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July 23, 2010

MTV's New Feel-Good Reality Show Is Horrifying


On MTV's new reality show, If You Really Knew Me, a program called Challenge Day goes into high schools for a day to do various trust-building and secret-telling activities that are designed to help students get to know each other and deal with problems like gossip, racism, clique drama, etc. Practically everyone I've talked to who watched it loved it. And I get why, more or less. I do. There were some powerful stories presented, and it was touching to see the kids hug and cry and maybe make some new friends. But overall, I found the whole thing kind of horrifying and really stressful to watch. (My heart was racing for the entire hour, and not in a good way.) And the more I think about it, the more aspects of it bother me.

1. I more or less believe that the motivations of the adults involved in Challenge Day are sincere and good, but using kids' secrets and emotions to profit a major television network is just icky. And yes, I realize that this type of emotion-peddling is the basis of a lot of reality TV, but when it actually takes place in a school, it just feels more wrong somehow. The Challenge Day leaders are telling the kids that it's all about respect and feeling loved and celebrated, and MTV is telling us that it's all happening for our entertainment, and probably to make us feel like we're somehow supporting social change by watching it, without any actual effort on our part. There's a definite disconnect there.

2. And yes, I realize that the kids all consented to appear on the show. Not all kids in the school participated. But still. If your friends are all going to be doing something, or your teacher wants you to do it, and it's a chance to be on MTV, I can see a lot of kids giving in and doing it and then regretting it later, when they realize just how revealing it was. And the kids who don't go on the show don't exactly get off scot-free. When one boy gets up and says that there's a lot of racism on the football team, say, the other football players who aren't participating have to live with the repercussions of that without getting a chance to tell their side of the story.

3. The whole thing is an introvert's nightmare. Even aside from the fact that the subject matter is focused on things that people wouldn't want to talk about anyway, just being put into a group of random classmates and forced to talk about feelings, while being filmed for national TV, sounds terrifying. I know some people wouldn't have this problem, but it's definitely one reason why I found the show incredibly stressful to watch.

4. The fact that Challenge Day is a one-day program seems ridiculous. Sure, some people might have made friends or felt better about very specific situations. There were lots of tears and hugging, which makes the audience, at least, feel good. But nothing really changes in a day, and the adult organizers didn't even present any real solutions. A lot of the follow-up focused on the football team racism issue I mentioned above, but the actual plan put into place was that the football players would make sure no one in the school was allowed to be a loner (Why not?), and go out of their way to talk to people they didn't know in the halls. How this would deal with racism wasn't addressed.

5. A lot of kids revealed very personal information to their small groups and to the larger group. Even if all of them were caught up in the spirit of the day and had the best of intentions at the time, I don't for a minute believe that will last. Maybe I'm just cynical, but all I could think was "They're giving so much ammunition to their enemies!" In a few months, when the excitement has faded and the MTV cameras are gone, someone is going to have a bad day, and remember some secret revealed by someone they never really liked anyway, and lash out with it. A lot of people could end up getting hurt, and it's pretty irresponsible on the part of the adults involved.

6. Addressing racism and other types of discrimination in schools is a perfectly valid goal. But more of the show focused on the fact that the school was filled with cliques and gossip, and this was seen as something awful that should be stamped out. But . . . why? I don't think it's possible, but say you could somehow keep some kids from forming cliques. How would that in any way help prepare them for the world outside of that one situation? I have never encountered a school or work setting that wasn't full of cliques and gossip. It's just a fact of life. Instead of trying to do the impossible and make these kids all like each other, it would be more useful to actually prepare teens to deal with the cliques and gossip and online privacy issues and other social situations that they'll have to deal with as adults. Teens don't really need to be taught to tell secrets, and in some cases, it would more helpful to teach them how to keep their private lives private.

Posted by Kat at July 23, 2010 02:00 PM

Thank you for writing this! I saw an ad for the show last weekend, and, while I was skeptical of the overall premise, I assumed that it must follow the students in one high school for at least a semester, if not a full year, in order to actually deliver on its "everything changes!" promises. Sounds like the purpose is to make viewers feel better at the end of the episode, rather than to offer the kids any significant improvement. Sad, but not surprising since it's MTV.

Posted by: your cousin Liz at July 23, 2010 02:28 PM
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