2000s reality TV shows are better left in the past

Ellie Taube, Contributing Writer

Like most things in fashion eventually do, the trends of the early 2000s have officially made a comeback over the past year. From low-waisted jeans paired with tiny tops, to “vintage” chunky heels, a growing number of college students are modeling their wardrobes after Rachel Green and Cher Horowitz’s greatest outfits. 

In addition to renewed fashion trends, people are also tuning back into one of the biggest staples of 2000s pop culture: reality television. 

The first American reality TV show, “Candid Camera,” began airing on ABC in 1948. The premise of the show revolved around playing pranks on unsuspecting passersby. This concept of inserting a camera into the public sphere and recording genuine reactions for the entertainment of the masses developed over time into shows like “An American Family,” which aired in 1973 on PBS, and “The Real World,” which began airing on MTV in 1992

The focus of reality TV shifted between the portrayal of the trials and tribulations of real Americans and the push for shock factor. By the 2000s, many reality TV producers realized there was a highly effective way to combine these two elements: competition and comparison. 

“Some of my favorite TV shows were ‘Project Runway’ and ‘America’s Next Top Model.’ I also really liked ‘Survivor’ and ‘The Bachelor’ of course. I liked them honestly for the drama,” said Jenna Fuller, a junior majoring in English. “They were always guaranteed to be just entertaining and suspenseful enough to keep me engaged for 30 minutes or so.”

“America’s Next Top Model,” which first aired in 2003, marketed itself as an opportunity for all women to break into the modeling industry. While the casts of each season did provide diversity on the surface, the treatment of people of color and LGBTQ contestants mirrored trauma much more closely than equality. All women outside the generic “girl next door” persona were given plotlines that poked and prodded at their deepest life difficulties. 

“I remember watching ‘ANTM’ and seeing an episode where they painted all the girls in order to have them portray someone of a different race than the girls actually are. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. How on earth did someone think this was okay?” said Addison Parker, a sophomore majoring in creative media. 

Tyra Banks, the show’s host and executive producer, placed herself in a savior position. Banks, who was raised in the California suburb of Inglewood and signed to Elite Model Management by 17, focused on getting the contestants to open up about their past homelessness, mental health struggles and familial discourse. Many contestants saw the shows as an embodiment of the American dream, a chance to escape their small towns and pick their families up from hard times, but Banks hardly helped them in this regard. 

Rarely did a contestant become famous after competing on, or even winning, “America’s Next Top Model.” Contestants such as Yaya DaCosta and Winnie Harlow achieved degrees of success only after distancing themselves from the show. 

Many contestants struggled to find work in the industry after appearing on the show, in large part because many brands viewed them as unserious. The producers reduced each woman to her most dramatic life struggle, losing the quality of her modeling abilities in the process, and many women walked out of the show without any chance to reclaim their potential for professional treatment. 

“I think if your end goal is to become a model, ‘ANTM’ is a great opportunity to get your name out there. However, it will affect your ability to be taken seriously in almost any other career. It’s hard enough to be taken seriously as a woman in the media industry,” Parker said. “We’re often treated as something to look at and not as someone to listen to. When you participate in things like ‘ANTM’ … you’re allowing yourself to be silenced behind a camera.”

At the time of its airing, “ANTM” received praise for its diversity and inclusivity, even winning a GLAAD Award in 2009. Looking back, the show hardly deserves an award for putting its contestants in psychologically damaging and potentially dangerous situations. 

From pairing a Black contestant with a male model who made racist remarks, to introducing and then failing to defend Iris King, a Black transgender model who faced discrimination from other contestants, the show contained racism, body shaming and overall cruelty. 

“As I’ve rewatched shows, I’ve been appalled to find blatant racism and sexism that I missed when I was younger and watching these episodes as they first aired,” Fuller said. “I feel that many of these shows reinforced negative cultural values and societal expectations that were already prevalent during the early 2000s, creating lasting and damaging impacts on impressionable viewers.”

When asked by Variety magazine whether he thought the creative decisions, specifically the Cycle 4 episode in which contestants swapped races for a photoshoot, would be acceptable in the present day media, former “ANTM” judge Jay Manuel agreed that some aspects of the show deserved backlash.

“I disagree with that statement of people saying it was a different time. I really do. It didn’t fly then,” Manuel said. “That wasn’t cool in 2004. … The mentality was that it’s got to be bigger and it has to be the water cooler.”

Amanda Klien, an associate professor of film studies at East Carolina University, agreed that a different time isn’t an excuse and said it’s important to see things in their context and understand their audience and why things were said.  

“I think understanding context is always really important when we’re watching anything from a previous historical moment; which is basically everything right? Everything’s always going to be in the past at some point. And I think there are things that we’ll look back on now and say, ‘Oh, well it was a different time and we said those things,’ but even there were things that happened in the moment that I think people agreed were inappropriate,” she said. 

Klein said people can attribute shows’ cultural awareness in part to the youth who are demanding different kinds of content. 

“I think we are getting better as a culture, it’s always a process, though,” Klein said.

Klein said people can still watch these episodes of a show that are “problematic,” but it’s important to be critical and not accept them at face value. 

“So there’s value in looking back at that episode of America’s Next Top Model and asking why Tyra Banks decided that it was okay to have this photo shoot. That’s a really interesting question that’s something to think about,” she said.

Questions? Email the Culture desk at culture@cw.ua.edu.