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High Brow, Low Brow: Can reality TV bridge the gap?

Reality TV shows oftentimes are associated with bored, dull, middle-aged women who seemingly cannot comprehend anything more than the mundanity of their own lives. For too long, reality TV has been the butt of the joke for those who think they are far superior to the artform. For me, a culturally literate twenty-one year-old, these shows provide a sense of community which can only be compared to that of football fans when they share the same team. My favourites of these series are the Below Deck and Real Housewives franchises. The season 4 finale of Real Housewives of Salt Lake City had the amount of drama not dissimilar to an 80s soap opera.

Over the course of the 4 seasons of this franchise the show has covered the real-time arrest of fraudster and housewife Jen Shah, along with claims that former housewife Mary M. Cosby was a cult leader. Even after these shocking events, the latest season covered a plethora of issues which were not only dramatic but also culturally relevant and caused me to consider the negative impacts of religious traditions.

One scene in particular which genuinely informed my theological studies was housewife Lisa Barlow’s son, Jack, going on his mission. The show is filmed in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is a hotspot for Mormons. The main reason I begun watching this franchise was due to my interest in the ex-communication process of the Mormon Church. The matriarchal housewife, Heather Gay, was unwelcomed into the Church after her divorce, whereas her husband faced no negative repercussions. Due to this highly emotional event, she no longer associated with the Church. So, when news broke that Lisa’s son wanted to go on his mission instead of to college, Gay felt responsible for stopping this. For those unfamiliar, a Mormon mission is when a young adult, usually around eighteen years old, is sent to a location anywhere in the world for two years with the sole aim of converting others to the religion. Before watching this season, I knew about missionary work and was aware of how commonplace it is within the Mormon community. However, I was awestruck by the mechanics of the process. Known for her parties, Lisa Barlow organised a small gathering for her son where he revealed his destination to his classmates. His location was Colombia and Lisa’s first remark was that she’s excited that he’ll get a great tan.

From Heather Gay’s perspective, who herself served a mission in the south of France, she felt that she was robbed of her carefree youth and was forced to be rigidly disciplined. Hearing these two opposing views, I was privy to the stark contrast between Lisa’s own brand of Mormonism and Heather’s vehement opposition to the culture. Both of these perspectives are present in modern day Utah. With Heather being very vocal about her treatment from the Church, the other women are forced to confront their own religiosity. There are many strict Mormon rules which do not gel with typical modern, western society. One example is the no alcohol rule. The laws in Utah are made in line with the Mormon faith and although alcohol isn’t illegal, only one drink at a time is allowed. Lisa Barlow believes she is a Mormon yet owns a tequila company and regularly drinks. She has made her own style of Mormonism which can be practiced in line with her lifestyle and allows her to thrive as a business woman. From the minor plot point of Jack’s mission, I was able to fully immerse myself into the differing views of the post-Mormon community in Salt Lake City.

This season contained real, shocking drama which I won’t spoil. This show has opened my eyes to how society functions in a largely religious area from the perspectives of religious outsiders. For me, the most interesting part is seeing the women interact with each other’s children. Amid her ex-communication, Gay allowed her daughters to do as they wished within the Church and didn’t put any pressure on them to either continue or leave. Her eldest was on her spring break during the women’s turbulent trip to Bermuda. When new addition to the cast Monica Garcia asked about Gay’s daughter’s sex life, it was deemed inappropriate. In that moment it was revealed to the audience how differently being ex-communicated can affect someone’s morals. Monica and Heather were both ex-communicated around similar times due to their relationships breaking down. Garcia felt no shame in asking this question, as if all of the instinctually Mormon cues left her body the moment she wasn’t welcomed back to the Church. Heather, on the other hand, cannot compartmentalise in the same way. She was born and raised Mormon and carries her sexual shame and guilt around—whereas Monica was able to free herself from the same shackles. Although this situation can be read without any religious context, I believe it is imperative to see it primarily with consideration of their Mormon influences as it truly infiltrates each woman’s views.

A lot of the time the show is women arguing. It’s undeniable that franchises such as Real Housewives get a bad reputation for being merely that. However, when you look beneath to what the root cause of the arguments are, you can genuinely learn about different social norms. This is prevalent in each edition of the Housewives but for me, as a theology student, I find the inter-religious dialogues in Salt Lake City the most fascinating. This show, especially the latest season, has made me genuinely reflect on how religion has impacted my life. Once you look beyond the surface level squabbles, there is so much to unpack and so much to learn. I have used the knowledge I gained from this show to inform my academic work and therefore I think the difference between what we call ‘Low Brow’ and what we call ‘High Brow’ isn’t really that great at all. It just takes someone to make the Low into the High.

Words: Kate Moxon, she/her


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