I never thought I’d write an article of praise for reality TV on a blog by and for trans and nonbinary survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence. In many ways, growing up with unequal access to TV taught me not to need it as a coping skill, and now many of its allures and languages seem just out of reach to me even while I reach for them. I also get bogged down in analyses of gender performance as a queer person and relationship styles as a survivor that make sitting back and enjoying the show really hard for me, to the occasional chagrin of my friends who try to come over (in non-COVID times) for a laid back movie night.
Maybe you can relate in your own survivor story.
- Do you feel a compulsion to analyze relationships on TV to see how healthy or harmful they are, as if you can catch it and intervene?
- Do obsessions with gender performance get in the way of seeing characters for who they really are?
- Are you frequently too dissociated to tell someone else what happened in the last scene if they’d asked, and you’ve gone through three episodes that way already tonight?
- Do you find yourself fixated on potentially triggering details in scenes and sets (food, alcohol, lighting, facial expressions, sharp objects, churches, beds) instead of the plots themselves?
Answering yes to any of these questions can make having a healthy relationship with reality TV, or any television, really difficult for trans and nonbinary survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence. If you’re like me, you’ve stacked up quite a few yeses for a long time.
I’ve only started developing a healthier relationship with TV this past year when I started watching shows with my now-fiance. It started out as a highly dissociated and trigger-fixated activity. I quickly discovered I needed a clear, generally sweet plot to hold my attention but no cliffhangers to threaten my anxiety, optimally with a small core cast so I could really learn their names and facial expressions and find queer joy in how they did gender (unless it was toxic). Your needs could vary greatly. Over time, my partner and I worked up to material that was more difficult for me, like medical shows and even a failed attempt at Killing Eve. The key was consent. We both consent to every episode of every show we watch, and just because we’re in the middle of a marathon and Eve is about to do something truly jaw-dropping, the doctors are about to find a cure, or we’re five minutes from discovering Star Baker on Great British Bake Off doesn’t mean we can’t pause, switch shows, or turn off the TV entirely. (For more on consent, see my review of Learning Good Consent)
Several months ago, I started having conversations with other survivors about reality TV. Reality TV was the next frontier for me: Its emotional intensity that keeps people hooked; reliance on cisnormative, heteronormative, monogomous, and ableist ideas of how people “should” relate; and its epitomization of cliffhangers kept me in wary awe of the genre. But as COVID and protests overwhelmed my capacity to process hard stories in my body, I took my community’s advice and started giving reality a shot with my partner. It, surprisingly, was so healing. Being able to let go of the toxic stress that felt frozen in my body and laugh at an absurd reality show actually helped unwind some of that trauma because I made a commitment to give myself that space for sheer absurdity regularly. De-stressing commitments/rituals are crucial for regaining trust in the body. Being able to laugh at ridiculous TV with my partner became a way to metabolize toxic stress and sink closer into my own body- it was the opposite of dissociation. While there is a lot of critical gender analysis happening while my partner and I watch “Are You The One?” after long days of work, appointments, recovery, and activism, it’s constructive because I’m now able to see how I do/don’t want to do gender and relationships instead of hyperfocusing on how to help the televised people avoid abuse which is entirely beyond my control. I’m learning more about my own boundaries, respect, consent, and gender performances by watching other people play theirs out loudly and, often, disastrously.
Reality TV can be a powerful tool for trans and nonbinary survivors to keep in our toolboxes and work into our self care commitments. As silly as it may seem, it’s healing to give our brains permission to let go and not have to focus on complex plots for designated periods of time. I’m thankful for the survivors in my life who first taught me to praise “Are You The One?” and for my partner for practicing radical consent, getting me started with TV with “The Fabulous Mrs. Maisel” a year ago, and helping me learn it’s safe and necessary to let go.
Here are some suggestions from my experience if you’re interested in integrating this tool into your healing:
- Have a television partner. It can be grounding to know someone you trust is experiencing the same stories you are so you can talk about it together. This person is also a great way to model and practice radical consent as you both consent to each episode you watch together and speak up if you want to do something different. In this time of social distancing, we survivors can get creative and have watch parties streamed online or by phone.
- Use TV to get into your body and life, not out of it. Dissociated television watching may be necessary in the beginning as your body and mind get accustomed to the stimuli and figure out what’s enjoyable, but be careful of using it as a way to get out of your life. Watching with a partner could help keep you connected and engaged with your relationships and environment while you watch, and using what’s on TV to help laugh out stress, figure out gender, and even model healthy and harmful relationships can all make TV a tool for getting to know our trans and nonbinary bodies better.
- Pay attention to the way you’re feeling in your body while you watch. Many trans and nonbinary survivors have complex relationships with sensing and staying with their bodies’ messages, but those sensations are important. Some questions to ask could be:
- Does a racing heart mean you’re exhilarated by the plot, or are you becoming activated into panic by a trigger and need to ground?
- Is your body a pleasurable temperature, or do you need to change the environment to allow yourself to get comfortable?
- Is it time for a snack break because you’re thirsty, and if so, for what?
- Can you feel your toes against the floor or couch?
- Does your body want a blanket or comfort object?
- Are you antsy or restless? Would you rather be doing something else, or is it a passing response to anxiety-producing stimuli on screen?
- Do you need to stretch?
- Be gentle and curious. The point of these exposures is not to muscle through and like what everyone else is raving about. It’s about developing a new skill for your healing toolbox that will let you practice consent, de-stressing, desensitization, and getting to know what you enjoy or want for your gender or relationships. You don’t have to rush genre exposures or force series marathons. Sink gently into what brings you pleasure, knowing you can stop or switch it up whenever you want.
Disability and Youth Trauma Specialist
Tristen Taggart is an agender antiviolence activist pursuing their Bachelor’s Degree in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies and Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University. Tristen joined FORGE as a Policy and Programming Intern in 2018 and now works as the Disability and Youth Trauma Specialist. Tristen is a queer survivor, community activist, scholar, and direct-support volunteer with an evolving focus on the intersections and divergences of queer survivorship, disability justice, and abolition in the lives of young people. They are thrilled to bring their passion and curiosity to FORGE from their hometown in Richmond, Virginia.