What's With All the Nudity on Reality TV?


naked tv

By Gabriela Riccardi + Illustration by Hannah Moore

Reality television: It’s unscripted, unfiltered, and now totally undressed. A simple scroll through today’s TV guide reveals a new surge in bared-down broadcast with titles like Naked and Afraid, Dating Naked, and Buying Naked. Simply put, we’re straddling the center of a flesh phenomenon.

“Whenever any new technology comes out, the first thing that people figure out how to do is show naked people,” says Professor Bob Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. “What’s amazing to me is how long it’s taken for reality TV to discover this basic appeal.”

And boy has it discovered. With a new surge of television that lets it all hang out, we may think that America is moving toward the nude nonchalance of other contemporary Western cultures. We probably won’t ever find flagrante channels nestled between the early evening news as in many European countries, but maybe a wave of change is coming. Perhaps we're even heading into an era of new body acceptance—one where no figure needs to be shamed or covered—except by Federal Communications Commission-sanctioned censoring.

Programs like this that tout going back to basics are promising. On Naked and Afraid, the Discovery Channel smash that set off our out-in-the-open reality trend, contestants make their way through the wild without the shirts on their backs, and the quest for survival definitely outweighs matters of self-conscious modesty. TLC’s new Buying Naked follows real estate in the buff, blasé nudist communities. But one glance at the taut, tight frames that contestants sport on reality show sensation Dating Naked, arguably the biggest player in this game, is enough to dash our hopes for disrobed enlightenment.

Because these shows are grounded in trotted-out reality tropes—competitive dating, being deposited into the woods to survive—it’s the nudity that injects them with erotic excitement. The only conclusion is that American culture still fetishizes bodies, especially naked ones. We’re tuning in to be turned on.

But there’s a reason that naked reality television and its hot, fit stars won’t last as lowbrow audience arousal, either: it’s uncomfortable. The stars fidget on camera. They avert offending eyes. There’s even the occasional accidental boner. The viewer drawn in by provocative pixilaton can only endure so many cringes before flipping to the next channel.

Since this new brand of reality TV delivers neither a convincing casualness with the unclothed body nor total titillation, its appeal remains. As with every new reality iteration about dating, real estate, or survival of the fittest, viewers will soon lose interest and a new unscripted gimmick will have to be found. But this time, show producers may find that they’ve stripped their options down to nothing.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Jerk.

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