The Reality of Reality TV

02/13/2012 07:27 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2012

Reality TV has become a major part of our culture: phrases like "GTL" and "that was pitchy" have permeated our vocabulary, and we know intimate details of people's lives and the secrets of their marriages. (Don't worry Kim Kardashian, your next husband won't be such a schmuck.) While I'm addicted to shows like Dancing With the Stars, Sister Wives, and even The Real Housewives of New Jersey (just to name a few), my guilty pleasures represent a real dilemma for me.

On one hand, they are fun, entertaining and introduce me to new worlds. After a long day at work, it's nice to come home and watch something mindless on TV. These shows bond me to coworkers through water cooler talk the next day.

But then there is the more disconcerting side of reality TV. All too often, these shows portray violence -- and I don't mean gang violence or Bruce Willis movie violence. I am talking about the violence that we don't think of as violence anymore: roommates screaming at each other, items being thrown, walls being punched and headbutted, name calling and bullying, and physical violence against women and men (perpetrated by both sexes). For reality TV producers, this all adds up to good ratings, but in the world outside of reality TV, much of this violence goes by another name: domestic violence. Because of this truth, producers and networks have a responsibility to call a spade a spade and provide resources for help.

While the argument that violence in the media is creating a violent culture has been made a million times before, I am attempting to make a different connection. As we know, the majority of reality television contains some kind of abusive situation, whether verbal, emotional, physical, financial, and/or sexual. Although the prevalence of this violence is problematic in and of itself, the fact that these shows are filmed or based in domestic situations is especially concerning. The pervasiveness of this violence and the fact that it is widely accepted as having a high entertainment value has served to confuse people, especially youth, about what constitutes domestic violence.

The common understanding of domestic violence is that it is only considered "domestic violence" if a spouse gives their partner a black eye or leaves them with broken bones. In reality, this is far from true; when reality stars from the Jersey Shore, Teen Mom, and the Real Housewives series are filmed throwing objects, punching walls, calling each other names and insults, controlling other people's behavior, and committing physical violence, their actions all fall under the umbrella of what constitutes domestic violence and abuse.

It is clear from what goes on in these shows that many people, including the shows' producers: 1) Do not know what constitutes abuse; and 2) Do not know how to deal with it or what resources are available to them. When physical violence occurs in episodes of Teen Mom or 16 and Pregnant, MTV does a pretty good job about putting up help line information before and after the show. However, this policy seems to go out the window when the violence occurs on shows like Jersey Shore, where it seems to be acceptable because it occurs between roommates. Furthermore, this policy is completely nonexistent when emotional and verbal abuse is being broadcast. When cast members on Teen Mom 2 call each other "dumb bitch," "stretch mark whore," "slut" or accuse them of being a worthless mother, there is no acknowledgement before or after the program that the viewers have witnessed a form of abuse that can be just as, if not more damaging, than physical abuse. No help line or educational resources are put forth.

Bravo is even guiltier of this in that the entire Real Housewives of Beverly Hills cast has dealt with serious physical abuse between cast members and has moved to deal with emotional abuse between two others. However, even with the extremely abusive content that Bravo regularly airs, the show rarely, if ever, provides resource information or acknowledges that what is being shown constitutes abuse.

We all live in the real world and know that it is unrealistic to call for a complete removal of violent reality television, even though it would be ideal. However, the TV networks that air this programming should play a role in admitting the existence of diverse types of abuse in their programming and begin to provide resource information to their viewers for all the abuse they show, not just physical. Without taking this simple and no-cost step, the line between what is or is not abuse will become more blurred and all of us, especially our youth, will continue to learn that yelling, name calling, and fighting are acceptable ways to treat your romantic partner and the people you live with.