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The role of reality TV in discussions of domestic abuse

Posted on 5 October 2022

Collage of colours on tv screen

Since Big Brother exploded onto our screens over 20 years ago, reality TV has become a mainstay in broadcast entertainment.

Although the genre has always generated discussion, more attention is now being paid to the individual experiences of those who participate in reality TV: from the impact on their mental health, to how contestants treat each other. This shift is perhaps exemplified by the recent public outcry against perceived coercive and controlling behaviour on the latest series of ITV's "Love Island." (With ITV recently confirming a new host, the network appears to remain committed to the Love Island format for the foreseeable future.)

Increased understanding about coercive and controlling behaviour, and how it constitutes a type of domestic abuse, has grown in recent years. Terms such as "gaslighting" are being used more frequently in public discussions on the subject, particularly in combination with other "red flags" of an individual's behaviour towards their partner.

Being able to identify certain actions and behaviours as coercive or controlling is vital in addressing abusive behaviour. Questions have been asked as to whether reality TV producers should take a greater responsibility in putting a stop to such behaviour when it presents itself in their shows.

The law is increasingly recognising the diverse and insidious forms that domestic abuse can take. So to what degree should there be a responsibility on those involved in creating reality TV to ensure that the behaviour depicted onscreen avoids normalising abuse, particularly given the number of younger viewers?

What are the "red flags" of coercive control?

In April of last year, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 came into force, providing a new statutory definition of Domestic Abuse. As set out in a previous article, the new statutory definition specifically recognises emotional abuse, economic abuse and coercive and controlling behaviour (which includes post-separation abuse) as types of domestic abuse.

Coercive or controlling behaviour can only exist between two people who are "personally connected" to each other, which includes those who are or have been in an intimate personal relationship. While some categories of abuse, such as physical violence, are potentially easier to recognise, abuse such as economic abuse or controlling behaviour can be much more difficult to discern. Examples can be where one person monitors the other's spending, tries to isolate them from their friends and family or dictates what they should and should not wear. While these behaviours may appear to be minor matters, which alone might not initially constitute abuse, their combined effect over time can result in the survivor of abuse constantly monitoring their own behaviour to ensure they continue to appease the perpetrator of abuse.

"Gaslighting" is a form of emotional abuse and is usually defined as psychological manipulation designed to undermine a person and make them doubt their sanity. It can help a perpetrator of abuse maintain control, by making their victim believe that they are "crazy", that they have "made up" their allegations of abuse or that no-one will believe them. While the term "gaslighting" does not have its origins in the law, it is now widely recognised by the courts and has been used a number of times in published judgments of the Family Court.

The reality TV connection

Media portrayal of domestic abuse is not a new phenomenon for television. Recognising the fictional nature of these stories, viewers do not need to be concerned about the fate of the actors once the cameras stop rolling and can be assured that these events have not actually occurred. Further, whilst such storylines can be triggering, including for survivors of domestic abuse, the British Board of Film Classification requires that a domestic abuse disclaimer is shown warning viewers of content which could trigger distress.

By contrast, reality TV is, in its very nature, supposed to feature "real" people, reflecting "real life". Although heavily edited and produced, often with manufactured storylines and personas, it is worth remembering participants are not actors. The individuals witnessed on screen do not stop being themselves once the cameras stop rolling and the "plot" of the show will, generally, have impact on their lives for the foreseeable future. This could arguably be seen as a positive of the genre. Audiences can make a greater connection with the "real life" contestants than they can with fictionalised characters, particularly where, through the use of social media, viewers' engagement with the contestants can continue long after the show has finished. With greater investment in the life and welfare of the individuals who participate in reality TV, viewers may feel a heightened sense of responsibility, and perhaps entitlement, when discussing the programmes publicly.

As these shows are highly edited, it is important to keep in mind that what is displayed in the edited version may be largely constructed to suit an agenda. Nonetheless, whether edited or not, the shows are designed to give the impression of reality. This creates a question as to whether those involved in the production of reality TV should take responsibility in ensuring any behaviour which appears coercive or controlling is not romanticised or trivialised on screen, for "entertainment" purposes, or otherwise.

Whilst coercive or controlling behaviour is a criminal offence, the seemingly minor nature of some of the behaviours that can constitute a pattern of abuse mean that many people do not necessarily recognise it as such. For those involved in the production of reality TV to take a "zero-tolerance" attitude to abusive behaviours would arguably send a strong message to both perpetrators of abuse and victims alike that any form of abuse is not going to be tolerated, whether off or onscreen.

A reflection of real life?

Conversely, it could be argued that reality TV is simply reflecting the issues which are pervasive in wider society. If this is the case, it is arguably not the shows' responsibility to censor certain actions or behaviour when they appear onscreen.

There have been positive steps in addressing domestic abuse – both in the wider community, such as the greater recognition of abusive behaviour (including calling out of abusive behaviour by viewers of reality TV), as well as  the enactment of the Domestic Abuse Act within the legal context. But it is clear that more work needs to be done to prevent such behaviours in the first place. Many of those involved in work to prevent domestic abuse and to support survivors consider that there needs to be much more education from a younger age on what constitutes a healthy relationship and what does not, in addition to more widely available information on what you can do if you or someone you know may be in a coercive or controlling relationship.

In 2021, Ofcom announced new rules designed to ensure that people taking part in TV and radio programmes were better looked after by broadcasters, in part in response to complaints about the welfare of those taking part in programmes. However, Ofcom recently confirmed that it would take no action over recent complaints made regarding the behaviour shown on "Love Island". Its reasoning included that it considered that the show did not portray examples of negative behaviour by participants in a positive light, but also that "[T]he format for Love Island is well-established. So viewers tuning in to the show would expect to see the islanders’ highs and lows on screen, as couples’ relationships are tested during the course of the series." A wider question may be whether behaviour that may amount to abuse should be seen as being part of the "highs and lows" of a relationship. Even if, in the future, Ofcom or other TV regulators take a stricter approach, it seems that a much wider societal shift may still be required to reduce tolerance of such behaviour and to support survivors effectively.

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