifice about it. It's not hard to see the machinations behind the scenes working overtime to achieve the desired narrative. It may be considered unscripted, but, well, you catch our drift.
But it's not always this way. Sometimes reality TV can transcend the preconceived notions about the genre and deliver something so real and so raw that you sit back and say, "Damn." The power of the genre was evident in its early days when, in 1994, The Real World: San Francisco introduced the world to openly-gay Pedro Zamora as he was struggling with AIDS, creating a dialogue not only amongst his roommates who'd never been made to consider the plight of a community that had been plagued by the disease, but also amongst the audience watching at home. (Zamora would succumb to the disease mere hours after the season finale aired in November of that year.)
It was evident back in 2011 when, just before season two of Bravo's The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills began airing, star Taylor Armstrong's husband Russell was found dead after hanging himself, forcing producers to scramble and decide what to do with a season that featured the man—and not exactly in the best light. (In the end, a scene involving the rest of Armstrong's cast mates and their spouses discussing the tragedy and what led to it was filmed and shown at the onset of the season premiere.) The incident sparked conversations about reality TV's responsibility towards its participants, as well as domestic abuse, as Taylor felt free to speak about what she referred to as an abusive marriage after her husband's death.
It was evident in 2017 when, during what appeared to be a standard episode of Survivor's 34th season, tribal council devolved into a shocking public outing of competitor Zeke Smith as a transgender man by fellow contestant Jeff Varner. In that moment, all game play stopped as host Jeff Probst mostly steered the illuminating conversation towards assessing Zeke's well-being after the stunning betrayal. It was a moment that sparked conversation over how much reality TV should really show and who has the right to tell whose story at the end of the day.
It was evident last year not once, but twice during the third episode of RuPaul's Drag Race season 10, as well as its companion series Untucked. While the series has been no stranger to illuminating conversations regarding the myriad issues facing the LGBTQ community, a workroom conversation about contestant Blair St. Clair's (real name Andrew Bryson) religious upbringing led to fellow competitor Dusty Ray Bottoms (real name Dustin Rayburn) to share his harrowing ordeal with his own religious family who were not supportive of his sexuality like Blair's. And the story he shared was as powerful as anything the show had ever aired.
"They lost it. They took me to church. They got me exorcised, because they thought I was possessed by a gay demon," Dusty revealed to the others, leaving them stunned. "I had this prayer warrior standing in front of me, my mom and dad were standing behind her looking at me, and I had to list every person I'd had a sexual encounter with."
As he continued the story in an interview, tears in his eyes, he revealed, "I was so confused after the whole thing went down because, ‘Was I straight now?' I had to go through therapy and I was on track to go to straight camp. I was meeting with these pastors, and he was like, ‘In a homosexual relationship you'll never find success. You'll never find love.' I stopped him, I went upstairs and I packed my car, and said ‘I can't do this anymore.' It was the most humiliating, awful thing of my life. Ever."
Dusty's story had a happy ending, as he revealed he's in a happy, loving relationship with his fiance, has had enough success in his field to lead him to Drag Race, and didn't have to compromise who he is to get there. But it illuminated an all-too-real reality for many scared LGBTQ youth facing the same sort of treatment day in and day out across the country. And it very likely opened some eyes to the lasting horrors that such treatment can cause.
When the episode transitioned to its companion series Untucked, a behind-the-scenes look at the moments the contestants share while the judges are deliberating and such required viewing for any Drag Race fan that VH1 just lumps the two together into one long, two-hour episode, the topic turned to race and how reality TV contestants of color are generally perceived. Contestants The Vixen (real name Anthony Taylor) and Aquaria (real name Giovanni Palandrani) had been poking each other the entire episode, with Aquaria kicking things off by attempting to read The Vixen's runway look from the previous challenge. When The Vixen, who is black, decided it was time to jab back, Aquaria, who is white, attempted to say that her sparring partner was being "negative," which The Vixen took true offense to. After all, in drag culture especially, if you can dish it out, you better be able to take it.
But it was during the conversation backstage when, while The Vixen and a few of the other queens were attempting to get through to Aquaria, Aquaria burst into tears and The Vixen got very real. "So this right here is exactly what it is," he said. "You say something, I say something. You start crying, you have created a narrative of I am an angry black woman who has scared off the little white girl."
For years now, conversations about the treatment of Drag Race queens of color compared to the treatment of those queens who are white have been swirling. It's something fans and former contestants alike have tweeted about, but it wasn't anything that a current queen had ever dared to call out while cameras were rolling.
"When you get super defensive and tell me that I'm negative when I'm just responding to what you brought to me, that will always read to these as a race issue," The Vixen continued, as she pointed directly into the two cameras capturing the discussion. What followed was a riveting discussion about self-perception and how being on reality TV can distort that when the audience's inherent racial biases are like a little voice gnawing inside of you. It was the sort of talk that happens after the fact, either in an interview or via Twitter, but rarely on camera on the show itself.
"I know this to be a thing of an issue," Aquaria later said, carefully considering her word choice. "OK and I know that you know. It's cool," The Vixen replied. "Act like it."
Was the behavior that sparked it totally petty on both ends? Of course. But did it wind up shining a light on a very real issue affecting not only the show, but society as a whole? You're damn right it did. Was anything actually resolved? Not really. But these sorts of things don't get resolved in a quick conversation anyway. And they can only ever hope to be resolved if the conversation begins in the first place.
And it was evident yet again last week on Survivor, when the #MeToo movement made it way to the Island of the Idols in a shocking double episode that left some wondering whether the show that had gotten it so very right just a few years back with Zeke's abhorrent outing had missed the mark this time. After castaway Kellee Kim voiced her discomfort to fellow tribe member Dan Spilo over what she deemed "inappropriate touching" back in the season premiere, the issue of Dan's physicality with the women on the island continued to rear its head, prompting Kellee to share concerns with Missy Byrd, whom she was meeting for the first time. After Missy admitted she shared the same concerns and had similar encounters, Kelle found herself in an emotional confessional interview.
"This isn't just one person," she said. "It's a pattern. It's a pattern. It takes five people to be like, man, the way I'm feeling about this is actually real. It's not in my head. I'm not overreacting to it. He's literally done these things to five different women in this game. That sucks. That totally, totally sucks."
In a truly rare moment, the producer interviewing Kellee from off-camera broke the forth wall and could be heard addressing her directly. "If there are issues to the point where things need to happen, come to me and I will make sure that stops," they said. "Because I don't want anyone feeling uncomfortable…It's not OK."
In a statement released after the episode aired, CBS and MGM explained the course of action taken out on the island. "In the episode broadcast last night, several female castaways discussed the behavior of a male castaway that made them uncomfortable," it read. "During the filming of this episode, producers spoke off-camera to all the contestants still in the game, both as a group and individually, to hear any concerns and advise about appropriate boundaries. A formal warning was also given to the male castaway in question. On Survivor, producers provide the castaways a wide berth to play the game. At the same time, all castaways are monitored and supervised at all times. They have full access to producers and doctors, and the production will intervene in situations where warranted."
Things got much more complicated, however, when Missy and fellow contestant Elizabeth Beisel took Kellee's legitimate concerns and used them to advance their game, fabricating experiences between Elizabeth and Dan to make Dan a target for votes. And it worked. They managed to turn Dan's ally Janet Corbin against him, relying on her motherly instincts to protect younger women. "You tell her how uncomfortable you are," Missy told Elizabeth. "Like, you have a very open mom-daughter moment about how uncomfortable you are. Right now, that's our only play."
However, when they caught wind of Kellee's plan to set her personal feelings about Dan aside and target Missy for the vote, they turned on her, blindsiding her as she sat at Tribal Council with two immunity idols in her pocket and making her a member of the jury.
Things didn't get much better from there, with Janet considering quitting the game after being essentially exiled from the tribe for following her conscience. At the next Tribal, Jeff ignored Dan's defensive requests to "let it go" and pressed him on his behavior, eventually leading to an apology. "If that person was Kellee—if Kellee ever felt that in the freezing cold rain, or in tight shelters … or in all the ways we have to crawl around and through each other in this game—if I ever did anything that ever even remotely made her feel uncomfortable, it horrifies me, and I am terribly sorry," he said, while Kellee, in the jury box, was literally silenced, per the rules of the game.
Jeff later defended production's decision to not bend the rules during the incredibly intense Tribal and allow Kellee's voice to be heard while Dan defended himself, telling The Hollywood Reporter they "gave great consideration to letting Kellee speak" and had met with her after she was voted out to discuss the idea, but "in the end, the decision was made to stick with the rules, which are designed for the jury to not influence the game until the million-dollar vote happens on day 39." Despite his admission that it was "not an easy decision," fans and critics alike were not impressed with the choices made, with many voicing their disappointment on Twitter along with their plans to quit watching altogether.
Though Missy and Elizabeth both took to social media after the episode aired to express their remorse over their actions, there's no escaping the fact that the two-part episode has certainly tainted the season, ensuring that its legacy won't be tied to its inventive Island of the Idol theme or the eventual winner, but instead to this infuriating moment when real life intervened and no one quite knew how to handle it.
Reality TV has somewhat unfairly earned itself a bad rap, but its instances like these that prove the genre does have the power to deliver on its intended goal, while reminding us of the great responsibility that comes along with that. It can educate us, move us, make us think and even help us to empathize with an experience we might not otherwise ever consider. All it takes is producers getting out of their own way while still honoring the responsibility they have, and, like The Real World ingrained into our brains all those years ago, a few people willing to stop being polite and start getting real.
Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.
(Originally published on April 6, 2018 at 11:56 a.m. PT.)