Reality Television & the Breaking of the Fourth Wall

The camera shakes as it pans quickly to the floor. When the camera man pans back, we see a hand covering the screen. We hear shouting, “I don’t want to be on camera right now.” The fourth wall of reality television has been broken.

The “fourth wall” is the imaginary space that separates the audience from the performer.

For many years, reality television existed within this fourth wall. It only broke during interviews with personalities and that was only use in competition like series. Reality television had to claim that everything audiences witnessed was 100 percent true. They had to put the ‘real’ in ‘reality’.

In 2010, Jennifer Pozner wrote Reality Bites Back, a detailed look into how crafted this reality really was. Her goal was to, “arm readers with the tools they need to understand and challenge the stereotypes reality TV enforces…” Her work is exemplary, as it magnificently synthesizes stereotypical tropes and cliches of the genre.

While in 2006 shows like The Hills projected real life, viewers and critics started to question how real the experiences were for these stars. Critics wanted to know what was being manipulated. On top of that, producers have to compete with the hundreds of other reality shows out there for ratings.  Teen Mom decided to break the fourth wall.

When Teen Mom returned after a few seasons of not filming the shows cast Maci, Amber, Catelynn, and Farrah were shown interacting with the producers and crew. Catelynn explained, “I feel like it makes it more raw and honest.” Which is interesting, since audiences were supposed to believe everything before was ‘raw’ and ‘honest’.

Now we see producers ask the leading questions. Something like, “so did you hear about Ryan’s new girlfriend,” is asked of Maci. We are now aware of how little the girls are actually filmed. Crews show up during their allotted times to get the information they need and then they leave. It is not a 24/7 filming experience.

Even some of the oldest reality shows are trying to rework their idea of “real”. The Bachelor/Bachelorette series has attempted this by portraying a more self aware cast. Host Chris Harrison stands in front of the studio audience at the “Tell All” and “After the Final Rose” specials laughing with the audience as he says “This will be the most dramatic finale in Bachelor history.” The audience chuckles with him because they are in on the joke. Every finale is “the most dramatic ever.”

With the breaking of the fourth wall we are given a glimpse behind the scenes. We are seeing how these shows are created. So does that make it more real? Does the ownership taken by these shows change the way we see them?

I want to believe that it does. I want to believe it pushes the shows towards positive portrayals. To use the genre for good. Shows like Teen Mom , have been said to play a role in the declining rates of unintended teen pregnancies.
Even the Bachelor/Bachelorette has had some really strong women in its cast within the past seasons. Leads like Andi Dorfman and Kaitlyn Bristowe have pushed the envelope. They were not afraid to speak their mind. They were strong and they were female. It was a refreshing change.
Yet, audiences were still polarized on their views of both. Articles still slut shammed Kaitlyn in her season. The old tropes came back because they weren’t that far away. Girls fighting girls and slut shamming still tend to be the main form of drama. And a deep dive into complicated issues is yet to be seen.
Take Ben and Lauren: Happily Ever After?. In an episode where Ben and Lauren see a relationship counselor, Ben stuns Lauren by calling off the wedding because he isn’t ready. Instead of diving deeper into that story line and addressing some strong questions the show uses it just as a silly arc. By the end of the season we realize it was all a ploy for Ben to scoop Lauren into his arms and call the wedding back on. Cue knight in shinning armor.
Can reality television ever really change?
Yes. And we have glimpses of it happening. But we as viewers have to demand it. Andi and Kaitlyn showed audiences that there can be strong females who push boundaries. It is not their fault that even in doing so the genre thrust them back into an age old formula.
I admit it, reality television is a guilty pleasure of mine. But we have to keep questioning what we see. Audiences can push the genre to do more. Think Real World back when it started. Posner explains, “First broadcast in 1992, the show originally featured diverse casts and explored issues such as racism, homosexuality, HIV/AIDS, and abortion with something resembling care. Discussions addressing these identities and issues often illuminated rather than reinforced prejudice.”
Reality shows can change the minds of people who watch it if we let it. Viewers who watch have to sit on the other side of the screen and demand attention be paid to real questions.
Shows can have drama, be entertaining, and illuminate real issues. We have to do as Pozner pushes us. We have to keep bitting back.
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