Shows like Love Island, Selling Sunset and Keeping Up with The Kardashians promote conservative ideals that are impossible to achieve.
The idea that, throughout the first months of 2022, people who made their name and became stars through reality TV have begun to reveal that their politics are on what might be charitably called the more conservative end of the spectrum isn’t exactly a surprise. In fact, the more that these public figures – from Love Island alum Molly-Mae Hague to Kim Kardashian – have expressed in blunt terms their feelings about how much the rest of the world is or isn’t working, simply feels like a natural continuation of the ways in which becoming famous for simply being who you are – or at least a version who you are that’s at once refined and exaggerated in equal measure for the ever-present cameras of reality TV – and the kind of politics that this can reinforce or awaken.
After appearing on a podcast and saying that everyone has “the same 24 hours” in the day, Molly-Mae was labelled a Thatcherite on social media, and while there’s some truth to that, both this comment, and Kim K’s already infamous quote-unquote advice that women in business need to “get your fucking ass up and work” instead feels like the weaponised individuality that defined Objectivism, the political philosophy at the heart of Ayn Rand’s writing and thinking. Rand’s philosophy is rooted in this idea of an “objective” world and reality, what she herself described in Atlas Shrugged as the idea of “man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” A comment that everyone shares the same 24 hours in the day might seem, from an Objectivist perspective, to be true. After all, there’s accuracy to it on the surface; it doesn’t seem like one person should have more or less time available to them than any other. But this is a theory that doesn’t survive contact with reality – even as it thrives on reality TV – because the amount of time someone truly has available to them is influenced by so many more factors than the hours in the day and the ticking of the clock.
The ideas put forward by these women – Molly-Mae, Kim K, and Rand herself – all seem reflected in what’s becoming known as a kind of hustle culture. These ideas are at their most crystal clear on social media; Instagram stories of a black text box, with the words “you’re so lucky” crossed out, and “I admire your grind, you deserve it all” written underneath, as if “grind” were the only route to success, and nobody ever reached where they are through luck, connections, or their family. It’s no wonder that this mentality has also found its way into reality TV; shows like The Apprentice act as both job interviews and self-promotion simultaneously; the Love-Island-to-influencer pipeline shows how the self has become a commodity. There seem to be countless Twitter accounts with the sole purpose of saying that instead of relaxing, reading, creating art for its own sake, you could instead be learning a language, taking extra classes, and finding something else about yourself that you could monetise. And again, objectively, there’s truth in these “rise and grind” style Twitter accounts; these are all things that you could be doing. But to actually do them would mean a kind of spiritual depletion that’s simply incompatible with the Randian ideals that have snuck into both reality TV, and the personalities that it produces. After all, it follows a certain kind of logic to assume that, if you’re able to get to where you are simply by being yourself and going after what you want, other people should be able to do it too.
But this theory ignores, in the tradition of Objectivism, everyone else in the world. There’s something comforting – or maybe just ego-boosting – about the assumption that you got to where you are purely because of your self; your drive, your business ability, the ways in which you’re able to make yourself seem relatable to the world around you. But, especially when it comes to reality TV, this somehow ignores the sheer number of other people who were able to make this version of you a success story. It’s what makes Kim K’s comments that people need to get up and work so galling; the fact that it’s the labour of other people that props up a show like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, while everyone that appears in front of the camera simply has to exist, and be rewarded for it with fame and fortune. While it might seem like this is a problem of reality TV’s own making, instead, it’s the kind of unreality that reality TV loves to trade in; rather than creating these images of late capitalism personified – it’s no wonder PrettyLittleThing, the brand Molly-Mae collaborated with before becoming its creative director in 2021, has a page dedicated to what they call Island Essentials; the snake constantly feeding itself, blissfully unaware of the fact that one day it may end up eating its own tale – but instead, through the cameras, the screens, the feedback loop of social media, it took these ideas and amplified them, made them almost impossible to look away from. 24 hours spent in a villa being filmed for a reality TV show is worlds away from the 24 hours that many of Molly-Mae’s contemporaries will be labouring through.
Of course, the bitter irony of some of this is that, for all of the misguided logic that these reality TV stars apply to the systems that have propped them up, one of them is right. Kim K said that people don’t want to work, and there’s truth in that; the meme that “I do not dream of labour,” the problem inherent in a capitalist system that rewards hustling to the point of burnout (but never enough that you need to stop doing it), is that people don’t want to work, and that in itself isn’t inherently bad or toxic. Not wanting to work is more of a reflection on the systems that create that work than it is the work itself. And that’s what makes the objectivity of Objectivism – and the lens of reality TV through which it’s increasingly being seen and reflected – so incapable of surviving contact with reality itself. A figure like Molly-Mae, or Kim K, doesn’t engage with the system in the same way as the people that they decry. The new wave of reality TV stars are simply recreating the ideology of the infamous – and now-debunked – Paris Hilton’s “STOP BEING POOR” shirt.
There’s something about this that makes a slightly twisted kind of sense; the (un)reality that reality TV so often reflects hasn’t changed in too many material ways since the early 00s and Hilton’s own rise to fame and infamy. The systems in place are still the same, and the question for so many reality TV shows – from Love Island and Keeping Up With the Kardashians to Selling Sunset and Love is Blind – seems to be how they want the worlds they show to relate – or avoid – coming into direct contact that not only allows the shows themselves to exist, but allows the personalities at their heart to become household names, to become even richer and even more famous. Even in the rarefied air that these shows want to be taking in, the same tensions exists between those who have a lot, and those who have even more. Near the climax of season four of Selling Sunset, Christine – the major figure and heel of the series at this point; at once compelling and a black hole, sucking in everything around her – are talking about the tension that exists between her and her colleagues, and he insists that one of the reasons they’ve turned on her is envy: that the two of them do things that these other women could never dream of, could never make enough money to do. For someone like Christine in a show like Selling Sunset, there’s something doubly strange about the amount of self-striving-success she associates with her own wealth; it’s come about through both the firm she works with, and the show that thrusts them into the spotlight.
It can be all too easy to fall into the trap of assuming that everything you’ve ever earned is because of your own two hands; your blood, sweat, and tears. There’s something satisfying about this idea – it makes all those 24 hours of getting up and actually working feel more worthwhile, makes you feel more special. But Objectivism isn’t the only way to feel that way; the fact that this is an ideology that can create such a blinkered view of the rest of the world betrays its own inherent selfishness. And the endless reflection created by reality TV – even as it becomes more and more distant from reality itself – and the relationship it has with these capitalist systems, at once in combat with and embracing them, creates the idea that this way of seeing the world, of hustling, of burning yourself out, will bring with it a just reward at the end. But Rand’s definition of her own philosophy, and the importance that she places on “productive achievement as his noblest activity” paints the picture of a world that feels hollow, callous, and lonely; productive achievement isn’t inherently noble, or a triumph of the self. What we achieve can’t exist in the vacuum of one person – no matter their talent, platform, or following – attempting to offer a reflection of the world that’s simply a reflection of themselves. It’s not a sign of weakness or inability to understand that not all 24 hours are created equal, or to accept that the world doesn’t revolve around an Objectivist image of the self.
Sam is a writer, and one of the founding editors of Third Way Press. Their writing on culture and identity has been published by Frieze, the LA Review of Books, Neotext, and other places. They have written two books, All my teachers died of AIDS (Pilot Press, 2020), and Long live the new flesh (Polari Press, 2022).