Entertained or ashamed: What is happening with violence on reality TV?

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Image Credit: Bravo

When we go to see an action movie or play certain video games, we expect the violence that usually comes with those genres of entertainment. But while watching The Real Housewives of Atlanta? It seems that reality shows today have become more violent and central to a show’s plotline, making it a part of the story.

When Vanderpump Rules‘ Tom punched Jax in the face to see if he “could actually feel anything” after sleeping with his girlfriend Kristen and lying about it for months, you almost expected the blow. That’s what the story arc of the season had been leading to all along. That’s the ending we wanted and committed to the show to see. Why? Because that’s what makes good TV.

These aren’t just your random drunken Jersey Shore bar brawls, but full-on sparring battles with pent-up anger and tension and sometimes even personal betrayal. The second season of Vanderpump Rules, about Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurant SUR and its staff, ended with a literal bang when two violent outbursts (one female-to-female slap, one man-to-man punch) resulted after a season filled with lies. As Lisa herself said, you can understand some of this behavior but never condone it. So why should we have to watch it then?

It seems like reality TV in general has become much more relaxed when it comes to its policy on violence. Numerous cast members of The Real World and its spin-off series Road Rules and The Challenge have been kicked off the show due to their violent behavior in the past, but now it seems roommates can threaten to kill each other without leaving. Last year, Nia went full-on psycho on some of her Portland roommates, not only using her words, but her fists and even a blow dryer at one point to viciously attack her targets.

Nia got to stay on the show because of a cast vote. That’s how The Real World producers choose to deal with these situations: letting the roommates decide for themselves if they want someone to stay or not. Five people have been kicked off the series due to personal issues with other castmates, including the infamous Puck from the first San Francisco season. For a show about what it’s like to live in the real world, I guess the policy makes sense, but watching a young woman express her anger with such aggression and violence knowing that a camera is filming every punch is still disturbing.

Tons of reality shows, like Survivor and the multiple-Emmy-winning The Amazing Race, have never shown any real violence between their contestants. And that could be because they are contestants, and not just cast members. When you start talking about a competition, the rules can become a little more defined. Big Brother has a very strict no-violence policy on the show (though racist comments seem to be OK), and numerous people have been kicked out of the show by the producers due to violent outbursts and behavior.

Top Chef also has a zero-tolerance policy on violence. But why should a cooking competition show even have to have a policy on violence in the first place? Back in season 2, chef Cliff Crooks was sent home after drunkenly attacking fellow contestant Marcel Vigneron in the middle of the night and trying to shave his head. Head judge Tom Colicchio said in his Bravo blog at the time, “For the first time all season, the Producers stepped in with a veto. Sending all of the chefs but Marcel home wasn’t going to happen. Bravo’s Legal department advised us of the Top Chef rules, which stated that harming or threatening to harm other contestants was potential grounds for disqualification.”


And that brings us back to Bravo. Bravo shows have always been about studying certain subcultures and their subjects and pretty much whatever happens in them. There is nothing major about violent behavior and its consequences in Bravo contracts, because they don’t anticipate it, or probably because they don’t want to put it in anyone’s mind. In a recent two-part episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Nene threw a couples pajama party to clear any tension between the ladies and to have an opportunity to speak candidly and openly to one another. Boy, did that backfire. What resulted was the pillow fight from hell. Now, most of the physical altercation was done by the men at the party and not the wives themselves, however, some of the verbal and physical outburst by Kandi could still be classified as violent. Sure, she was angry and I can definitely understand why, but she was also clearly in a very vulnerable place at that moment in time. Again, you can understand why someone would do something, but that doesn’t mean you should condone it. The fight may have reminded Housewives fans of a certain Joe-blow that happened on the last season of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, when brothers-in-law Joe Gorga and Joe Giudice got into a brawl during a family retreat to solve their problems. Oh, the irony of it all.

So can something be entertaining and shameful at the same time? Or is this just another example of schadenfreude, because we get pleasure in seeing the jerk get what he deserves? Well, if part two of Monday night’s Vanderpump Rules reunion ends in more violence, take note of whether you’re at the edge of your seat or lunging for the remote to change the channel.

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