TV

How Caitlyn Jenner, The Kardashians And ‘Total Divas’ Are Making Reality TV Relevant Again

The boundaries of TV's most maligned genre are being pushed in some pretty unlikely directions.

For all the critical thought I put into most media I consume, I’m still a sucker for the marketed realism of reality TV. A storyline on Keeping Up with the Kardashians from a few years ago saw the family, including Kim’s former husband Kris Humphries, holiday in Bora Bora. In one instalment of the multi-episode extravaganza, fiancé Kris pushed Kim from a deck of their luxury cabin into the clear, turquoise ocean. When she emerged, she realised her diamond earring had come out during the plunge.

I was incredulous when Kris managed to find the earring in the golden sands below, and when it came up in conversation with some friends, one of them scoffed at me: “She didn’t actually lose her earring. Or if she did, Kris probably ‘found’ a replacement diamond in the dressing room.”

Colour me mind-blown. What my friend said was almost certainly true – I knew I was a fool to believe reality TV — but I really struggled to get my head around the utter fakeness of this scene. I feel this cognitive dissonance every time I tune in to popular reality shows, all the more because shows like KUWTK have begun – in their own halting, modest way – to step outside the narrow confines of the genre they’ve come to dominate.

The Evolution of Reality

With so many quality scripted shows bombarding screens in recent years, the golden age of reality TV has somewhat passed. But it wasn’t so long ago that mainlining everything E!, VH1 and MTV had to offer was the closest thing to a Netflix binge. Laguna Beach and its spinoff, The Hills; Pamela Anderson, Denise Richards, Ashley Parker Angel (don’t ask), Bret Michaels, and Flavor Flav’s offerings; Girls of the Playboy Mansion; Jersey Shore; Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica … the list goes on.

That none of these shows are on the air anymore is testament to the evolution of the genre; some of the best and most interesting reality shows airing right now are the ones willing to step away from traditional reality TV tropes.

 

Total Divas has been running for four seasons over two years, and throughout much of that time the show has given precedence to the staged “personal lives” of its seven stars, to the detriment of their unique careers. Finally this season the pendulum swung towards their actual talent, honing in on Diva (World Wrestling Entertainment’s trademark for their female wrestlers) Nikki Bella’s desire to “stay and continue to help women conquer this industry”, her rival Eva Marie’s increased dedication to wrestling training, and Trinity’s personal struggle with her wrestling character’s turn from babyface (good guy) to heel (bad guy).

A keen follower of this show from its outset, this season made me finally realise I don’t care about the marital woes that Nattie’s sister is causing by living with her and her husband, Paige’s childish love games, or Nikki’s sister Brie’s yearning for a family. Total Divas and its cast excel when the focus is on its crux: female athletes navigating an out-of-the-ordinary sport.

Keeping Up With Caitlyn

Meanwhile on I Am Cait, Caitlyn Jenner is doing some important work in the struggle to make trans women’s lives more visible. What could have come across as an insensitive, voyeuristic exposé of Caitlyn’s transition is for the most part a compassionate glimpse into the life of the world’s most famous trans woman, with the feel of a documentary rather than a reality show the likes of which made her family famous.

The other trans women Caitlyn’s brought into her circle — actress Candis Cayne, aspiring nurse Blossom Brown and activists Chandi Moore, Jen Richards and Jennifer Boylan — make I Am Cait a far cry from your average E! reality fare. Seeing these women as human rather than ‘other’ is important, but I couldn’t care less about their road trips and roller skating hijinks: give me more of Chandi and Candi’s efforts to get Caitlyn to understand how privileged she is as a rich, famous trans woman and to herself as part of the trans community, not separate from “them”.

I wrote when I Am Cait premiered about the compassion and understanding Caitlyn’s family showed her during her transition; at the time it felt like the furthest thing Kardashian-haters expected from them. Yet that didn’t stop Kim and ko. from being continuously piled on by critics. If I Am Cait’s decidedly un-reality TV-like vibe is a testament to anything, it’s to the Kardashians’ utter revolution of reality TV to the point of transgression.

The main argument against the Kardashians — and reality TV at large — is its fakeness; the exact opposite of reality, in essence. We’ve all heard about the staged situations producers put their subjects in in order to create watchable ‘reality’; groups of people sitting around shooting the shit are not always watchable. I remember reading an interview with Jessica Simpson’s stage dad Joe at the height of Newlyweds’ popularity asserting that Jessica’s aptitude for skiing and Nick’s aversion to it made for an entertaining plotline.

On the surface, scenarios like the abovementioned Bora Bora diamond earring fiasco make KUWTK seem as fake as all the others. On further inspection, however, the Kardashians have made their lives so transparent that their honesty about their beauty routines (this season, Kylie konfessed that her much-talked-about lips aren’t natural), bodies (Kim has documented getting Botox, her struggle with psoriasis and her less-than-glowing pregnancy; she’s even X-rayed her butt to prove that she doesn’t have implants), family and, of course, Caitlyn’s transition is refreshing. And when was the last time you saw a live birth on TV?

Where Has All The Good Reality Gone?

Of course, all of these shows are on cable; in Australia, reality TV that’s truly pushing boundaries is relegated to paid streaming services and Foxtel which many people can’t afford, leaving Australian networks to air stuff that doesn’t do much to debunk the theory that reality only appeals to the lowest common denominator. Free-to-air prioritises copious co-opted cooking shows and half-hour fillers consisting entirely of YouTube videos of cats over quality content, scripted or otherwise.

Can you really blame the networks, though? They keep putting on shows like Britain’s Busiest Airports in primetime slots because we watch them, while we simultaneously decry that KUWTK has gotten as far as its tenth season (with three more already in the pipeline). Its longevity indicates there’s an audience for it, too.

Reality TV shows no signs of budging, so if it’s going to stick around I’d like to see more of what the Kardashian/Jenner konglomerate and Total Divas are attempting to do, not another season of Married at First Sight.

Scarlett Harris is a freelance writer and blogger at ‘The Scarlett Woman’. You can follow her on Twitter @ScarlettEHarris.