The story of reality television can be told as a progression of three assaults. The first, which was broadcast in September 1998, was a slap: Stephen Williams smacked his Real World: Seattle castmate Irene McGee across the face as she was getting in a car to leave the show. The second was a punch, delivered by a stranger in a nightclub to Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi while she was taping the first season of Jersey Shore in summer 2009. Footage of the assault initially aired as part of a teaser trailer for the show’s fourth episode, but after some outcry, it was edited out of the episode itself. And the third was Kourtney Kardashian Barker literally slapping sister Kim’s bronzer off her face during the 18th season of their eponymous reality show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Hundreds of thousands of people watched it happen on E! in spring 2020.
The promise of reality television is right there in its name: We’re supposed to get something that at least resembles real life when we watch these shows. Of course, that isn’t and has never been possible — aside from Big Brother live feeds, everything that airs has been edited down from thousands of hours of footage into a tidy 30- to 60-minute block. (You can get up to 120 minutes if you include The Bachelor’s bloated runtime.) And that edit isn’t neutral; it’s specifically geared toward turning the meandering semi-coherence of daily life into a funny, wild story, with characters who follow compelling narrative arcs.
We rely on eruptions like slaps and punches to titillate, but also to assure us that what we’re being given real access to the people we’re watching.
Audiences tolerate this manipulation because we don’t really want unmediated chaos, or the gradual, messy unfolding that takes place in our own undistinguished realities. But then we also want some promise that we’re not being completely foolish for buying in — that these shows are giving us at least occasional access to moments and people that are raw and unguarded and, you know, actually real.
So we rely on eruptions and disruptions like slaps and punches to titillate, but also to soothe us: to assure us that what we’re being given real access to the people we’re watching — and with it a measure of intimacy.
How these three moments of disruption, and others like them, were taped, edited, received, and discussed when they happened reveals much about the evolution of reality television in the past 20-plus years — how it understands itself as a genre, and what we want from it, too. Because in 1998, reality television itself was still shocking — the concept that ordinary people would willingly waive their privacy and let us see them behave in ways that were ugly, unflattering, or violent seemed illicit and thrilling.
But as the genre has become more prevalent and even more unabashedly schlocky, and social media has allowed anyone to livestream themselves if they so choose, a punch or a slap doesn’t mean as much as it once did. We’ve simply seen too many reality TV brawls and too much TikTok footage of streetfights to find them notable in and of themselves anymore.
So now, incidents like the Kardashian slap make headlines not because they’re physically violent per se, but because in an increasingly scripted genre, they’re one of only a few elements that can come off as demonstrably unplanned. While fights have become a regular feature of many reality shows, slaps like Kourtney’s break the rules by breaking the fourth wall, and allowing us a glimpse at production — and emotion — in action.
This, in turn, gives us a chance to transform from audience to witnesses. Particularly in an age of algorithm anxiety, when we feel certain that we’re constantly being manipulated by forces outside of our control, we look for evidence that no one has it totally figured out yet — not the people we’re watching, and not the people behind the camera, either.
The Real World was something of a hybrid when it premiered in 1992, a docu-soap that proposed to reveal what happened when people, as the tagline put it, “stop being polite, and start getting real” — though the people in question were, not incidentally, all attractive twentysomethings with aspirations of making it in the arts.
The show was initially received with mild interest and a fair bit of puzzlement. The New York Times noted in its review that “its seven principal players are far too independent to be stuffed into a tidy little soap opera,” and lamented that “there are no writers here who can manipulate incidents with a flip of a word processor.” Ultimately, it concluded that there wasn’t “much happening,” before suggesting centering further seasons of the show on reunions between this particular cast at five- or 10-year intervals — which MTV would eventually do with the Real World: Homecoming series that premiered in 2021.
In order to make its mark, then, The Real World had to adjust its formula. That’s not to say that the first season was an unmanipulated Eden — “No one got out of that show clean,” cast member Rebecca Blasband told Westword, a Denver newspaper, in 1996. Norman Korpi, another New York alumni, claimed to have found pages with written-out storylines on them in a production booth while he was on the show. But production was about to get a lot more cynical.
If there was any internal discussion about whether or not to air the slap — or the outing — it’s never been made public.
According to an interview that the show’s co-creator Jonathan Murray gave to Vulture in 2011, Season 4, which was shot in London, was the last to allow cast members access to a television; starting the following year, in Miami, they were forced to work a job together as a quick way to create camaraderie…and friction. Isolating the cast from the goings-on of the wider world and encouraging them to spend more time together also made everything that happened between them take up more space, and feel more acutely consequential. This led to more drama for the cameras.
The seventh-season fight between Williams and McGee started with a banal argument, something that could have taken place in the New York loft, or any urban apartment: McGee was on the phone, and Williams wanted to use it. They fought; she told him she didn’t care about him, and he repeatedly called her a bitch. This ignited a fuse. Williams, who the other roommates agreed had a temper, simmered. He stole McGee’s beloved stuffed dog.
And then she decided to leave the show. In the episodes that aired in 1998, The Real World implied that her chronic Lyme disease was the cause, though McGee wrote in an essay published in Vulture in 2013 that while her health was indeed suffering, it wasn’t the reason she decided to leave. Instead, she felt that she could no longer tolerate the living and filming conditions of The Real World. McGee felt that producers were pitting her and her roommates against each other for sport, and she didn’t want to be a spectacle.
She became one anyway.
As she walked out of the house for the last time, McGee called Williams over to her and gestured for him to walk out with her. “Stephen, I left everybody a gift, and, um, I want to leave you one too,” she said. “You’re right because a marriage between you and I would never work out.” (The reference to a marriage between them is a callback to a conversation in a previous episode.) Then, laughing, McGee said, “You know that, because you’re a homosexual, Stephen.”
At the time, Williams wasn’t out; he didn’t publicly announce he was gay until 2008. He responded derisively. “You think I’m a homo? Ha ha. Well, you’re a bitch.” Then he went into the house, got the stuffed dog, and threw it into Elliott Bay. McGee had gotten into a car at this point; she was in the process of driving away. But as a final insult, Williams ran up to the vehicle, opened the door, and slapped her cheek.
MTV marketed the moment as “the slap heard ‘round the world,” and continued to use that language in blog posts as recently as 2016. If there was any internal discussion about whether or not to air the slap — or the outing — it’s never been made public. In fact, when Vulture asked Murray about moments he regretted leaving in the show, he talked about sex scenes and a conversation the DC cast had had with Barack Obama. He didn’t mention the slap once.
Producers portrayed the slap as a random eruption of violence between people, instead of a provocation coaxed out of the intentionally stressful circumstances cast members were in.
It seems, then, that this is what he (and the network) believed the show should be: being outed and being slapped are, after all, real things that really happen to people all the time. Whether they should be valorized as interesting or even tolerated as acceptable is, of course, a different question.
To this day, McGee maintains that while her behavior was inappropriate, it was MTV’s decision to air everything that had happened that was the real assault. “It’s the show. They own the edit,” she told Jezebel’s DirtCast in 2017. “If John Murray genuinely cared about Stephen’s sexual orientation and how this might come across for his life … it did not have to be there. Period. And they didn’t have to air me getting hit.”
Again, MTV has never released a statement about the thought process behind airing all of this, but that silence — and the network’s subsequent actions — speak for them. The Real World: Seattle marked a turning point in the show’s tone, away from any pretensions to social commentary and toward the Girls Gone Wild–style antics it would go on to embrace. It’s no accident that the following season, which took place in Hawaii, presented a new high-water mark for nudity, sex, and alcohol consumption on the show, which climaxed with cast member Ruthie Alcaide driving home from a bar drunk. Production, with a mandate to be as hands-off as possible, eventually did have to step in and give her an ultimatum: Either she would seek treatment, or she would have to leave. (Likely at least in part because Alcaide was becoming an insurance liability.)
Producers had appeared onscreen only a handful of times before this. The Real World: New York’s Rebecca Blasband had a brief fling with a camera operator in Season 1; the camera operator lost his job over it. After that, no one from production appeared in an episode again until after the slap, when they came to tell the other roommates what had happened, and asked them to decide whether Williams should stay in the house or not. They voted yes, as long as he agreed to attend anger management classes. (As it happens, though, production became part of the storyline in Seattle again soon after, when producers discovered that the girlfriend cast member David Burns had been talking about was, in fact, a Real World casting director. Like the New York camera operator, she was fired over their involvement.)
At that point, the way reality TV shows tried to maintain the fiction of seamless authenticity was to keep the camera’s focus narrow and ignore the machinery, literal and figurative, that surrounded the casts — who in turn pretended they didn’t know they were being surveilled for entertainment. Producers portrayed the slap as a random eruption of violence between people, instead of a provocation coaxed out of the intentionally stressful circumstances cast members were in.
In the next few years, reality TV would become a genre in its own right. Survivor and Big Brother both premiered in 2000; American Idol and The Bachelor in 2002. The explosive growth of the category led to plenty of diversification and numerous new niches, but The Real World remained one of its biggest names.
The increasing number of shows also meant that “former reality TV star” became an understood class of celebrity, and together, those alumni figured out ways to monetize their notoriety (for example, a lot of club appearances, many hapless attempts to act, and the occasional T-shirt company). Which made it harder and harder to ignore that when people went on reality TV, they did it not because of an innocent sense of curiosity, but with a specific end in mind: to become famous.
Which in turn made it difficult to deny that when we watched them, we were their accomplices and enablers. We were making them famous — and thus wealthier and more powerful than us. All of our perceived intimacy with reality TV show casts vanished when they stepped off camera and into the actual real world, where they became almost as untouchable and unknowable as the rest of the celebrity pantheon. We started to feel pretty uneasy about that. We started looking for a way to take these people down a peg or two.
Jersey Shore was originally supposed to be a competition show: It was going to be called America’s Biggest Guido, or something along those lines, according to a 2018 Vulture oral history. But as the cast was assembled, producers started to think that the competition format wasn’t best suited to what they were trying to do. “It was like zebras in the Serengeti. We wanted to see this in action,” as casting director Doron Ofir told Vulture. And so they decided to put the cast in their natural habitat: on the Jersey Shore.
At the same time, the show was reconceived as a Real World–style docu-soap, with eight castmates living together in a house and working a day job selling T-shirts. But whereas The Real World had offered a (limited) variety of archetypes for audiences to identify with, Jersey Shore played its cast for laughs: In an early ad for the show, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino tells the camera, “I am a good-looking, well-groomed Italian man who’s very very good with the, uh, ladies,” over a shot of him and a girl walking down some stairs as she slips and falls. (Also iconic: fellow cast member Angelina Pivarnick telling the camera, “I’m a bartender. I do, you know, great things.”)
There was pushback even before the controversial punch aired: Italian American advocacy groups protested promotional materials for the show as well as the cast themselves, who threw around the word “guido,” which advocacy groups viewed as a slur. But controversy drew eyeballs: The show debuted to 1.38 million viewers, a number that ballooned to 4.8 million by the time the finale aired.
When previews featuring the punch first aired, they went viral (or as viral as things went in 2009, anyway). MTV at first responded to critics by saying it would air the episode itself with a PSA about domestic violence. But the same preview ran a week later, sans any kind of disclaimer or editing, and the pushback intensified to the point the network decided to air the episode without the punch included after all.
With physical and verbal violence so readily engaged in and displayed on camera, fights became a de rigueur feature of reality television, instead of a climax point.
Which, perhaps, had been the plan all along. “Because of the barbaric nature of the clip, MTV had to know the sort of backlash they would be facing upon its airing, especially within the context of a show already proven to be a magnet for criticism,” Joe Coscarelli wrote in a December 2009 piece for the website Mediaite. “This isn’t new ground for the network and it seems carefully orchestrated … knowing full well they couldn’t in good conscience air video of the crime, MTV made sure to show the promo as many times as possible, fully understanding the viral nature of the web.” (For the record, Mediaite also tried to have it both ways by publishing this piece criticizing MTV’s decisions…and including a GIF of the punch on the next page.)
That moment of impassioned protest against Jersey Shore wouldn’t last. Reality TV had rooted itself firmly in the American psyche, and for every assault deemed too hot for TV there were hundreds of drunken brawls to come on shows like Bad Girls Club, Teen Mom, and, of course, the nascent Real Housewives franchise, which by 2009 was already filming in four different locations (Orange County, New York, New Jersey and Atlanta).
With physical and verbal violence so readily engaged in and displayed on camera, fights became a de rigueur feature of reality television, instead of a climax point. Where once they might have read as a private or shameful behavior suddenly and surprisingly erupting into the public eye, they instead became an expected part of the landscape of these shows.
At the same time, reality TV was getting more scripted, and more open about that fact. When The Hills ended in 2010, its final shot pulled back to reveal that it was being filmed on a sound stage — a nod to the fact that, as cast member Brody Jenner put it at the time, “what's real and what's fake, you don't know.” This changed the calculus of what we looked for from reality TV shows. Violence itself was no longer enough to shock or titillate. Instead, we sought a breaking of the fourth wall: a reminder that no matter how hard the cast and crew worked to give us a certain story, reality intruded on them, just as it did on us.
By participating in what Bachelor contestants are trained to call “the process,” we’re suspending disbelief together, to varying extents. But when reality TV stars decide or are forced to stop doing that — well, that’s when we really want to start watching. We’re entertained by their fictions, but compelled by the idea that we’ll someday gain access to what’s underneath them. It’s the same instinct that drives us to share paparazzi photos and to pick apart the evidence about whether celebrities’ relationships are real or not. We want to puncture their facades; we want to prove to ourselves that our relationships with them aren’t just one-sided and transactional. And we’re desperate to know that they’re subject to the same laws of nature that we are: that even the literal, actual main character sometimes finds her storyline getting away from her.
Keeping Up With the Kardashians was the ultimate scripted reality show from the moment it debuted in 2007. In a series for the Cut about the show’s continuity errors, writer Mariah Smith used paparazzi photos and social media posts to determine when each scene was filmed, and it was almost never in the order they took place onscreen. Some people even believe that the Kardashians’ offscreen life (to the extent that they are ever completely offscreen) is basically scripted as well. Which is why when Kourtney slapped Kim, it mattered: not because of the violence itself, but because of who it came from, and how we saw it happening.
When the scene started, they were seasoned professionals, adult women in their 40s. And then, all of a sudden, they were tussling like children.
The slap occurred, as a matter of fact, during a fight about keeping up appearances: Youngest sister Kylie was sick and skipped a fashion show she was supposed to walk in as a model. Kim observed to Kourtney that momager Kris was surprised by this, because she had become accustomed to Kim’s work ethic, and Kim would have been there even if she had been on her deathbed — as opposed to other sisters like Kylie and Kourtney, who “don’t care.”
The fight escalated quickly; the sisters went from lounging around in a bedroom to slapping and kicking each other in a matter of seconds. Kourtney dug her nails into Kim’s arms so hard that she bled. When the scene started, they were seasoned professionals, adult women in their 40s. And then, all of a sudden, they were tussling like children.
Keeping Up With the Kardashians wasn’t quite as strict as early Real World was about pretending that the cast wasn’t being filmed; the conditions of the Kardashians’ fame and exposure were actually crucial to their story. And in fact, so was a certain amount of messiness. The Kardashians were pioneers and innovators in the field of creating reality — they were unparalleled at manipulating the public by revealing, and revealing, and revealing, so that we were much less likely to notice anything being carefully concealed. What would a family that made itself so relentlessly public, that so thoroughly trampled over the bounds of good taste and propriety, ever bother to hide?
Still, over the years, the public became suspicious. It seemed clear that these people were manipulating us for attention. And even though we could see them doing it, we couldn’t seem to stop them from succeeding.
There were two things about Kourtney slapping Kim that were shocking. One was the physical reality of the moment as we saw it unfold. Keeping Up With the Kardashians gave itself away as scripted reality in its visual language: scenes were always carefully set so that the crew stayed off camera. But in the aftermath of the slap, we saw producers and sound guys scurrying through the frame, clear evidence that no one had called places before this particular action started. It was powerful: In that moment, we could see the Kardashians’ world, just briefly, the way they saw it. That’s a big part of the reality we’re after now: something ragged-edged enough that it can only be authentic, that reveals how it’s being manufactured, and in doing so, also reveals a glimpse of what’s going on behind the scenes.
But beyond that, the slap was shocking because it was an arrow aimed directly at the heart of the Kardashian mythology, and Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ premise. They have always sold the story that they are both a family and a business, and that the one doesn’t meaningfully interfere with the other. There are rough spots, of course, conflicts and disagreements, but nothing that can’t be ironed out by the end of the episode. So to hear Kourtney admit that “it seems like they put work and the show above my happiness,” and to see how hard she took that fact, was to finally have confirmed what we’d suspected all along. Those three things are not mutually compatible. And we knew, at last, that even the Kardashians could not, in fact, have it all.
These days, we search for something more difficult to discern than clashing bodies: We hunger for evidence of emotions so unexpected that they disturb any neat narrative. And so the next slap heard round the world likely won’t be an actual slap at all. In the middle of Selling Sunset’s third season, for instance, the cast discovered that the show’s putative heroine, Chrishell Stause, was getting divorced thanks to a TMZ alert on their phones. Stause’s now ex-husband, actor Justin Hartley, had broken the news to Stause just after he filed, which meant the tabloids got hold of the story before she could decide when or how to tell her friends and coworkers.
By the time the show came out, the divorce itself was old news, but viewers got fresh insight into how it had gone down — and (seemingly) deeper access to Stause’s shock and humiliation at being so callously and publicly dumped. (A similar scenario played out on Keeping Up With the Kardashians several years earlier, when the family found out there was footage of Tristan Thompson cheating on Khloé Kardashian circulating online days before she would give birth to their first child together.) The speed of the internet has made keeping any individual storyline on these shows a secret impossible — the only reason to watch them is in the hope of seeing something new in the specifics of the unfolding.
The next slap heard round the world likely won’t be an actual slap at all.
It’s possible that reality TV will start to feel less and less relevant as we find other forms of culture that offer the same thrill of authenticity without the same patina of production. For instance, some of the biggest cultural phenomena of the last few years have been true crime documentaries like Tiger King and The Jinx: tales we know are rooted in fact, and replete with pain. Watching influencers’ lives unfold on social media platforms has already become a hugely popular storytelling form. We’ve certainly gone in search of darkness there, too, as when a college girl posted a video of herself surprising her boyfriend on TikTok and tens of millions of people became overnight body language experts who felt certain that he was cheating on her. That instinct only gets darker when influencing collides with true crime, as it did after the murder of Gabby Petito, when hordes of online sleuths went searching for clues and spinning up theories as the case unfolded in real time.
We live in an age saturated by data, but this deluge has made ascertaining any kind of truth more difficult, not less. The more we see of celebrities, the more we realize how little we know about them, and how what appear to be revelations on their part could always just be another part of the show. In addition, every good narrative needs conflict, and a fight or a breakup or a brawl provides us with just that. The pain of reality TV characters is one of our most reliable pleasures — a voyeuristic thrill that works to keep us watching, and watching, and watching. ●
Zan Romanoff is the author of three young adult novels, most recently LOOK, which O: The Oprah Magazine called "one of the LGBTQ books that will change the literary landscape.” Her nonfiction has appeared in print and online for BuzzFeed News, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other outlets. She lives and writes in LA.