I binge these with excited relish. I shout at people who interrupt Love Island when I watch it live. I become a fan girl of contestants. I vote in Love Island, the way I used to also vote in The X Factor and (yes) Pop Idol.
I used to watch Big Brother, Celebrity Big Brother, even shows some people may have been zygotes during, like Popstars and Popstars: The Rivals.
“I can’t believe you watch that crap,” my father reiterates, wondering where his half-Parisian intellectual snob of a daughter has disappeared to when she’s engaged in a furious Whatsapp conversation on who will remain faithful in Casa Amor, or loudly discussing whether the best housewife is Bethenny Frankel or Lisa Vanderpump.
“I can’t believe you’re watching that crap” is something I often hear from my father, in relation to my less-than-highbrow TV viewing habits.
He likes, and – let’s face it – I like to think of myself as a rather highbrow person. I read big books with long words, listen to Radio 4, watch documentaries, go to art galleries and the theatre. I like foreign films and Oscar-bait films, high-end TV boxsets from Succession to Billions, via I May Destroy You. I like listening to podcasts on culture, books and politics and reading long op-eds in The New York Times and The New Yorker all while twiddling my imaginary moustache and congratulating myself on being a smug smarty pants.
But do you know what I also love? Trash TV…
Selling Sunset, Love Island, Too Hot Too Handle, Made in Chelsea, Love Is Blind, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
These shows are often marketed as a guilty pleasure, something we have to feel embarrassed about watching, said in a low voice like a woman on a diet who admits she binge eats her secret stash of Angel Delight at midnight when no one’s watching.
Yet I don’t think we should have to make excuses for shows like these. Do they have their problematic moments? Yes? But do they bring us some much needed silly joy, a welcome release from a hard day’s work, a bit of light entertainment? Yes.
It’s a misstep to assume that only things that are hard or complicated are good for us. It’s a form of cultural elitism that makes us believe that anything elusive, tricky or too esoteric must immediately be better. It’s this train of thought that has led to the onerous phrase “chick lit” and left often breathlessly good writers like Marian Keys, relegated to the “women’s-only-fluff” pile, separated from “serious” literature.
Rom Coms and Teen Dramas fare the same. These are insubstantial things (marketed to women, after all!) unworthy of serious thought and imaginary moustache twirling. When was the last time a Rom Com won an Oscar? Yet who among you will dare tell me that When Harry Met Sally is not a masterpiece? Or that Clueless is not a true cultural icon?
Ignoring the worth of cultural outputs like these is very often thinly-disguised sexism. If something is mostly consumed or targeted towards women, there is a stubborn refusal to accept its merits, or to let it set foot in the hallowed halls of “fine” art. Translation: predominantly male art.
But besides the fact that reality TV often finds itself at the bottom of the cultural hierarchy, we often forget the real need for shows like this. After a hard day at work I don’t always fancy taking my brain for another jog through a foreign film or hard-hitting documentary. Sometimes I just want to watch Adrienne Malouf shout at her husband Paul. Sometimes I want to see how many times a Made in Chelsea cast member can awkwardly twist the straw in their vodka tonic, whilst saying “this is awkward” in what is obviously a silent, completely orchestrated club that is fundamentally awkward.
Sometimes I just want to see Jessica “Messica” Batten feed red wine to her dog. OK?
These shows are a palette cleanser from the heavy stodgy meat of the highbrow. They are a welcome escape from a bad day, a busy day or a particularly taxing time. Their innate silliness can be a great hug for your mental health and their vitality has never been more keenly felt than right now, in the middle of a global pandemic and a cultural maelstrom.
The great and wonderful contradiction of reality TV is that it allows you to escape reality for a while. And never have we needed that escape more.
So, here’s to watching “that crap.” Here’s to the healing power of trash TV.