How we reconcile reality TV stars' alleged moral transgressions

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How we reconcile reality TV stars' alleged moral transgressions
© Provided by ABC NEWS Jerry Harris was a breakout star of Netflix’s docuseries Cheer, before being arrested by the FBI. (Getty images: Jim Spellman)

The downfall of a protagonist is a tale as old as time.

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But now, thanks to reality TV, instead of watching fictional characters fall from grace, we’re witnessing real people — people we may care for, or feel we know intimately — be accused of moral transgressions.

Former Navarro cheerleader and star of the Netflix docuseries Cheer, Jerry Harris, is one such figure.

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After sharing his harrowing childhood and joyful “mat talk” in season one, Harris became a breakout success. He went on to be The Ellen DeGeneres Show’s Oscar correspondent and appeared in an Instagram live chat with then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden in June 2020.

By September, everything changed.

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The 22-year-old was arrested in his home by the FBI on a child pornography charge. Several charges have since been added, including sexual exploitation of children, and travelling with the attempt to engage in sexual conduct with a minor.

The fallout, which is documented in Cheer’s second season — released earlier this month — forces co-stars and audiences alike to wrestle with a complex, and increasingly common moral dilemma:

How should we react when someone we admired is charged with heinous crimes? And can we reconcile these allegations with the goodness we saw in them?

Real people vs edited reality

For Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer in The University of Melbourne’s school of social and political sciences, it’s important to remember that reality TV is actually an “orchestrated reality”.

She says the genre is driven by personalities rather than plot, so an awful lot of effort goes into casting characters — or in the case of Cheer, choosing which cheerleaders to centre on — and presenting their narrative.

“There’s a disproportionate skew to people who have tragic, tumultuous backstories, because it gives perceived depth to that person,” Dr Rosewarne explains.

While Cheer isn’t a classic reality TV format — it won the 2020 Emmy for Outstanding Structured Reality Program — it does dive heavily into the backstories of its stars.

Cheerleader Morgan Simianer, for example, reveals she was abandoned by her parents as a kid, teammate La’Darius Marshall shares that he was sexually abused during childhood, and Jerry Harris speaks of losing his mother to cancer during his teenage years.

Dr Rosewarne says that knowing a person’s history may lead us to rationalise why they behave in a certain way.

“We’re getting a very edited, curated version of a person,” she says.

“There’s a kind of built-in pop psychology for audiences, where we start to [ask], ‘Is that based on their, for example, traumatic childhood?'”

Feeling ‘betrayed’ by reality stars

Tamara Cavenett, a clinical psychologist and president of the Australian Psychological Society, says it’s impossible to know a person fully from watching them on TV.

“No matter what information we get, we are always only getting a portion of someone’s world,” she says.

“We never see all the complexities and intricacies of the way anybody lives.”

She adds that some reality TV talent may wish to present themselves in a particular light.

“People are often participating in it because there is a secondary gain that might come out of it, like being famous or endorsement or influence,” Ms Cavenett points out.

But it’s often easy to put scepticism aside when we’re immersed in a character’s backstory or rooting for them to succeed.

And according to Charlie Crimston, research fellow at the University of Queensland’s school of psychology, that’s why a reality TV star’s alleged transgression can hit us hard.

“It’s more emotionally impactful when there’s that sense that we’ve been betrayed,” she says.

“We felt we’ve really gotten to know someone.

“I mean, maybe that’s the question: can you ever really know someone?”

Dr Crimson says our connection to the alleged perpetrator — and the intensity of the alleged crime — affects how we respond.

“In this particular case [of Jerry Harris], there’s a really strong sense of anger associated with the alleged immoral acts,” she says.

She adds that in situations like this, feelings of “disgust” will outweigh any fondness we previously felt.

Sympathising with the Tiger King

For Dr Rosewarne, the alleged transgressions of a reality TV star can be harder to process than those of an actor or filmmaker because you can’t simply separate the artist from the art.

“[In a reality TV show] the person was playing themselves, there’s not a buffer anymore,” she explains.

And this is when it can become complicated.

“We try and rationalise that someone we love would never do something heinous, because then that’s almost a character indictment on us,” Dr Rosewarne says.

“There’s this kind of bargaining that goes on here — like the 12 stages of grief — where you don’t want to believe it to begin with.”

But Dr Crimson says while some crimes are beyond reproach, there are other circumstances in which ardent fans will stay devoted to a reality TV star, even after they’ve erred.

“Maybe they could imagine a scenario where the act of murder was justified, or maybe the good qualities of the person still outweigh the bad qualities,” she says.

This sentiment may ring true for some viewers of the Netflix docuseries Tiger King, which starred Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic.

Despite being convicted of trying to hire two different men to kill animal rights activist Carole Baskin — and being sentenced to 22 years in prison — Maldonado-Passage has amassed a huge fan following, which includes celebrities, like Cardi B.

Patrick Stokes, a philosopher and associate professor at Deakin University, says the lines between fact and fiction often feel blurred in reality TV programs.

He points out that when we watch dramas, for example, “we’re not invited to simply judge and condemn complicated characters … because the fact that it’s fictional makes a space in which it’s okay for us to suspend some of those judgments and try to understand and sympathise.”

“When we’re talking about actual people [on reality TV], though, it gets a lot messier,” he adds.

“You do have to keep reminding yourself, ‘Wait a minute, he actually tried to kill someone.'”

Complexities of character 

Dr Stokes says when we’re watching real life play out on screen, it’s a good idea to assess our motives.

“If you’re going to watch something like Tiger King, are you watching it as somebody who is taking in all this stuff and forming a complicated moral judgement?” he says.

“Are you learning more about human behaviour or the complexity, even tragedy of people’s lives? Or are you just enjoying it in a voyeuristic way as if it’s a soap opera?”

For Ms Cavenett, it’s worthwhile being a little more sceptical about what we see and hear.

“It’s about holding these people, and stories, a little bit lighter, and starting to realise that reality TV is very often not reality at all,” she says.

Ms Cavenett adds that we shouldn’t judge ourselves for having felt a connection with someone on-screen, who later transgresses.

“It is a real challenge for the brain when you feel so connected to someone and you get this piece of information that’s completely different” she says.

“I think the first point is that audiences need to be a little bit kinder to themselves.

“And if we all take a step back, we can realise that life is kind of grey. People are capable of a lot of different things, and not all of them are good.”

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