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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Our empathy towards the mental health struggles of reality TV stars should not be conditional

How discourse around the mental health of reality stars shapes the way we handle stigma

The birth of a reality TV star begins and ends in a limbo ripe with contradictions. 

They are cogs in the machine of reality television: necessary for our entertainment, but so plentiful that when they are churned out, they are met with a level of fame that is not quite a celebrity, and not quite respectable. Unlike the god-like adoration and idolization we grant to actors and musicians, reality TV stars are much closer to the mortal viewer. They land in our watch parties, tweets and discussion threads to be dissected: their angry outbursts vilified, rejections cringed at and the amalgamation of carefully edited scenes is taken at face value. 

It is no secret that reality TV portrays anything but reality, yet we fervently hold reality TV stars to their edited realities

The basis of reality TV fame—that their lives become their livelihood—leave contestants at the mercy of producers. In shows like “The Bachelor” franchise, the edited realities of contestants are later served to the public for scrutiny. One contract from a contestant reads: “[I] acknowledge and agree that producers may use or reveal personal information which may be embarrassing […] humiliating […] and may portray me in a false light.” Breakdowns may be marketable for good television, but leave the mental healths of contestants at stake.

Tamar Braxton, of “Braxton Family Values,” describes how the manipulation of her portrayal deteriorated her sense of self, feeling as though she was no longer living but “existing for a corporation’s gains and ratings.” According to a report from 2019, at least 38 celebrities worldwide are suspected to have died by suicide following links to reality TV shows. Former “Love Island” contestants have criticized the show for failing to provide mental health aftercare, with some contestants suffering from increased anxiety and depression after the show. Following the death by suicide of “Love Island” star Mike Thalassitis, the unsavory nickname given to him during his time on the show—“Muggy Mike”—began trending on Twitter

Despite the clear mental health struggles of contestants, the vitriol of online abuse has yet to cease. I’ve seen some online wonder: Isn’t this to be expected when participating in a reality show? After all, contestants are diving into the belly of the beast by their own volition.

This kind of dehumanizing discourse around reality TV stars underlies a serious issue in the way we approach mental health and handling the stigma attached to it. Individuals with mental health issues deal with an internal stigma that makes them hesitant to relay their struggles and seek help. When reality TV stars brave the stigma and open up about their struggles, they are met with dismissal. How can we expect to remove the stigma surrounding mental health when we are so free to attach an additional stigma to reality stars? This type of dialogue perpetuates the dismissive attitude of faulting individuals for their mental health struggles.

The conditions of reality TV—glamorizing talentless individuals and superficiality—may make it hard for the general public to find empathy. Perhaps we judge them for their blatant chase for stardom—but their participation on a reality show does not mean they deserve to suffer nor does it lessen the mental health toll of them as individuals. The fact that the struggles of reality stars are quickly invalidated highlights how much mental health continues to be dismissed in society.

If we want to undo the stigmas associated with mental health, there cannot be double standards when it comes to the treatment of reality TV stars. We cannot dismiss the mental health struggles of one group and cater to another. This sets a precedent where we pick and choose whose mental health struggles to validate, steering us further away from creating an environment where individuals who come forward about their mental health are met with support and not dismissal.

At the end of the day, the empathy we give to others should not be on a conditional basis.

Written by: Renee Wang — reswang@ucdavis.edu 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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