MTV Likes Seeing Women Get Punched In the Face, Or, When Will We Take Reality Television Seriously?

In a piece checking in with some of the more flagrantly ridiculous reality show stars of recent years, Spencer and Heidi Pratt, of The Hills notoriety, Kate Arthur seems to confirm that the pair’s final fallout from MTV came when show producers tried to get Spencer to hit his sister, who has addiction issues, on camera:

He had gotten into a huge fight with a producer named Sara Mast, whom he said tried to get him to cause his fellow castmember and sister, Stephanie, who has had on-again, off-again alcohol and drug problems, to “hit rock bottom.” In his version, Mast tried to get him to punch Stephanie. “Her exact quote: ‘That Snooki effect,’” Spencer said, referring to a Jersey Shore episode in which castmember Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi was hit by a fellow bar patron.

“That’s when I snapped,” Spencer said. “To the point when I said—and this is when the producers got scared of me—‘You want me to punch my sister in the face? Are you trying to get me to kill you?’ I didn’t say, ‘I’m killing you.’ If I did, MTV would have had me arrested.”

A source close to production who requested anonymity, and is no friend of Spencer’s, confirmed his version of what caused the fight, but also added that Spencer was, in fact, quite scary about it. Through her agent, Sara Mast declined to comment for this story. Creator DiVello’s PR representative was told specifically about this claim and did not respond. MTV would not comment either.

I’m not incredibly sympathetic to people who can’t make the calculation that getting plastic surgery you don’t actually want to get a short-term payoff isn’t actually worth it. But if that actually happened, it’s a pretty disgusting thing to ask anyone to do, no matter how far. I try not to get moralistic about what kinds of popular culture get produced: as distasteful as I find, say, the existence of the Saw movies, I don’t think Eli Roth should be enjoined from making them. But there’s room for a real conversation about what it means that we’re really excited to see real women get punched in the face, whether by previously-anonymous gym teachers, or by their own brothers that doesn’t dismiss these shows as stupid, ironic flashes in the pan that we can afford to treat as if they’re unimportant. It’s incredibly easy to treat the genre as if it’s just a place where already odd people exhibit themselves, that would exist with or without our custom, an odd blind eye to the powerful capitalism that governs the rest of the industry.

We keep getting very excited about art about reality television—I was surprised to find, when I looked it up, that The Truman Show, which is about the morality of raising someone purely as a reality television experiment even if you give him as nice a life as possible, made $126 million domestically. And people have purchased millions of copies of The Hunger Games, which is more broadly about what it’s like to live under a murderously repressive dictatorship, but explores that theme largely through a reality television show, though it confines itself almost entirely to the question of what it’s like to participate in the production of that show and not to what it’s like to watch it. But the coverage of the adaptation of that series is focused much more on sexy bakers and brooding hunters and how good Jennifer Lawrence looks wielding a bow and arrow. We’re awfully good at making things phenomena while ignoring the parts of them that inconvenience us.