Why I can no longer ethically consume reality television
The ways toxic masculinity has created a TV viewing experience that no longer feels enjoyable, relatable or responsible.
by Kate Murnane
There are very few moments in life where right and wrong seem to so clearly crystallise in front of you. When you swallow your ego (or Ben & Jerrys) hard enough to realise you’re part of the problem.
It’s been a long day. I left the house in the dark this morning and have returned home at 9pm with Ben and Jerry in hand. Down time is calling. I anxiously watch the ice-cream rotate in the microwave (holding my breath for that exact moment when it’s soft enough to scoop but doesn’t resemble my Mac Studio Fix).
Meanwhile, I scroll for something mindless and funny to vegetate in front of. Queue Celebs Go Dating: The Mansion - a TV show helping this year’s E-list celebs find love. As I tune-in and devour my slightly puddling peanut butter and cookies, order has been restored to my world...until.
Until I have the misfortune to watch ex-Love Islander Curtis Pritchard embarrass one of the women - Daniella - who he’s been ‘connecting’ with in the slightly incestuous- constructed-reality-mansion environment.
For the series finale, producers organise an artificial, vapid and heteronormative ‘commitment ceremony’ where the celebs and their dates either commit to each other under the pretense of continuing things outside the mansion, or go their separate ways.
Unfortunately for Daniella, who professes her growing feelings for Curtis in front of the other coupled-up celebs (and the entire world watching), Curtis wants nothing more than a friendship.
'there is a sticky uncomfortable feeling about a young woman being hauled through the reality TV process as an accessory to the male celebrity’s story arc.'
Some will say that contestants know what they sign up for, but there is a sticky uncomfortable feeling about a young woman being hauled through the reality TV process as an accessory to the male celebrity’s story arc.
So it’s nothing new, I hear you say - Curtis has long been a part of a proven, popular ‘lad culture’ since his stint on Love Island. Is his rise to TV fame on the basis of such behaviour really that problematic? Is watching low-level aspiring f*** boy behaviour, truly that terrible?
I did a little Google of Curtis Pritchard and noticed a few more scathing articles detailing his comedy routine for Channel 4’s Stand Up and Deliver charity broadcast. Describing his experience of Love Island in his routine, Pritchard told a tabloid paper how women on the show were like second hand cars; ‘You’ve got all these different shapes and sizes in front of you, take it for a spin, take it for a test drive and if you don’t like it, you send it back’.
During the course of 2020, I’ve found that very little shocks me anymore, but I find this blatant objectification of women to a national newspaper especially jarring. The commodification of women as an unsatisfactory product you can return to the shop if it doesn’t quite do it for you makes me, as a woman, feel a bit like your planet-killing Asos loungewear (which by the way, will end up in landfill rather than be resold if you return it). The flagrancy of these remarks (and his apparent lack of shame in making them) makes me sad.
If that isn’t bad enough, Curtis goes on to describe the similarities between his time on Love Island and his previous work in a kennel: ‘Looking back now it reminds me of Love Island because when the dogs are in season, they go crazy, there was bitches running around left, right and centre’. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were reading the minutes from a Trump campaign speech - and yet this is a figurehead that British production executives are choosing to put on mainstream TV.
Regardless of how many times the word is used in mainstream society, being called a ‘bitch’ never quite stops stinging, and on primetime TV it feels particularly anti-women, anti-empowerment, anti-me. The fact that this is supposedly a promotional interview to boost ratings ahead of the broadcast speaks volumes about what TV execs think Britain wants to see on its screens.
Having forced myself to watch Stand Up and Deliver once it aired, the most prevailing aspect of Pritchard’s performance is how sad it is. I prejudged Pritchard from the moment I read his interviews discussing his routine and relished the opportunity to watch his downfall. The routine was awful, so awful. But…I actually find myself pitying him.
As his mentor, the fantastic comedian Judi Love points out from their initial meeting, Pritchard has been taught to present ‘the showman’, a theatrical, exaggerated persona which isn’t funny because it isn’t relatable. Love perceives this in terms of Pritchard’s career as a dancer, but the true irony is that Pritchard has also undoubtedly been conditioned to fit a mold in his more recent television work, including paradoxically, Stand Up and Deliver.
Pritchard continues to be living proof of the way reality television stifles it’s stars.
'Curtis and many other young men are still in the schoolyard, because that is where they feel safe, relevant and crucially, masculine.'
Channel 4 have clearly edited the footage to make it as redeemable as they can in light of the backlash from Pritchard’s interviews. Gone is the denigration of women in the form of car and dog metaphors, but what remains is an excruciating 3 minutes of compulsive sex and dick jokes.
The ‘joke’ about teenage girls giving handjobs is a particular low point, as is comparing the less desirable but attainable girls at school to Tesco own brand chocolate. It’s painful to watch, littered with booing and harsh intakes of breath from the audience.
The performance is the precipice for all of the inappropriate jokes we’ve ever heard at school and felt dirty for laughing at out of our own pubescent awkwardness and insecurity.
Fellow comedians and the public watch on in horror, grimacing because they have realised those jokes aren’t funny anymore...they weren’t even funny at the time. But Curtis and many other young men are still in the schoolyard, because that is where they feel safe, relevant and crucially, masculine.
Watching Pritchard scramble about like a little boy searching for his light switch in the dark, we can hardly blame him for compensating for his own insecurities in the only way men have been taught how. How on earth are men expected to find their sense of self, let alone express it; when they’re perpetually encouraged to behave in a certain way?
The most interesting points during the show are when the act drops, and we see Curtis struggle to improvise, struggle to be funny. The painful moment he is booed is perhaps the most genuine. It is telling that the only flickers of authenticity come when someone is feeling beaten down, low and ashamed. What does that tell us about society when those are the rare moments when stars feel like real people?
Even if cut from the actual broadcast, Pritchard’s degrading comments from his interview have drawn criticism on social media from male and female viewers alike. And yet there was no apology or acknowledgement from Pritchard himself, and no comment from his agent or publicist. And Channel 4? A broadcaster of liberal leanings, progressive standards? Silence. The offence and hurt was simply edited away?
There is also something deeply uneasy about the fact this show is produced in aid of incredible cancer charities, raising uncomfortable questions about the extent to which ethics of fundraising and fundraising ambassadors impinges or undermines the causes to which they are meant to represent and support. Why has the conversation been diverted to Curtis Pritchard denigrating women with weird sex jokes (this article included), instead of highlighting the work of these phenomenal organisations?
'many young men villainise women, when their own masculinity and ego feels threatened.'
Allegedly, many of the sexist remarks surrounding Love Island in Curtis’ unedited routine were directed toward his ex-girlfriend and fellow love island contestant Maura Higgins, motivated by her alleged infidelity.
One line was: ‘[I] like to drink a smooth whisky, because it’s ‘trusting, the flavour will never cheat on you…unlike my ex girlfriend’. Justifying referring to women as second-hand cars and dogs in heat because of a relationship that has turned sour is evidence of how many young men villainise women, when their own masculinity and ego feels threatened.
How much longer will we condone male fragility in action, by allowing it to go unchallenged? How many women of all generations will have stories of how a seemingly charming man’s behaviour will sour into offensive insults such as being described as a ‘b****’, or ‘ugly’, or a ‘sl**’, as soon as they say they are not romantically interested?
People say that it’s just locker-room talk, with worse said in offices and on building sites, but responses like this tell us that societies’ misogynistic mentality has a long way to go. How can young men watching Love Island be expected to behave any differently when the public figures they watch have no respect for women? What sort of message do we send to young girls about their own self worth when we give men a platform for their misogyny on reality television?
'is actively showing a young audience harmful stereotypes justifiable or responsible?'
Sex education in our schools is already woefully inadequate and many teens will be learning about relationships, consent and communication through the lens of Love Island. Couple this with rising cases of domestic abuse in England and Wales (and concerningly low conviction rates) - is actively showing a young audience harmful stereotypes justifiable or responsible?
Curtis’ misogynistic comments about women is a toxic example of how dangerous attitudes can seed if young boys aren’t given healthy instruction on sex, relationships and treating women with respect.
On Love Island, a man doesn’t get the opportunity to be ‘soft’ or vulnerable before millions of viewers - or if he does it’s to a controlled extent. The more easily he fits into the defined gender trope viewers are more familiar with (hot, flirtatious lad complete with banter and just enough of a backstory with his mum/nan to allude to depth), the more likely he is to have a ‘successful’ story arc.
Without diminishing the unrelenting physical comparisons that women face on the show (1), the championing of toxic machismo energy that these programs reward (2) underlines the problematic nature of the limiting and tired cisgender tropes that reality television relies on as a whole (3).
Other Love Island issues abound: promoting unattainable, clonal bimbofication instead of a candid portrayal of the multifaceted and beautiful female* form (4), the absence of non-heterosexual relationships and the god-awful obsession with straight jacketing society into a one-size-fits-all monogamous couple narrative (5); the performative diversity virtue signalling that doesn’t meaningfully consider racial desirability politics or colourism (6-9) - I could go on.
Once you dig deeper into what these shows represent, it no longer feels like ethical consumption. I find it hard to believe the content informs or nourishes any viewer, let alone improves their life. In the cold light of day, I’m realising I can no longer watch these shows and be a complicit bystander bearing further witness to the tired male gaze shows like Love Island or Celebs Go Dating perpetuate. For me the curtain has fallen.
So, with that - I turned off Celebs Go Dating: The Mansion and I don’t think Ben, Jerry or I will be watching again. It’s just in-cone-stitutional.
Resources/I wanna know more about this stuff:
A real life crazy scientist, Kate is currently studying for a PhD in Haematology at the Uni of Oxford. When not pondering leukaemia, our empath loves throwing herself into projects such as her feminist podcast @grabembythepoesypodcast. Kate hopes to bring an intersectional and activism-focussed perspective in her new role as a Sub-Editor of The Oxford Scientist magazine. Outside activism, you can find Kate flailing in mud on the rugby pitch, whispering to cats or collecting crystals (yes!).