by Courtney Brooks
Author Dana Diehl has a complicated obsession with reality TV shows, particularly those one can find on TLC. Diehl’s fascination with the lives and struggles of the characters she watches on shows such as Dance Moms, Cake Boss, Sister Wives, The Bachelor, and House Hunters made way for the stories in her new chapbook, TV Girls. The fabulist, and oftentimes dystopian, lens through which Diehl’s stories are written provide possibly more honesty to the shows than the shows themselves, and a clearer understanding of reality television’s role in our lives.
Diehl read from this newest work in September at the Northern Arizona Book Festival, alongside authors Melissa Goodrich and Alice Hatcher. I had the pleasure of discussing the pieces in this chapbook with her.
First, what reality TV shows (besides The Bachelor and Cake Boss) inspired these stories? Does “Conjoined” have a TV show it is inspired by? What reality TV shows are you fond of? Do you have a favorite?
Other reality shows that inspired my stories are Dance Moms, House Hunters, and Sister Wives. “Conjoined” was actually inspired by my memories of a show called Abby & Brittany on TLC, a “feel good” show in the vein of Little People, Big World, with the message that Abby and Brittany are just like anyone else. I wanted to write about them because of the complicated feelings I have towards reality shows in this genre. On one hand, it’s nice that Abby & Brittany educated viewers and encouraged empathy. But it also felt exploitive, especially considering the subjects were children at the time. While working on this piece, I thought a lot about comedian Stella Young’s statements that society tends to turn disabled people into “inspiration porn,” and I tried to imagine what it might be like to be relieved from that pressure.
I watch a lot of “bad” reality TV (some shows that didn’t make it into the chapbook are Ghost Adventures, Catfish, and The Millionaire Matchmaker), but lately I’ve been trying to watch shows that are a little more relaxing. I recommend Escape to the Country, Escape to the Continent, The Great British Baking Show, and Terrace House.
Why did you choose to give some of your characters in these stories names and identities, but not all? What did you want to accomplish with putting a name to the child star’s face in “Child Star,” but only letters to the women in “TV Girls”?
I knew from the beginning that I wanted the women to go by letters in “TV Girls” to reflect the interchangeability of contestants across seasons of The Bachelor. Every season, you see a similar cast of characters: the “kooky” one, the mother, the virgin, the villain, etc. Some girls are so memorable or charismatic they transcend those roles, but you can still feel the show aching for the easy narratives.
I named the characters in “Child Star” and “Conjoined,” because they felt like individuals with unique experiences. But because the characters were based on children, I decided to fictionalize their names. The girls in Dance Moms and Abby & Brittany didn’t have control over their public image and persona the way adult reality stars do, so using their names would have felt exploitative. I wanted to be able to explore the experiences of child reality stars, while drawing as little attention as possible to the real subjects.
Which came first: “TV Girls” or “Conjoined”? I thought it was really interesting how the stories were organized, especially with the ordering of these two stories in particular. While both feel dystopic in a way, “TV Girls” has a very dissociative undertone, like we aren’t supposed to be fully invested in the women that we meet, but “Conjoined” is really viscerally dystopic, given that the two girls are the only characters in the story because the world is over. The characters in each story felt increasingly more developed and real as I moved through the chapbook.
“TV Girls” was the first story I wrote for this collection. As I was ordering TV Girls, I had a vision that the characters would become increasingly wild as the stories went on. In “TV Girls,” the women are almost completely complacent, and we are looking in at them from the perspective of the viewers at home in front of their TV sets. In “Sister Wives,” the women run away, but still haven’t established themselves as individuals with individual voices. By the end, in “Conjoined,” the TV girls have completely broken free and are smashing their TV world up.
In your interview with Justin Greene of the New Delta Review, you mentioned that this chapbook began with you wanting to understand why you love reality TV so much, despite some of its problematic themes/effects, as well as what your fondness for it says about you, if anything. Did you find the answers to these questions as you worked on this project? How does reality TV shape you, personally? Do you feel pressured by reality TV to conform to some of the stereotypes or molds that are pushed on women? Do you think there’s a way for reality TV to correct the harmful effects it has on women and young girls?
I don’t think I’ll ever have a definitive answer to why I love reality TV so much, but I do think this project has helped me to come to terms with a few things. I’ve learned that my love for reality TV isn’t at all ironic and is actually pretty genuine. I can admit that now! I’ve also learned that I compare my life to the lives of contestants on reality TV shows more than I should. And I’ve learned that sometimes I watch reality TV to laugh at people and to feel superior and well-adjusted in comparison, which I know isn’t very nice.
Something that reality TV is good at is showing women who are loud. Women who speak their minds. I actually really loved this last season of Bachelor in Paradise and think it did a decent job of celebrating strong women. Tia and Kendall, two contestants at the forefront of the narrative, both supported other women and established standards for how they would be treated by their partners. I admired how Kendall spoke intelligently and confidently when confronted by a man who was trying to gaslight her, never once dismissing her own feelings as frivolous or unwarranted. Obviously, though, reality TV still has such a long way to go. Shows, especially ones like The Bachelor that reach such a huge audience, need to represent more people of color and a greater range of body types. Their attempts so far to be more diverse have felt very half-hearted.
Do you think social media is starting to take on some of these same ideas that reality TV has perpetuated in the past? I personally feel that social media sites, particularly Instagram, perpetuate this idea of a “perfect life” in a similar way to reality TV. Do you think reality TV still has the same grasp on its audience, or is it starting to lose that?
It’s hard for me to compare reality TV and social media, because they are such different mediums. These days, I spend the most time scrolling through Twitter, where a lot of the people I follow use it as a place to be self-deprecating, to make jokes, or to share thoughts on current events. It’s not so much a place to show off.
Instagram does seem to perpetuate the idea that “everyone has a perfect life except for me,” but that might actually make it different from reality TV. Reality TV loves drama, loves when things fall apart, loves when its contestants are suffering. I’m relatively new to Instagram, and over the past few months I’ve started following some of my favorite Bachelor contestants. In a way it’s been disappointing. On TV, I see people with depth, people who are working through their issues. But on Instagram, I see posed pictures at high profile events, I see lives that look like big parties. I see their profiles turn into advertisements for ModCloth or Honey Bunches of Oats (yep, this is a real one). It flattens them out.
Readers that enjoyed TV Girls can find your first short story collection, Our Dreams Might Align, as well as an upcoming short story collection, which you collaborated on with Melissa Goodrich, The Classroom, set to release in early 2019. Do you have anything else that you might be working on right now?
These past few months have mostly been about editing and placing projects I’ve recently completed. Now that The Classroom is close to being done, I feel like I have the mental space to start new stories for the first time in a while. Right now, I’m just enjoying working on a couple short stories.