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Trash TV Is a Form of Escapism With Drawbacks We Can’t Ignore

We're looking at you, Too Hot to Handle.

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There’s trash TV everywhere you look, from Netflix to TLC and ABC to Hulu and back again. And just to clarify, I’m not talking trash TV as in dramas (though there are many trash dramas). I’m talking about trashy “reality” TV the likes of Too Hot to Handle, Love is Blind, and 90-Day Fiance. You know, trashy reality TV that excites, distracts, and acts as a form of escapism from our world in 2021.

Too Hot to Handle, which has been renewed for 2 more seasons and is set for a June 2021 release on Netflix, is going to be at the center of this discussion of trash TV and why I love it so much while at the same time must acknowledge its drawbacks. At the heart of it all is escapism. It’s through shows like Too Hot to Handle, where participants must refrain from having sex or acts of intimacy in order to win a cash prize, that we can take a break from our lives and distract ourselves with mindless entertainment.

This distraction is grounded in too-wild-to-be-true narratives that challenge the contestants to ridiculous measures. And then asks the viewer to go along with it for a whole season without question, exactly like Too Hot to Handle does with its intimacy challenges. We set aside reason, logic, and the fact that things don’t work like this in the real world for a set of rules and challenges that the contestants have to battle through while we watch.

Key to the acceptance of this escapism is the reality of the world that we live in 2021 and how different it is to something like Too Hot to Handle. We just had a really difficult and traumatizing break with our nation’s terrible gaslighting man in the White House and are still getting used to the new President in our lives. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s a global pandemic that has been destroying lives, families, and businesses as far as the eye can see.

And for many, shows like Too Hot to Handle are safe forms of escapism that don’t hurt anybody in real-time when we invest our entire weekend (#TrueStory) in watching a whole season of trashy TV just to figure out who wins the money or actually abstains from acts of physical intimacy. That’s why so many people watch and why I don’t feel guilty, most of the time, if I shut off my brain and indulge in pretty people competing in challenges at a luxury villa I’ll never visit.

Keeping all of that in mind, we can’t talk about shows like Too Hot to Handle without discussing that there can be real-life ramifications of this form of “enhanced reality” escapism. We learn from TV, frequently from a very young age. We learn how the world runs, what makes it tick, and what is acceptable or not. This is one of the reasons why representation is so vital across mediums. And trash TV can sometimes be “teaching” the people you least expect, and often reinforces unhealthy cultural stereotypes and expectations of behavior.

There are many young people who don’t have someone to guide them and point out that things on “reality” TV like Too Hot to Handle don’t happen in real life and in many instances are outliers to reality. They are going to learn about what it means to be a friend, a partner, and a person from the content they consume. And it’s not just young, impressionable people that these shows impact; plenty of adults can glean some rather unsavory lessons from this kind of programming. We also don’t talk enough about how many lifestyle reality shows are essentially scripted and preplanned, as far removed from what’s “real” as possible.

Content like this can impart its own set of rules on love, life, survival, courage, and all sorts of things that we don’t think about because we just write it off as not being realistic and just fun. But for some, this might be the only outlet they know about or connect to where they learn how people act at that age or from a certain country or place.

That sets up viewers for failure where they learn, for example, that sexist or misogynistic behavior is acceptable because it’s all “part of the game.” It’s part of the reality of trashy TV like Too Hot to Handle, The Circle, or Love is Blind. But it’s not the reality of who we are as people and how we should treat others in real life.

That’s why we must stay cautious when it comes to the trash TV we consume, even as we can make the decision to turn off our brains a while and just enjoy it. Accept that it’s a form of escapism and use it to your advantage when you’re having a hard day and need to forget the world for a bit. But don’t forget, like I never forget, that this form of escapism comes with its own caveats and tales of caution about real-life complexities and their consequences.

(image: Netflix)

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Lyra (She/Her) is a queer Latinx writer who stans badass women in movies, TV shows, and books. She loves crafting, tostones, and speculating all over queer media. And when not writing she's scrolling through TikTok or rebuilding her book collection.