Condemn Tyra Banks if you will, but we still love cruelty on TV

The America’s Next Top Model host has faced criticism for past misdemeanours, but the rapturous reception for Love Is Blind shows that reality TV still trades on nastiness

Given the amount of uncertainty swirling, the uptick in nostalgia during lockdown is unsurprising. It affects what we watch, and while some shows have stood the test of time (viewing of Only Fools and Horses is up 20% and Last of the Summer Wine, 30%), others have fared less well, such as America’s Next Top Model (ANTM).

It may have taken nearly 20 years and a global pandemic, but social media users have come to the collective realisation of just how sadistic the programme was. ANTM was an amalgamation of the exact type of issues that the show’s creator and host, Tyra Banks, rallies against today: racism, fat-shaming and the pressuring of young women to undergo unnecessary cosmetic procedures.

The clip that served as the catalyst for the backlash showed judges berating a contestant for refusing to close the “unmarketable” gap in her front teeth. Some cycles later, a contestant had her gap professionally widened at Banks’ request. Another surreal scene showed Banks coaxing white models in blackface to represent “Africans”. She soon acknowledged her decisions as “really off choices”, as did Ken Mok, a producer of the show. “Times have definitely changed,” he tweeted in response. “Thank goodness they have.”

“It was a different time” may not cut it as a defence, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. We watched Ms Banks put the Tyra in tyrant on a weekly basis, with the same nonchalance we consumed pretty much every other equally problematic reality TV show at the start of this century. ANTM’s 2003 launch coincided with the early 00s reality TV golden age, where sadly casual viciousness was part and parcel of the genre.

Punching down wasn’t just commonplace, it was a staple. P Diddy’s cruelty as the mentor on the 2002 series Making the Band 2 is the stuff of legend. On one of their final assignments, contestants were made to trek three hours on foot to Brooklyn to bring Diddy a cheesecake. Anyone who didn’t make the journey would be disqualified. Simon Cowell was far more merciless in the early days of The X Factor, and The Apprentice’s resident savage Claude Littner is now a pussycat compared with his heyday as the most-feared interviewer going. He has dialled down his ferocity to such a degree that he is able to double up as one of Lord Sugar’s stern but still far more amiable aides.

Then there were the shows where malice was baked into the formula. There’s Something About Miriam was a Bachelor-style dating show that aired in 2004, where the “twist” was rampant transphobia. At the show’s end, it was revealed to the six men who had been competing for the heart of Miriam Rivera that she was a transwoman, with the sole aim of humiliating all involved.

That was the same year that British Big Brother went “evil”, after the prior series was panned as the most boring on record. In the US, 2005’s Whose Your Daddy? did just what it said on the tin: an adult who had been put up for adoption as a child was put in a room with 25 men, one of whom was their biological father. If they guessed correctly, they would win $100,000. If not, the person that they incorrectly selected would get the $100,000. Even “feelgood” makeover shows have aged terribly; 10 Years Younger was shallow and misogynistic, while Trinny and Susannah’s What Not to Wear was a bitchfest of body shaming.

We have seemingly come a long way from the days where we guffawed at spitefulness directed at strangers over dinner. In 2018, viewers couldn’t stomach the sight of a blubbing Dani Dyer on Love Island, who was breaking down over misleading footage of her then-boyfriend Jack Fincham and an ex-partner shown to her by the producers. As previously noted by the Guardian, there has been a shift towards softer, more lighthearted factual entertainment such as First Dates and The Great British Bake Off. The original Queer Eye, which was progressive simply by existing, ran from 2003 to 2007, and while the premise has remained the same, the reboot is more millennial. The crass stereotypes of gay men have been dropped and there is a new focus on body positivity, self-care and mental health.

But old viewing habits die hard. This winter’s drama-free season of Love Island was labelled the dullest yet, with most favouring the deranged dating series Love Is Blind. Its success looks set to usher in another reality renaissance, and perhaps a pivot back to the televisual insanity of yesteryear; the decision to have newly engaged couples dump each other at the altar displayed levels of malice unseen on reality TV for years. Clips from the deeply problematic series 90 Day Fiancé continually go viral – the more heinous the couples are being towards each other, the more popular they appear to be.

In years to come, we will undoubtedly write of these current shows with the same horror we now do about ANTM. Times have certainly changed, as have the parameters of what is considered acceptable cruelty. But I’m unsure viewers’ appetite for this modern-day bear baiting has been completely sated.

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