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Reality TV: The Panopticon of Public Humiliation

Woman crying with a crown

Artwork: Bad Day at the Office, Elish Kathleen, 2020.

This month we saw Zara McDermott as she was publicly humiliated, and as she publicly humiliated herself, “in the name of love” following her cheating scandal becoming public knowledge. While the memes taking the piss out of her warranted a quick smirk at your phone, the reality of the situation is much more harrowing to watch and indulge in. Both the Made in Chelsea scene in which she mercilessly begs for her boyfriend, Sam Thompson, back and the strange social media posts, were extremely sad and felt uncomfortable to watch. Like a car crash, you cannot look away.

But why couldn’t we look away? Why did she beg for him back so publicly on social media? How many higher-ups signed off on Zara’s weird posts? Let’s sift through it.

Why couldn’t we look away?

Reality TV is morbid AF across all its bases. Any genre of reality TV will have some form of awkward interaction or exploitative nature within it. Whether it’s exploiting and reinstating harmful stereotypes against the working class and/or minorities in the sub-genre of poverty porn, or, exploiting the real turmoil and depressing life events of rich, but real, people. This month, it was Zara McDermott’s turn.

It is human nature to be interested in others, especially if there is a situation as juicy and full of gossip as Zara McDermott’s cheating scandal.  We feel better after seeing others worse off than us, especially when that comes to those who we feel are better off than us – whether that be because of money, looks, or career.  Maybe, then, that’s why we can’t look away: because it’s in our own, sometimes sadistic, human nature to want to feel superior.

Reality TV makes up over 50 percent of primetime TV. It is quite possible that perhaps we’re not so sadistic and ego driven after all, and that perhaps we are just desensitised to watching other people’s lives fall apart on national television because our culture is saturated with these shows. We are so desensitised that we feel no pity for Zara and her humiliation. But instead find it funny, and indulge in her emotional breakdown. It is important to note that when referencing Zara’s “situation” or “tragedy”, I am not referencing the fact that she cheated on her boyfriend and got caught. I am referencing, though, the intensely private moments of her discussing this with her boyfriend and pleading for his mercy while they decide whether to stay together or not, being aired nationally for all to see and make a mockery of. You only have to think back to your own embarrassing moments, which make you recoil and cringe, to imagine what it would feel like for these moments – especially ones as sensitive and private as a relationship breakdown – to play out for the public to see.  

It is these very moments in which we feel like we shouldn’t be watching, that makes them so enticing. 

Our inner voyeurs cannot look away. 

The lack of empathy we have for the intrusiveness of Zara’s situation has to be because, simply, we have seen it all before. Multiple times. We are so desensitised that we have become detached from seeing Zara (and everyone else in reality television) as a real person. She, her person, her brand, her life, has become a commodity for us to consume. Even the ‘real’ people she knows have indulged in commodifying her situation. For example, her ex-boyfriend Sam Thompson, capitalised on her emotional breakdown by making a satirical Tik-Tok where he mimed along to the audio of her desperately begging for him to stay with her. If even the people closest to her can commodify and consume her tragedy, why shouldn’t we? 

It is not unreasonable to question whether our obsession with reality TV and watching people’s downfalls is due to our capitalist and consumer-driven culture, and THAT is why we cannot look away. 

Why did she beg for him back so publicly on social media?

Zara’s behaviour in the aftermath of her scandal was weird, and not something “normal” people would ever do. But that is exactly the point. Zara is not normal, she is a commodity now, remember? She knows this, Sam Thompson knows this (hence the Tik-Tok), and we know this. She would be stupid to not keep up this gig. It is her job to be consumed, therefore she must provide content for us to consume.

In a recorded lecture, artist Ann Hirsch speaks of her time on a reality show and mentions how she thinks the American Dream has changed. Before, the dream was to move to America, work insanely hard for a little amount of money, and then, eventually be able to own your own house. Now, the dream is to go onto a reality show and ride out your fifteen minutes of fame for as long as possible, whilst getting paid huge amounts of money to do so. She also mentions the derogatory connotations about reality TV stars. Such as how they must be “fame hungry” and “desperate” to go on them, when in fact, they are just products of the current climate. Zara, too, is a product of the current climate. This is her biggest storyline since she was booted off Love Island and her partner Adam refused to leave with her. She has to ride this out, it is her job. 

How many higher-ups signed off on this, and more importantly, why?

The amount of people that must have signed off on Zara furthering her own public humiliation by allowing her to continue to post declarations of love for an ex-boyfriend on an Instagram account is concerning. Her Instagram account is part of her brand, part of the commodity, part of how she makes her money. I find it hard to believe that she did not consult anyone before posting that. But herein lies the problem, these posts probably were signed off by her team. Why wouldn’t they sign off on this? This only garners more attention, more consumers, meaning more money for them to get a cut of.

Reality TV and its stars are used as a platform to sell and monetize followers and fan bases by constantly advertising these brands (people), while we the audience buy into these products simply by viewing it.

Reality TV and influencer culture has been compared to Michel Focault’s discussion of the Panopticon many times. The concept references a circular prison with cells arranged around a central well, from which prisoners could be observed at all times. Foucault writes about how the Panopticon provides an apparatus for supervising its own mechanisms, and that the director inside the institutional building may spy on all the employees that he has under his orders. This process correlates with reality TV production and the management of influencers: reality TV and influencing platforms are their “institutions” which are then projected onto society to consume. Foucault goes on to explain that the director of the Panopticon is able to continuously judge the prisoners he has under his orders by spying on them, and that this allows him to alter their behaviours and impose upon them the methods he thinks best. Again, this mirrors the way reality TV and influencer culture works and is produced. Except in this instance, we are the ‘director’ continuously judging reality TV personalities and is, partly, why we, as a society, are so obsessed with watching reality TV – we control the kind of content we want to see. Similarly, the producers of reality TV alter the cast’s behaviours by imposing new constructed scenarios much like the director in the Panopticon. 

Unfortunately for Zara and every other influencer and reality TV star, this could mean – because of the way our society is set up, consuming everything we can – that they barely even have ownership of their own lives. Yet, it could be argued this is all through fault of their own, they signed up for it after all, but it seems as if the fault is ours too. Unfortunately for Zara, she is this month’s victim of public humiliation – a humiliation that is well documented and will remain in the cybersphere for probably ever.

However, fortunately for Zara, she is also this month’s employee of the month.

Written By

Elish is co-founder of The Culture Sift.

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