'True Story': reality TV's influence : It's Been a Minute In this special new episode of It's Been a Minute, we share a conversation Sam Sanders recorded about one of his favorite things: reality TV. He's joined by Danielle Lindemann, author of True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us, to discuss the genre's origins in Real World and Survivor, how reality TV influences our culture, and why we should all take the genre more seriously.

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'True Story': Danielle Lindemann on 'What Reality TV Says About Us'

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You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Jasmine Garsd. Today, we've got a special episode for you. Before Sam left, he taped an interview on one of his very favorite things - reality TV. We're going to share that chat with you now. So let's get to it. Here's Sam.



You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. And today, a topic I love, a topic I think we should all be talking about a lot more - reality TV.


SANDERS: The genre has exploded in the last few decades and changed what television looks and sounds like. Personally, I can't even remember at this point what television was like before reality TV. But there was a before, and there was this moment when everything began to shift. This modern era of reality TV dominance, it was really ushered in by one show in 1992.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Find out what happens...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...When people stop being polite.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Could you get the phone?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And start getting real.


SANDERS: "The Real World." The premise was simple - you know it - seven young people from diverse backgrounds brought together to live in an apartment in New York with cameras watching everything. I remember this show. I remember it all. And I remember watching as a kid and feeling so grown up because I got to eavesdrop on these really cool people living what felt like really interesting lives. And also, there was Heather B.


HEATHER B GARDNER: (Rapping) Kim said I was bugging and then asked what's wrong? What's wrong with me? What's wrong with you? How could you talk to a...

SANDERS: Rapper, confidant, sweetheart, perhaps the most likable character in all of reality television ever. Heather B. forever.

DANIELLE LINDEMANN: Heather B., yes. Amazing, amazing season. I mean, it sort of had that classic reality show format where it was, you know, the confessionals. There was kind of a serialized format, the kind of broad archetypes of the different characters.

SANDERS: That's Danielle Lindemann. She's the author of the book "True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us." She talked to me all about how reality TV kind of holds up this mirror to our society. It reflects the best and worst parts of ourselves back to us, amplified to the extremes. And we talked about how reality TV - it matters a lot. Don't forget - our last president, he kind of made his name in the genre. So with reality TV looming so large in our culture, even bleeding into our politics, Danielle says it is more important than ever to understand how it works and where it came from. So we're going to talk about all that right now. I hope you learn as much as I did. Enjoy.

If we can say that "The Real World" was perhaps the start of the modern reality television era, I think it's safe to say that "Survivor" was its, like, first true peak.


SANDERS: And that was such a moment. I remember voting for - was it Richard Hatch, like, the naked one?

LINDEMANN: Richard Hatch, yeah.


SEAN KENNIFF: Richard's birthday's today. And it's his 39th birthday. And he celebrated immediately by taking off all of his clothes and celebrating in his birthday suit.

SANDERS: I remember it all. It was a whirlwind. It took the nation by storm. I think the finale of that first season had, like, 50 million viewers. How would you put this cultural juggernaut that is "Survivor" into perspective for our listeners who perhaps weren't watching in real time back then?

LINDEMANN: Right. So as you pointed out - right? - reality TV existed before "Survivor," which was in 2000. But it wasn't like - yes, "The Real World" kind of was a cultural juggernaut, but it wasn't like 50 million people were tuning in to watch Eric Nies on "The Real World," especially because it was on a cable network - right? - back when it mattered whether things were on cable networks or not.


LINDEMANN: So, you know, when "Survivor," you know, hit in the year 2000 - I mean, I talk to people who - they remember where they were when they watched that last episode of the first season. I remember where I was.

SANDERS: Where were you?

LINDEMANN: I was - weirdly, I was home from college and sitting on the couch in my parents' basement. I remember it.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LINDEMANN: And my parents hate reality TV. I have no idea why they were watching with me, right? But it was - you know, it took the nation by storm. Everybody watched this show. And that was sort of the first inkling for networks of, oh, this can be really, really profitable. We can get a lot of people to watch this. These shows are cheap to make. We can hawk products like Doritos, right? We could do product...


LINDEMANN: ...Placement on these shows so we can make a lot of money that way. And so this is a direction that's worthwhile to go in from a financial perspective.

SANDERS: Yeah. I mean, it was so cheap. They got these cast members from nowhere. They on purpose didn't, like, feed them.


LINDEMANN: They didn't.

SANDERS: The budgets were so low.

LINDEMANN: No food budget, right?

SANDERS: Yeah. There was sponsorship throughout. And the ad sales were insane because by the end of the first season, they were drawing Super Bowl numbers in terms of ratings. So the ad buys were astronomical. What did the success of "Survivor" show about where reality TV would head next?

LINDEMANN: Yeah, I mean, it's interesting. So certainly, from a kind of multiplatform perspective, the fact that you were sort of engaging with this show on multiple levels - so you're eating the Doritos that you see on the show, and you're also watching the show - right? - that's kind of always been a part of reality TV - "Survivor" really turned up the dial on that. And that's still a huge part of reality TV.


LINDEMANN: But also, you know, the conflicts on the show - you know, I think people sometimes tend to think about "The Real World" as being very conflict-driven. I think it became that way. But in the first few seasons - or at least the first season, it was kind of a quiet, subdued conflict, right? It was like people sitting around having conversations about race and gender.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It was just a Black high school. So it was a different experience from you going to college, meeting people from here and speaking with people. You know, it was different.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: But I had the same thing 'cause I was way out in the country, like what you were talking about when you went to an all-Black high school. This was like - white as can be, you know, one culture there.


SANDERS: It was art house. That first season of "The Real World"...


SANDERS: ...Was like art house cinema. And I think...

LINDEMANN: Absolutely.

SANDERS: ...We think of Kevin fighting with Julie from Alabama.


JULIE GENTRY: Kevin, you don't know.

KEVIN POWELL: Your reaction. Your reaction. You don't know.

GENTRY: You call yourself a teacher?

POWELL: You're 19 years old, white girl from Alabama.

GENTRY: Yeah. You call yourself a teacher?

POWELL: You're a white - a 19-year-old white girl from Alabama who just doesn't understand.

GENTRY: It's not a Black-white issue.

POWELL: Yes, it is.


POWELL: Yes, it is.


SANDERS: But that was just, like, one episode. Most of the series was them, like, having fun, getting along. Remember, Heather B. became, like, really good friends with the Calvin Klein model? And they were just friends, and you watched it happen.

LINDEMANN: Eric, yeah.


ERIC NIES: I think that it just took a little time of understanding each other and talking to each other about certain things.

GARDNER: I said, Eric, you know, I'm not out to hurt your feelings. I could say something about you that I don't - you know, something about you I don't like, but that doesn't mean I'm not your friend. So we got along good since that time.

LINDEMANN: They're still friends. Yeah.

SANDERS: Aw, I love that (laughter).

LINDEMANN: You know, absolutely. I mean, we think about Kevin as, like, you know, thinking about these archetypes that exist in reality TV, and he was kind of that first reality TV angry Black man, right? But if you actually watch that season, he's kind of quiet. And if he's - he says at one point, you know, I am angry, but in a very, like, quiet...

SANDERS: Yes. Yeah.

LINDEMANN: ...Subdued way.


POWELL: I have a lot of misdirected anger. I also have a lot of anger that's, you know, justifiable, too.

LINDEMANN: And mainly, he's just sort of invested in kind of trying to teach Julie, right?


LINDEMANN: He said she seems very open.


LINDEMANN: So, you know, it's not these big, kind of fiery, amped-up conflicts that you see today, for sure.

SANDERS: Yeah, whereas "Survivor," they gave you that.

LINDEMANN: Right. Right.

SANDERS: I mean, what was the big fight of that first season?

LINDEMANN: There was Susan who Kelly kind of - she felt like Kelly backstabbed her. And then there was that big speech.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah (laughter).

LINDEMANN: Remember that? Yeah.

SANDERS: I remember for that.


SUSAN HAWK: But if I were ever to pass you along in life again and you were laying there dying of thirst, I would not give you a drink of water. I would let the vultures take you and do whatever they want with you, with no ill regrets.

LINDEMANN: (Laughter).

SANDERS: I mean, you can't write a script better than that.

LINDEMANN: People were saying that for, like, months afterwards.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah. So then what characteristics of that first season of "Survivor" lasted the longest, lingered the longest, became most part of the DNA of all reality television after that?

LINDEMANN: So certainly the idea that it's about selling. The interpersonal conflicts - I have kind of a whole chapter about that in the book, about these kind of tiny group conflicts that we see on "Survivor," but also now in other forms of reality TV, right? So the character of like the [expletive] stirrer. Oh, can I - sorry. Can I say that?

SANDERS: Oh, you can say it. You can say it. I can't. That's the rule (laughter).

LINDEMANN: Oh, OK. All right (laughter).

SANDERS: Say it again. I like it. Yeah.

LINDEMANN: [Expletive] stirrer. Yes.


LINDEMANN: So - well, what the sociologist Georg Simmel calls divide et impera - divide and conqueror, right?


LINDEMANN: The one who kind of goes in and uses conflicts between other people for their own gain - so that's kind of a recurring figure that we see even now on reality TV - and people kind of even intentionally going in, in order to do that.

SANDERS: It's the whole, like, I'm-not-here-to-make-friends character. There's one in every season of every show.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I didn't come here to make friends.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I'm not here to make friends.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I'm not here to make friends.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: I'm not here to make friends. I'm here for one reason.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: She's not here to make any friends.

SANDERS: I'm not here to make friends.

LINDEMANN: Oh, yes - not here to make friends. I have a chapter called Not Here to Make Friends. Exactly.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.


SANDERS: Coming up, Danielle talks about just who exactly is watching reality TV. Stick around.


SANDERS: There's a bunch of reality shows in the ether at this point, hundreds of reality shows. And it seems like everybody watches them. But big picture - who watches reality TV now? What do we know about the demographics, particularly for the major franchises like "The Bachelor" or The Real Housewife cinematic universe?

LINDEMANN: Yeah. So it's interesting because reality TV is kind of - sometimes we tend to think of it as a guilty pleasure. It is still stigmatized. But studies show that more of us are watching it than not. So a...

SANDERS: Really?

LINDEMANN: ...Majority of people are watching reality TV.


LINDEMANN: And that's just who's admitting to watching...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LINDEMANN: ...Reality TV, right? I mean, I have this conversation over and over with people who say - I just had one the other day - oh, I don't watch reality TV at all. And then they were talking to me about an episode of "Shark Tank," and I said, what do you think...

SANDERS: What is that?

LINDEMANN: ...That is?

SANDERS: Come on.





LINDEMANN: Exactly. Or someone who I talked to said he doesn't watch any reality TV other than every episode of "RuPaul's Drag Race," of course. Of course.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LINDEMANN: Yes. OK. So more of us are tuning in than not. You know, it tends to be more often women than men.


LINDEMANN: It tends to be people - even controlling for age and gender, it tends to be people who are kind of plugged into social media, who post more on social media, who use the internet more. So that's sort of the, like, typical profile of the reality TV consumer. But it's hard to say there's a typical profile when, again, it's really a majority of us who are tuning into these shows. But it is interesting because I often kind of get asked why reality TV is still stigmatized, even though so many of us are watching. And I do think I - you know, I don't have data on this, but I personally think that it is related to the fact that these shows are gendered as female, and media that is associated with women and femininity tends to be devalued as opposed to media associated with men. You know...


LINDEMANN: ...Chick lit and chick flicks tend to be not taken as seriously, but they're wildly popular, right?

SANDERS: We could call it chick lit or call it a book that everyone wants to read. Yeah.


SANDERS: So you talk in the book about the ways that reality TV can affect our ideas about women and their places in society and that a lot of reality TV can kind of reinforce conservative, traditionalist ideas about women. How big do you think that is? And how do those depictions affect women viewers, if at all? I feel like I know a lot of people, women and men, who watch reality TV and say, that's just a pleasure that I enjoy to watch; it's not changing me or shaping me and what I do at all.

LINDEMANN: Right. So the sociologist in me will say - very hard to make kind of causal arguments about...


LINDEMANN: ...People watching things on reality TV and then doing things because they see those things on reality TV. Now, there have been studies that have shown that reality TV shows do impact people. Like, they do have an impact on the way we kind of move and think in the world. I do think, you know, reality TV shows us ourselves or our own cultural norms, our own kind of performances that we do every day, but kind of dialed up to 11, right? Like, the funhouse mirror of ourselves is just ourselves in amplified form.

So yes, these kind of images of femininity are incredibly, you know, kind of garish and stereotyped, right? But in some ways, they're showing us, in amplified forms, the kind of performances that we're all kind of forced to do in our everyday lives. So, you know, look at some - a show like "The Bachelor," like, yes, they have eyelashes stretching out to infinity. They're wearing, like, bejeweled evening gowns at, like, 10 a.m. Why would you do that? But, you know, we're all performing gender in maybe more muted ways in our everyday lives. So I think by looking at that kind of funhouse mirror that, yes, is showing us kind of stereotypical, kind of accentuated ideas about femininity, we can actually look at how those kind of processes and conventions are happening within our own lives.

SANDERS: Yeah. I'm going to say, one way I think reality TV has affected all of us is that it has normalized excessive drinking. I can't think of any reality TV show that I watch that doesn't have the people on the show drinking during the day, drinking at night, drinking with their friends, drinking alone, drinking beer, drinking wine, drinking whiskey. Like, Jessica from "Love Is Blind" - literally feeding wine to her dog. I think that is, like, the biggest - well, for me and my friends, one of the biggest ways that I've seen this shift is that, like, it's just made us all, like, secret binge drinkers. It's cool. It's cute. The housewives are doing it.

LINDEMANN: I think that's interesting. I mean, I think there - actually, there was one study that showed that heavy consumers of reality TV are more likely to drink alcohol. They're also more likely to go hot-tubbing on dates.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LINDEMANN: Who knew, right? I know (laughter).

SANDERS: I'm watching the wrong reality TV because I have yet to have a hot-tub date.

LINDEMANN: I mean, you got to get on that. But...


LINDEMANN: But, again, correlation is not causation. So is it people who consume alcohol are more likely to watch reality TV heavily, or is it that they're - it's impacting us? Probably little of column A, little of column B, I...

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

LINDEMANN: ...Would guess because, you know, media research has long showed that the TV, the media that we consume, does have an impact. But yeah, I agree. This whole idea of kind of copious amounts of alcohol really has become a fixture of reality TV in recent years and, of course, 'cause that's how they get the conflict.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. So talking about women and how the genre itself is kind of gendered, there's a conversation to have about how reality TV affects all women, and there's a conversation to have about the way reality TV affects and depicts and relates to Black women. And you...

LINDEMANN: Absolutely.

SANDERS: ...Write about this in the book, and I want to get into it for a bit. You write about shows like "The Real Housewives Of Atlanta" or "Married To Medicine," and there's this quote you have in there, in that chapter, that just really got me. You say, with all these shows and how they depict Black women, quote, "the ghetto is never too far out of the frame." That was powerful. What do you mean by that?

LINDEMANN: Well, there's this certain, you know, caricature of a Black woman that comes up over and over on reality TV. And, you know, this caricature isn't new - or these types - they're multiple caricatures of Black women. They stem from minstrelsy. They've existed in our culture for hundreds of years. And there is this kind of idea, especially when - to get intersectional, especially when you look at these shows about Black women who ostensibly are moneyed, who ostensibly have kind of made it in society, but then they're kind of portrayed in some ways as buffoons, it reflects this kind of broader cultural urge to - you know, if you see a Black woman who is successful, to kind of swat that down, right? So this idea that, you know, both as women and as people of color, that, historically, there have been a lot of kind of constraints on their ability to succeed. And so this is kind of - this isn't just new with reality TV, right? This has been happening, again, for hundreds of years. Reality TV just, again, shows us this in kind of amplified form.

You know, it's difficult because I do also talk to a lot of women of color who love reality TV and watch reality TV but also do kind of feel conflicted about it as well. You know, as I say in the book, you know, it's interesting because reality TV, for all of its kind of stereotypical portrayals, also historically, when it comes to portrayals of Black people, has been more diverse than other forms of TV. So it's - representation is there, but...

SANDERS: But is - yeah.

LINDEMANN: ...You know, some of those representations are kind of grotesque.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, and, like, you talk about this in the chapter, these reality shows that center on wealthy and/or powerful or high-achieving Black women, it starts to show them that way, but it always has to show how behind that curtain is a little bit of ratchet. And you mentioned characters like Sheree.


SHEREE WHITFIELD: You need to get your face out of my face.

ANTHONY SHORTER: You need to watch yourself before you get checked.

WHITFIELD: Who gonna check me, boo?

The Cleveland girl was ready to get on the phone and call Pookie and them to come over there and whoop yo [expletive]. Seriously.

SHORTER: [Expletive] I'll slap the [expletive] out of you, bitch.

WHITFIELD: (Unintelligible).

SHORTER: Get out of my [expletive] office.

WHITFIELD: You wouldn't...



SANDERS: ...The cast of "Married To Medicine" - part of their whole...


SANDERS: ...Schtick is that, like, they're supposed to be high class but, ooh, honey, they're not, right? And...


SANDERS: ...We've become so used to seeing that. For me, personally, when I see a show in which that isn't happening, I'm like, this is boring. We're so used to it now. We're so used to it.

LINDEMANN: Right, exactly. We're so inured to the conflict. Yeah, I know. And people will say, well, you know, the White House wives are like that, too, right? Like, they're - they have - you know, like, the countess - right? - have highfalutin ideals, but, like, underneath that, they're kind of classless. But, you know, it's qualitatively different when you're showing kind of women of color - well, also because, you know, there are other representations of white women on...


LINDEMANN: ...TV. It kind of holds more weight when you're showing kind of women of color in these stereotypical roles.


SANDERS: Up next - how reality TV reflects our class system and why the genre itself is not going anywhere. Stay with us.


SANDERS: I want to talk about the way reality TV asks us to think about money. I feel like so many reality TV shows are about wealth and the performance of wealth and the accumulation of wealth. But when I think about shows like "The Real Housewives" or every reality TV show that Donald Trump has been in, it's kind of screwing with our notions of how you perform wealth. I feel like there's a certain performance of wealth that I was taught culturally growing up, and it's - big picture - the difference between old money and new money. Old money is quiet; new money is loud. True wealth is not ostentatious or performative, but artificial wealth or new wealth or minimal wealth is very loud and ostentatious and performative. But I feel like at every turn, reality TV screws with that paradigm. And I don't know what it is, but it seems like everyone in reality TV - whether they're old money, new money, a lot of money or little money - they are performing the ostentatiousness of new money. Am I safe to say that? Is my assumption right?

LINDEMANN: Yes. I think I agree that that's what's being performed. I would actually argue that it's reinforcing the standard paradigm, right? I talk about this in the book. I look at Pierre Bourdieu, who writes about habitus, which is basically kind of when you're born in a particular socioeconomic class, you learn the kind of orientations toward the world, taste, values, ways of behaving associated with that particular status. So, you know, if you look at, like, sort of an upper-class habitus, it would be, like you're saying - right? - not screaming wealth, whispering wealth, behaving in a particular way.


LINDEMANN: But we love to kind of poke fun at people who have money but don't have the corresponding habitus - so have money but don't really know how to be rich and, you know, being facetious there, right? Don't really know how to be rich. Don't really know because they weren't - because most of them weren't born into this...


LINDEMANN: ...Upper-class habitus, right? Or even if they were, they're not acting in accordance with it. So I think the fact that we watch these shows as entertainment and to kind of poke fun at these kind of buffoonish characters actually solidifies that idea that, you know, class is not just about money. It's about having certain tastes and values and ways of looking at the world.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. You know, you open the conclusion of your book with the image of Kim Kardashian in the Trump White House next to Trump at the Oval Office desk as he signed into law a bill that she lobbied to get passed.


KIM KARDASHIAN: And I just want to thank the president for really standing behind this issue, and seeing the compassion that he's had for criminal justice.

SANDERS: And you see in this moment two people forged in the fire of reality television sitting at the top of American power. You know, if reality TV can get you all the way to the White House - not just Trump, but Kim Kardashian, too - will it ever stop? Will people ever give it up? Does it fade out, become something else, or is it just too compelling and easy for us to make to let it go?

LINDEMANN: I don't know how people can kind of see an image like that and still think that reality TV is kind of frivolous or unimportant or not worthy of serious attention, or even see, you know, Trump's rise, in and of itself, and think that. But in terms of it ending, I think it'll change, as it always does. And what that looks like - I'm not sure. I think it'll - you know, it'll change around new technological developments, as it has always done. I actually was just talking to an undergraduate student who's writing her thesis on AI in reality TV - artificial intelligence. So it might be really interesting to see how that kind of evolves. Maybe in the future, there won't actually be flesh and blood people. It'll just be AI interacting with AI. Who knows?

SANDERS: Oh, God. Oh, my God. Oh, no. Don't say it. Don't say it.

LINDEMANN: But, I mean (laughter) - but the thing about reality TV is it is kind of a shapeshifter. It rolls with the times. It changes with the times in terms of its depiction sometimes, but also in terms of the technology that it uses, its multiplatform approach. So I see it sticking around and maybe just changing shape a little.

SANDERS: All right. Netflix or E! or whoever comes to you and says, you have unlimited budget. You can make one season of whatever reality TV show you want to make. Go crazy. What's your pitch?

LINDEMANN: Oh, my gosh. My mother-in-law is always telling me about sort of the microdynamics (ph) of her retirement home, and it is fascinating stuff.

SANDERS: Well, because they're kind of freaky. Like, they get down. Yeah.

LINDEMANN: They are interesting. It's some - it's, like, part high school, part not. They have cliques. It's just amazing.

SANDERS: I want the retirement home reality show. What do you call it? What's the name of that show?

LINDEMANN: I don't know. I don't know. It's like Gossiping Grandmas. Gossiping Grandmas.

SANDERS: Gossiping Grandmas. Gossiping Grandmas.


SANDERS: That's - listen, pitch that. Trademark that. I would watch that.

LINDEMANN: I would watch the hell out of that.


SANDERS: Hey, well, Danielle, thank you so much for talking to me about a topic I never lose interest in. I learned a lot. I think our listeners will, too. Thank you.

LINDEMANN: Oh, thank you so much for having me on. It was so much fun.


GARSD: Thanks again to Danielle Lindemann. She's the author of the book "True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us." It's out right now.

This episode was produced by Liam McBain, edited by Jordana Hochman and hosted by Sam Sanders. Of course, come back here for more IT'S BEEN A MINUTE on Friday. For that, we want to hear the best thing that happened to you all week. Record yourself and email the file to us at ibam@npr.org. All right, until Friday. Thank you for listening. I'm Jasmine Garsd.


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