Refugees, Topless Waitressing, and Fanfiction — Why Reality TV Is Important

It’s a Friday night, and you’re walking into a bar. The place is packed, crowded. Every person here is a personification of a TV series you like. Friends is snuggled in the corner. Lost is hiding under a table. Everyone here is at a different stage of inebriation. 

If it helps, imagine these characters having DVD covers for heads.

So, who will you chat with tonight? Will you talk with some prestige TV? Have a glass of wine with Succession


If you do so, you’ll have some fascinating discussions. You’ll chat about media consolidation, if power corrupts those who hold it. You’ll leave this bar more informed. 

Or, will you enjoy the company of a reality TV series? Gawk at Love Island getting sloshed?

Love Island
Channel 9

Because this too can be an educational experience. For better and worse, some folks are more honest when drunk. 

By paying attention to reality TV, you can learn what the general public really thinks about the state of things. It’s a great indicator of where we are at regarding all forms of societal progress. 

Are most men still after traditional gender roles in relationships? Will most women reject a short king? Do enbies even exist in the minds of most people? Because a series like Love Island will tell you.

Succession unravels the issues that our society is currently facing. Love Island will often display them with little or zero critique. Both of these programmes are worth analysing. 

It doesn’t matter who you choose to chat with at this bar. Sit down with anyone you please. Prestige TV is worth taking seriously. Reality TV is worth taking seriously. Even the commercial channel is worth taking seriously. ‘Cause what we consume is important.

Part One: Big Brother

Disclaimer: While taking reality TV seriously is important, this concept isn’t a new one. Australian reality TV has always been a force of momentum, one that shoves certain cultural conversations into the light.  

Take for instance, the 2004 season of Big Brother. In this season, one of the contestants, Merlin Luck, used his eviction episode to protest Australia’s sadistic refugee policies. He did this by holding up a “FREE TH REFUGEES” sign and gaff-taping his mouth shut. Unfortunately, the letter “E” on his sign had dropped off.  

Big Brother
Network Ten

In 2004, the Manus Regional Processing Centre had been open for three years. While it was always an inhumane place to imprison refugees, the extent of its crimes hadn’t been detailed to the public yet. 

Luck’s protest came before the United Nations condemned Australia’s refugee detention system as an illegal and indefinite imprisonment apparatus. It was before 12 people died waiting to be free.

The fact that Luck’s protest happened before these historic failures took place indicates something dire — that mainstream Australia always knew that its refugee policies were wrong. 

“FREE TH REFUGEES.” According to Network Ten, this protest had around 1.5 million viewers. If only this demand had been taken more seriously.

Part Two: The Bachelor Australia

Now, it’s worth noting that reality TV hasn’t just critiqued Australia’s political policies. It has also ignited discussions about our gender roles, relationships, and sex work.

This brings us to the 2017 season of The Bachelor Australia. During this season, Network Ten claimed that they had a huge twist that would change the entire game. This twist ended up being that one of the contestants, Leah Costa, used to be a topless waitress. 

The Bachelor Australia
Network Ten

Both The Bachelor and its contestants framed Leah’s sex work as scandalous. Leah was then shamed for not immediately disclosing this information to the Bachelor, Matty Johnson. 

One of the contestants, Elora Murger, even stated that Leah’s work made her a lesser person. 

“I think every girl wants to find love, but not every girl is right for Matty,” said Elora.

“Leah, I feel like she might be a bit too wild for Matty, I think he wants a respectful, elegant woman…  He doesn’t want a party animal or an evil mean girl.”

After Matty learnt about Leah’s sex work, he eliminated her from the series

During this episode, The Bachelor’s narrative was a reprehensible mess. It acted like sex work is a shameful profession, performed by duplicitous people, and makes you less deserving of love.  

Tragically, The Bachelor was also just giving the public what they wanted. Since its invention, Australia has forced its sex workers to scuttle away in the dark. In 2023, we still don’t know how many Aussies work in these industries.

In this instance, The Bachelor reflected the worst of Australia back at itself.

It’s now been around five years since this season of The Bachelor aired. But if it were made today, would the edit have been any different? 

Part Three: Women’s Media

Over and over again, Australian reality TV has proven itself worthy of being a part of our cultural discourse. However, despite this fact, it’s still often framed as a genre with nothing to say. 

But why is this the case? How come sci-fi, sports, and fantasy have all escaped receiving similar botched critiques? Well, it might be thanks to the fact that reality TV is predominantly enjoyed by women. 

Across multiple eras and cultures, the hobbies that women have gravitated to and were assigned have been framed as frivolous experiences. Take for instance, watercolouring. In mid-century America, watercolouring was regularly sledged as a ‘lady’s medium.’ It was only after 1870, when men got in the mix, was this form taken seriously. 

Or, if you don’t like that example, let’s discuss fanfiction. And women’s basketball. And the fact that women are historically called cooks, while men are called chefs. The list goes on in perpetuity. 

According to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, Aussie women are typically the audience members of our relationship-based programmes. In a 2021 survey, they stated that 84% of their female respondents have engaged with such works in the past. 

The Australian Communications and Media Authority’s Reality TV List
The Australian Communications and Media Authority / The Latch
Australian Communications and Media Authority Question: Have you ever watched any of these Australian reality TV programmes?
The Australian Communications and Media Authority / The Latch

It begs the questions: Would Love Island have a better reputation if 50% of its audience was male? Would Big Brother be featured in more essays if it was less catered to women? Would The Bachelor be art if it wasn’t for the patriarchy’s thick and stubborn and entangled roots?

The pages of history whisper, “Yes.”

Part Four: Back to the Bar

It’s a Friday night, and you’re walking into a bar. The place is packed, crowded. Every person here is a personification of a TV series you like. Succession is at one table, and Love Island is at another. 

If you chat with Succession, slay. Just don’t judge the folks that sit with Love Island

If you have a margarita with Love Island, amazing. Just don’t turn your brain all the way off.

However, whoever you choose, the next round of drinks is on me.

Related: Reality TV and the Internalised Misogyny of the Guilty Pleasure

Related: Michelle Pearce-Denovan Is the Queen of Reality TV on Facebook

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