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Why Diversity is So Important for Reality TV

You are probably familiar with current controversies surrounding The Bachelor franchise as headlines have landed in mainstream media. The ABC network has been scrutinized for how its PR professionals assigned to the show (and its spin-offs: The Bachelorette, Bachelor in Paradise) have handled responsiveness to allegations about contestants. There have also been questions about their […]

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Eboni Williams is the first black Real Housewife on Real Housewives of New York
New RHONY cast mate Eboni K. Williams poses with Leah McSweeney

You are probably familiar with current controversies surrounding The Bachelor franchise as headlines have landed in mainstream media. The ABC network has been scrutinized for how its PR professionals assigned to the show (and its spin-offs: The Bachelorette, Bachelor in Paradise) have handled responsiveness to allegations about contestants. There have also been questions about their approach to advising cast members with regard to communications.

One contender for Bachelor Matt James’s heart this season, Rachael Kirkconnell, has been spotlighted for past problematic social media posts. After viewers and show commentators blew up Instagram, Twitter and TikTok with information about the contender, Bachelor franchise host Chris Harrison spoke to Rachel Lindsay for Extra TV and said that people should give her grace. He was more focused on criticizing “cancel culture” than on holding someone accountable (or actively listening to Lindsay, a black woman) for a racially insensitive past.

After Kirkconnell issued a mea culpa via her Instagram page, Harrison did the same for how he had handled the Extra interview. This came off the heels of Twitter and Instagram decrees to “fire Chris Harrison!” It seems that without the pressure from social media, his apology might never have been issued. Then it was announced that he would stepping away – the implication being: temporarily –  from hosting duties after this currently airing season of The Bachelor concludes. (He usually hosts the After the Final Rose, but an interim MC will replace him. At the time of this post, that host has not been announced). 

Because of how he interrupted Lindsay and griped about an unfair system of judging people, as well as how he undermined her points about accountability, critics predict his “hiatus” is actually a permanent removal.

Bachelor Nation expert and annual show spoiler Reality Steve told Kate Casey (of Reality Life with Kate Casey podcast) that the franchise either needs to be “done” or “get a complete overhaul.” The Bachelor, which until recent years featured mainly white contestants and leads, is not the only reality series under fire. The Bravo network is frequently called out for having politically tone deaf stars, some who habitually say and post controversial  things. The network is hoping that by diversifying the casts on some of its Housewives shows (ones that previously had all Caucasian cast mates), it will bring about the change viewers have been demanding for a while.

MTV’s The Real World, a pioneer in the reality tv genre, showcased diversity since its inception in a commendable way. With regard to that, Obi bin Imani, host of Odd Black Individual podcast says: “It’s in the name. Reality  TV is based in the reality of our world and our world is made up of all different kinds of people.” 

Reviewers, critics and “reality TV anthropologists” (as many of us prefer to dub ourselves) have noted that there are many television programs that do not exhibit diversity. The Real Housewives of New York (RHONY) on Bravo has had 12 seasons without a main cast mate of color. In 2020, the network announced that their first black RHONY Housewife will be Eboni K. Williams, an attorney and television host slated to appear in the upcoming Season 13.  Bravo has been called out for only acknowledging how important diversity is in the eleventh hour, and ignoring prior feedback, especially during contentiousness elevated during the last four years. Some wonder if it’s too little, too late. 

Other Bravo shows have introduced us to ignorant cast members unaware of the privilege, snobbery, classism and bigotry they exude. Bravo’s Southern Charm would frequently film scenes on old slave plantations. Misogyny was also a big plot point (The show was initially pitched as Southern Gentlemen).

On the now-canceled Southern Charm Savannah, which aired for two seasons, it was implied that a cast mate wasn’t allowed into an exclusive all-male club because he is Jewish. 

You only have to scroll through Twitter and Instagram and see the hashtags #BravoTV, #PumpRules, #RHOC and #TheBachelor to read takes from  reality TV aficionados about the lack of diverse representation on reality shows, or about how a show like #SouthernCharm  seems to be trying too hard to be  “woke,” placing immense responsibility on one minority cast member tasked with educating white friends. It also struck viewers as awkward for Southern Charm, built on an Old South, “boys will be boys” premise (with the aforementioned plantation scenes included), to finally showcase diversity in Season Seven.  

“Having a token minority is not the same as diversity,” Says Stephanie Williams, host of Mocha Minutes podcast, “That puts pressure on one person to represent their entire race, culture or both.. There is so much of a burden to be a ‘good representative’ of your group that white people don’t have to deal with, and that they choose to not understand. That is why many white people dismiss oppressed groups by saying they ‘are using the race card.’” (The latter was actually a plot point on the most recent season of Southern Charm.)

Kiki Monique of the popular Talk of Shame Tik Tok and Instagram accounts, noted months ago that Southern Charm had actually removed scenes filmed at plantations from the archive of prior seasons on the Bravo TV app. Her Tik Tok account accrued a massive following after she conducted several reveals and deep dives. “Representation behind the screen is just as important as on screen,” she tells me, “The most authentic story lines are those told through the lens of those with the lived experience. That starts from the moment a show is just a concept, all the way through development and production.” 

She elaborates: “Reality TV over the years has evolved tremendously in so many ways, but in other ways it has remained stagnant because homogeneous casts result in homogeneous output.”  Kiki Monique is a strong believer that seeing diversity on reality TV will “help break the mold.” 

“Why (does diversity matter so much) specifically with regard to  reality TV?” ask Jay and J, co-hosts of the Housewives on Display podcast, “Part of the fun with reality TV is seeing aspects of yourself, whether it be positive or negative, in the personalities. You try to find the person in the scene that represents what you would be doing in that situation. If there’s a lack of diversity, whether it’s race, religion, nationality… then there is a lack of perspective on the show. Everyone’s background and differences inform their opinions, so the more diverse the show is, the more rich the drama is.” 

“Even if the person ends up being a monster,” they add in their written correspondence,, “It’s nice to feel seen by the networks we’re watching, especially since so many reality shows are segregated by race. America is supposed to be a melting pot. These shows should reflect that!”

Having been raised in a modern orthodox Jewish home eating strictly kosher foods and observing a weekly Sabbath, I know that the topic of diversity is…even more diverse! Seeing Heather Gay of Real Housewives of Salt Lake City (RHOSLC) discuss her strict Mormon upbringing, and the attached modern-day challenges, inspired many LDS church members to reach out to her and express gratitude for her candor. 

Victoria Lee, who runs the Instagram account Asians Who Watch Bravo, is relieved to finally see more Asian representation on the Bravo network. Now that Tiffany Moon, MD joined Real Housewives of Dallas, Crystal Kung Minkoff will appear on the upcoming season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and Jen Shah is a Pacific Islander who appears on RHOSLC, she is optimistic.

Lee explains: “Asians make up three quarters of the world’s population and Asian Americans make up 5.6% of America’s population. If these shows want to show ‘reality,’ they need to depict what real Americans look like. It’s not just tall, blonde hair, blue eyed women from affluent backgrounds. It is all types of people from various socio-economic backgrounds and different social stratum that reflect reality.”

Speaking out passionately, Lee explains that she runs her Instagram platform “to be a voice for Asians and to show the injustices the Asian/Pacific Islander communities face on shows and in the media.” 

“For so long, there have not been too many people that look like me or who I identify with as a second-generation Korean-American,” she adds. “Furthermore, while we share a lot of similarities, we’re not all the same and we do not all come from one specific background.” 

After speaking with people from different backgrounds and of various ethnicities, I find it all the more aggravating that the longstanding host of The Bachelor franchise would be dismissive about “cancel culture.” It is irresponsible that he alluded to a world spinning out of control that needs to be reined in. It seems pretty clear that when it comes to diversity, we need to internalize and respect the feedback of minority members. We need to actively listen rather than simply hear. When prejudices, biases and snubs are called out, being defensive works against every single one of us.

No matter who we are, we can learn from people of other cultures and communities. According to the BBC, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20200417-the-power-of-reality-tv-in-a-pandemic-age, more people are watching reality TV than ever during the Corona Virus pandemic. We are now also able to watch new reality programs across streaming platforms. 

Shows like The Circle, on Netflix, ensure that we see contestants of all different backgrounds, races, sexual orientations and body types who didn’t get to physically see one another until they were eliminated, or made it to a grand reveal in the finale. It brought the point home about bonding with people over what is in their heart, no matter how different they appear on the outside.Other shows could take note from those that cast a wider net when it comes to the casting process.

Our country is currently healing from reports of heightened racist and xenophobic rhetoric stemming from political extremists. Reality TV serves as comfort food for our visual and auditory senses the minute we switch from CNN. We should all be able to escape to a place where we see people that reflect the world at large: a world with Mormons, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics and people with skin of various hues…people we can all relate to.

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