Christians and self-improvement reality shows

April 23rd, 2019

The popularity of self-improvement reality shows

Since the turn of the millennium, self-improvement reality shows have made up a sizeable chunk of television content. Born out of the reality television genre first popularized by shows like MTV’s The Real World in the early 1990s and CBS’s Survivor and Big Brother in the early 2000s, they feature everyday people and document “unscripted” real-life situations. Self-improvement shows come in a variety of formats, from early successes of shows such as Extreme Makeover in 2002 to popular Netflix hits such as the Queer Eye reboot and Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. What makes these shows so popular, and how have they influenced our ideas of what success and improvement look like?

The proliferation of reality television in the 1990s and 2000s was inspired by a number of factors. The first unscripted shows, such as Candid Camera and Queen for a Day, were developed in the 1940s and 1950s. Years later, the 1994–95 O. J. Simpson murder case had a strong influence on the development of reality television shows, as regularly scheduled programming was interrupted to follow the real-life drama. From a production perspective, reality shows are relatively cost-efficient compared to scripted shows, which require writers and professional actors. Even with a decline in ratings among the longer-running reality franchises, the genre as a whole has remained durable and has now expanded onto streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu.

The self-improvement/makeover subgenre of reality television has a consistent structure across the different shows. First, the viewers meet the subjects in their current, less-than-desirable situation. Then, the subjects encounter the experts, who give the subjects instructions on how to improve things, offering encouragement and assistance on their path. Finally, the subjects return to their environment, and they, along with their friends, family and the aforementioned experts, appraise the changes that have been made. This formula has a soothing quality to it, particularly when the world outside feels so uncertain.

Part of the attraction for these shows is their positive narrative. It’s heartening to see person after person make visible changes that, ideally, improve the quality of their lives. It’s the real-life version of the romantic-comedy trope where the “ugly duckling” outcast gets a makeover (or simply takes off their glasses) and suddenly becomes both beautiful and popular. Similarly, these shows often pull on the viewer’s heartstrings. It’s emotional to see someone struggle with adversity and then overcome it. Most self-improvement shows create an environment where the audience wants the person to succeed, as opposed to some of the situational or competition-based members of the genre.

As with much of media, self-improvement reality shows are also selling their watchers an aspiration. From the perspective of the audience, we might not be as bad off as those schmucks on television, but it sure would be nice if someone would swoop in like a fairy godmother to help us organize our garage or give us a new wardrobe or help us lose weight. Maybe that would assuage our existential loneliness.

Selling a darker narrative

Most of us have something we want to improve about our lives, hence the popularity of New Year’s resolutions. Maybe we want to be more responsible with our money or develop a more regular prayer practice or finally organize our closets. We have a sense that with enough effort, not only could we do better, we could be better. Many of these shows perpetuate the narrative that who we are at present isn’t good enough. Our noses are too big. Our hairstyle is out-of-date. Our bodies are too large or not the right shape. As a result, we internalize a certain amount of self-loathing that manifests across both our personal and professional lives.

In the world of self-improvement reality shows, it’s primarily the aesthetic, external fix that spurs progress. A new wardrobe or haircut gives the participant on the show a boost of confidence that helps improve their job performance or their marriage. There’s a recognition that success looks a certain way — slender, well-coiffed, put-together and organized. Shows like Queer Eye expand out from this and cause us to examine our homes, our familie, and even what we cook. Rather than questioning the superficial ideal of success that our culture propagates, self-improvement shows sell us that ideal and tell us how we can attain it.

Christians don’t need to avoid self-improvement reality shows, but we should watch with a critical lens. Frighteningly, according to a 2007 Newsweek article, a study showed that four out of five cosmetic surgery patients had been “directly influenced” by shows like Extreme Makeover. While we might watch these shows for entertainment, they can have a disturbing effect on our self-image. We must also remember that “reality” as portrayed on these shows isn’t always as it seems. While contestants on The Biggest Loser lost hundreds of pounds during filming, after the show many of them gained it all back and more, their metabolisms damaged by the show’s extreme weight-loss strategies, according to a study done by the National Institutes of Health.

Earning our salvation through self-improvement

Self-improvement reality shows are relentlessly focused on the individual and how personal changes might ripple out, often to the detriment of questioning other forces at play. In one Queer Eye episode, an exhausted father of six who works two jobs to support his family is given a makeover, as if a better haircut and a chore chart for his kids are going to magically fix the family’s economic anxiety. Other episodes include a 33-year-old man who lives with his parents and a man dealing with lupus. While not ignoring their situations, the show posits that self-confidence based in improved physical appearance will override these very real issues.

No matter how hard we try, many people in America cannot self-improve their way out of economic insecurity, physical and mental health struggles and discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation. Fortunately, the grace of God acts in our lives in ways that are often different from societal notions of success. We can’t earn our salvation through works because it’s a free and generous gift from God.


Pelagianism: An American heresy

Pelagius was a Christian theologian who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries. Most of what we know about Pelagius’s views come from Augustine of Hippo’s treatises refuting them. Based on Augustine’s accusations, Pelagius was a staunch advocate of free will and denied that humans needed divine aid in order to accomplish good works. Pelagius denied Augustine’s theory of original sin and that humans were wounded by Adam’s sin. Today he’s known as a heretic, even though most of his beliefs live on only in the words of his opponents.

Pelagianism might be the most American heresy and is strongly embedded in our culture. It argues that humans cannot be fundamentally flawed if everything that God created was good. Stressing free will and autonomy, Pelagianism says that we have the free will to choose to obey God’s commandments, and we can avoid sin if we just try hard enough. In a Pelagian frame, grace primarily consists of free will, the law of Moses and the teachings of Jesus. With their guidance, we should be able to figure out the moral course of action and then follow it.

While most are not explicitly spiritual or religious, this is the underlying principle of many self-improvement reality shows: your life can be better if you just try harder. Unfortunately, this ethic denies both the effects of systemic and individual sin and the reality of God’s grace, which reaches us where we are but doesn’t leave us where it finds us.

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