Kim Kardashian is finally doing something good for America: she’s getting divorced.
Anyone tuned into Facebook, Twitter, or the entertainment press knows that the reality star announced the termination of her marriage on Monday—after just 72 days, and dozens of airings of Kim’s Fairytale Wedding, the two-part special E! paid $15 million to broadcast.
Yet on E!, viewers can still watch Kim's famous figure draped in $60K Vera Wang gowns, brandishing a 20.5-carat engagement ring from Lorraine Schwartz jewelers, sipping $400K of Perrier-Jouët champagne, and munching a Hansen’s wedding cake worth more than I spend annually on housing in NYC. As I write this on Thursday, Kim and Kris are still babbling on about "happily ever after" on my boob tube, in heavy rotation—like The Twilight Zone, but with more tulle.
It’s a brilliant bit of cognitive dissonance, giving viewers the opportunity to recognize how hollow and manipulative reality TV’s fairy-tale narratives really are. As E! Entertainment president Suzanne Kolb told The New York Times this week: "The program model of television doesn't exactly keep up with the life model of real people." She was justifying her decision to keep airing Kim’s Fairytale Wedding, but she unwittingly debunked the main premise of so-called reality TV: that it has anything to do with real life or real people.
Who knew Kim Kardashian, celebreality tabloid queen, would be the one to finally help us interrupt that bogus premise? The disconnect between blissful on-air bride and off-screen divorcée offers viewers proof, once and for all, that reality-TV fairy tales are nothing more than a farce. Reality shows don’t focus on what it takes to build real relationships—instead, they’re all about persuading women to lower their romantic standards and their caloric intake long enough to con some douchey stranger into slapping a product-placement ring on it.
In my research for Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, which was published last year, I spent 10 years—yes, seriously, a decade—monitoring more than 1,000 hours of unscripted dating, marriage, makeover, competition, and lifestyle series, and talking with high-school and college students across the country. What they’ve taught me is that as much as we love to laugh at Kim Kardashian—and her infamous reality cohorts like Snooki and Flavor Flav—the messages these shows send are deeply harmful, especially to women and girls.
So, what do these shows teach us? To start, that all a groom needs to qualify as “Prince Charming” is a fat wallet (why, hello there, “Joe Millionaire”). That “every girl” wants to—and can—become a “princess” bride, so long as she is skinny, vapid, and emotionally undemanding (the longest-running dating franchise, ABC’s The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, set this template early). TV networks have collaborated with embedded advertisers to convince us that the only thing "real women" should aspire to is becoming “Mrs. Something” (as a former Miss USA contestant put it on Who Wants to Marry My Dad). And that ludicrously expensive weddings are the key to lifelong happiness, no matter what happens behind the scenes.
It’s tempting to laugh all this off as harmless fluff, but the impact is real. Dating shows in particular portray women as bitchy, catty, and desperate. These shows also tend to exclude intellectual, professionally accomplished women—preferring contestants like a bubbly 24-year-old on The Bachelor, who promised she’d “make the best wife” because “I will be a servant to him.” According to a recent Girl Scouts survey of 1,100 girls, young women who regularly watch reality TV are more likely than nonviewers to “accept and expect a higher level of drama, aggression, and bullying” in their lives. They’re also significantly more likely to believe that “It’s in girls’ nature to be catty and competitive with one another,” that "It’s hard for me to trust other girls,” and that girls “have to compete for a guy’s attention.”
Let’s be clear: Kim Kardashian didn’t create this toxic TV culture. Fox’s Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire started it all in 2000; in 2003, ABC aired Trista & Ryan’s Wedding, a $4 million affair in which the Bachelorette wore a $70K Badgley Mischka dress and a pair of diamond-encrusted Stuart Weitzman heels. Nowadays, entire series like TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress and WE’s My Fair Wedding exist to get women to fixate on the idea that it’s normal, even mandatory, for a wedding to cost as much as a down payment on a house.
But Kim's wedding came during an economic recession—which makes it all the more problematic. It may have made her $17.9 million richer, but that's all part of reality TV's dirty little secret: these shows exist in large part to expand the luxury wedding market. We now spend a whopping $80 billion annually on bridal apparel, invitations, flowers, receptions, destination weddings, and more. As proud members of the 1 percent, the Kardashians can afford this kind of nonsense. The rest of us can’t. And girls and women can’t afford the demeaning stereotypes at the heart of these faux fairy tales, either.
So I hope E! continues to run Kim’s Fairytale Wedding in perpetuity, so that every time viewers see her walking down the aisle, or promising her ex “forever,” they’ll realize that all reality-TV fairy tales are a regressive fantasy.