I was shocked to read about the death of Hana Kimura. She now joins an increasingly long list of reality tv talent driven to depression and suicide.
It is awful that this has happened.It is personal. It is tragic. It has happened- again.
There are many reasons why this seems to happen -so often. On the one hand, there is the trolling and online abuse which is ear-marked by very fine campaigners like Bobby Norris, but on the other, there is an institutional abuse that seems to have ringfenced the reality tv world since the early days of America’s “Survivor”. However mild its form, it never seems to go away.
For the record, I think I was fortunate to have been selected to participate in the British show The Circle. I never applied to be on the show- I was headhunted by a producer and I had not watched that show nor much reality tv at all before I agreed to enter the apartment as a contestant. Put bluntly, I could as easily have been head-hunted by a programme like Traffic House. I could as easily -now- have been a victim of social media trolling as Hana was. My heart, therefore, goes out to Hana and to her family.
It is time to wake up to a double reality-
Firstly, that if this is the sort of tv we want to see, and I would suggest it is a very interesting and creative approach to tv, then we, the viewers, need to show responsibility to those people who are providing our entertainment. We can never send hurtful messages. A hurtful text is never just a joke- it is always hurtful. We must think before we send. The adage about “sticks and stones” which I remember repeatedly as a child is complete rubbish. Words always hurt. We need to be kinder.
Secondly, we need to ensure that those who produce reality tv operate under a more transparent code of practice. This means proper and effective aftercare, but it also means a level of honesty throughout the production that might compromise the way these programmes are currently made- maybe that needs to be an adjustment we should be ready to make.
I am doing a weekly podcast for an American group devoted to the “Survivor” franchise. As far as I know, I am not to be paid but as the programme is now in it 20th year and 40th season, there are literally years’ of episodes to go before I even get half-way through the broadcasts. That may demonstrate naivite on my part but it also, I hope, gives me licence to speak out fairly boldly.
What is odd is that, unlike “the Batchelor” and “the Batchelorette” which were infamous for suicide, the “Survivor” series seems to have got by on what is frankly a diet of appalling abuse without much of an adverse affect on its contestants. Certainly, their early contracts were absurd in their attempt to silence and suppress the talent after the show, certainly the level of nasty tasks makes almost any other reality tv show seem tame, and, at the moment in season 1, though I am told not so in future seasons, the commentary is fairly modest in its irony and in the way it presents a storyline. Later series, I am told, will see a more nuanced recap at the beinning of episodes and a narrative bias from Jeff Probst -allegedly- that would make Emily Maitless’ line of reporting seem very lame indeed.
If you go to the podcast here-
you will hear a debate with the wonderful Mario Lanzo (not the singer but the writer, Survivor historian and psychiatrist) about an alleged manipulation of a vote- it is only an allegation though it is backed up with books and I understand with a court case, so the allegation might be well-founded. We are very trusting in the way we accept what we see on tv. It is not reality at all.
For my part, as I say, I was very lucky indeed. The story that I was shown to be part of was actually, for the most part, the story that happened. Of course, there were scenes that never made the edit and I am sorry that the audience never got to see my conversations about tractors, ordure and farming with Sy: I think this omission explains why he visited me after he was blocked. No other narrative works in fact. I was also looked after terrifically well on the circle. Reality TV is a spectrum and I was fortunate enough to have found myself at the positive end of that spectrum.
I think Hana Kimura has been very unlucky but the industry itself, the whole spectrum, must take stock. Every time there is a death in the industry, people like me call for change. But change is dismissed and a few more sticking plasters are clumsily applied to the way this very profitable industry progresses. It cannot be just that people “have difficulty adjusting to fame”, or responding to “trolling”. By 2016, there were 21 deaths recorded in the States among reality tv contestants. That count is significantly higher if it is computed globally. It shows a serious problem in the making, or actually in reality and it does not take account of the innumerable counselling sessions that have dealt with depression brought on directly as a result of participation in one of these shows- counselling in other words that has stopped that appalling suicide rate being even higher than it already is.
It is not, to me, at all surprising that there should be problems: this is an industry that needs guidance- that has two or three different and contradictory images as Hollywood had in its own hay-day(sic). So, I have to ask, with all honesty, how can we have a business model marketed as entertainment that is predicated on such a high level of misery? In some shows, contestants have been wilfully humiliated, or manipulated to be party to the humiliation of others, they have been victimised by sleep deprivation, plied with alcohol and they find they have been selectively edited or they bitterly regret what they said in moments of weakness. They have been promised all maner of future success. Moreover, whatever screening process may have been conducted, everyone knows that emotional instability makes for good tv.
It is not enough to shrug and say “this was a Faustian pact.”
As I said, I was lucky.
Sadly, Hana Kimura was not.