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Michelle Obama reminds us that it’s time to ditch respectability politics around reality TV

Nov 25, 2022

Written by Leah Sinclair

The bestselling author just shared her favourite reality show, which serves as a reminder that reality TV is here to stay and loved by many.

If there is one thing that’s guaranteed to cause a heated debate among friends, partners and colleagues, it’s reality TV.

While the genre has become a staple since it exploded into popular culture in the 00s, it’s something that continues to be divisive, with many popular shows written off as low-brow culture.

But despite the back and forth around the notion of ‘trash TV’, reality shows continue to amass legions of fans worldwide and are a legitimate form of entertainment, regardless of which side of the debate you sit on; many celebrities and well-respected public figures are happy to count themselves as fans – including Michelle Obama.

The bestselling author and former first lady recently revealed her reality TV habits during a talk with presenter and journalist Gayle King.

During the talk, Obama, who is currently promoting her second book, The Light We Carry: Overcoming In Uncertain Times,was asked which Real Housewives franchise is her favourite.

“You know, I want to say Potomac,” she said, confirming that Atlanta would be her second choice in the franchise.

Obama added that she doesn’t “like it when sisters are arguing with each other” on television and joked that it’s OK when white women argue with each other on TV because “they are not defined by the one person on TV” – something which is often associated with Black women who are boxed into specific stereotypes that they are rarely given the grace to exist outside of.

Obama’s concerns around reality TV representation, particularly for Black women, are valid, but the plethora of options we have when it comes to TV and the growing representation reminds us that we don’t have to settle for just one type of entertainment – or even form of representation – to satisfy our TV needs. Nor does engaging in one form of entertainment represent entirely who we are as a person, and if there’s anyone who is proof of that, it’s Michelle Obama.

Obama isn’t the first celebrity to open up about her love of reality TV. Earlier this year, Meryl Streep shared that she loves watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Meanwhile, Mila Kunis is a longstanding fan of The Bachelor, even appearing in an episode alongside her husband Ashton Kutcher in 2017.

While plenty of famous faces have discussed their reality TV habits, Obama’s admission has opened up a discussion around how multifaceted our TV choices are and the respectability politics that comes with watching – or not watching – reality TV.

When reality TV really burst onto the scene, we witnessed it all. From Big Brother to The Simple Life, it truly immersed itself into our world and represented something that almost mimicked fast food – it was easy to watch and digest but it wasn’t something that benefitted you in the long run.

But the reality (no pun intended) is that society and what entertainment means to us is changing. For some, reality TV is a perfect form of escapism from the onslaught of news that is hitting us from all angles. Whether it’s volatile human rights, a cost of living crisis or natural disasters, we spend our day-to-day dealing with the hard realities of life – and switching off to watch something that allows you to truly unwind and relax is just what we need.

And if we want to get real about the reality TV debate, classism is often at the centre of it all. As a form of programming that has historically been considered low-brow, there are suggestions that it lacks intelligence and creativity and thus is not worthy of being a form of content that certain people should consume. But the truth is, reality TV is now watched by a wide variety of people and it’s a genre that is increasingly fluid and not limiting or defining anyone’s identity.

After all, you can binge-watch The White Lotus and gush over Taboo while still enjoying Love Is Blind and getting your weekly dose of The Real Housewives Of Atlanta, right?

We as humans are multifaceted and so are our interests – so why do some still place thesearchaic boundaries around reality TV and what counts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ TV?

As with all forms of respectability politics, how you appear is often at the forefront of people’s minds. And if you appear to enjoy Love Island over the next thrilling BBC drama everyone is watching, that can be a cause for concern to some.

But at the heart of most reality TV shows (especially those that aren’t heavily orchestrated) are social experiments, a fascination with humankind, intricate relationships and a look at the ways in which we exist.

And with so many options for TV out there, why limit yourself? After all, someone as accomplished and esteemed as Michelle Obama certainly hasn’t – and neither should we.

While Obama’s reality TV admission is something that shouldn’t surprise us, it does serve as a reminder of the complex relationship we have with reality TV. Whether you’re an avid fan, a casual viewer or have no time at all for the genre, it’s clear to see that the antiquated beliefs associated with those who watch reality TV should no longer exist.

We are limitless – as are our TV choices. And the only box that should exist in that relationship are the box sets we’re choosing to watch.

Image: Getty

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