Religion and Reality TV

Faith in Late Capitalism

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Mara Einstein, Diane Winston, Katherine Madden
  • New York, NY: 
    , April
     210 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Reality TV is not a guilty pleasure. It is not a strange sub-genre of television unworthy of serious attention. It is at least a partial parent to the social media landscape of Instagram stars and YouTube vloggers and the political landscape where executive power is wielded through a Twitter account. And according to Religion and Reality TV, it is a dominant site to learn, rehearse, and perform the narratives, myths, and rituals that bind our lives together under late capitalism. Indeed, the many excellent essays in this volume suggest that reality TV both documents and creates the dispositions, practices, sense of self, and rituals that sustain late capitalist ideology and practice. As such, “religion” is both transformed in the genre and the genre is itself a kind of “religion” binding our lives together.

Late capitalism is not treated systematically, but assumed to be the stage of capitalist political economy marked by the ideologies of neo-liberalism, itself defined as enshrining ideals of individualism (i.e., individual identities crafted through full agency in largely consumer choices), self-reliance, and success. While presumably most of these essays were written before the 2016 US presidential election, Donald Trump haunts the introduction as the unsurprising result, not of reality TV itself, but of the values, sense of self, and communal rituals that the genre confirms and reflects to its many millions of viewers. As the editors remark at the close of the introduction: “Donald Trump’s presidency may have surprised many Americans but not the millions who tune in to undercover bosses, polygamous households and game shows predicated on the survival of the fittest” (xxi).

All of the individual essays take as their main objects of analysis reality television shows that deal with religious subjects or whole religious traditions. Even to a reader who considered herself fairly up-to-speed with reality TV programming, the breadth of programs under analysis drives home the larger point: reality TV has invaded—is arising from?—every particular kind of religious identity in the US (and beyond). From mainstreaming Mormon polygamists, to Los Angeles celebrity preachers, to a game show to select new Malaysian imams, to Third Wave evangelical spiritual warfare, to conservative Christian home vloggers, to black preachers’ wives—there is reality TV for that.

Perhaps more ambitiously, the book demonstrates that religion is not just a niche market (though it is certainly that) for the genre to exploit, but that religious concerns about who we are and who we want to be are the very substance of the genre itself. Those essays that stood out to this reader were the ones that most successfully navigated the tension between religion in reality TV and reality TV as religion. For example, Diane Winston’s chapter “Flaunting the Christian patriarchy in the 21st Century: Todd Chrisley’s straight guy with a queer eye,” Brenda R. Weber’s “Making over body and soul: gender, selfhood, and parables of spiritual neoliberalism on Makeover TV,” Mara Einstein’s “Preachers of Oxygen: franchising faith on reality TV,” “Praying for reality: the invisible hand in Downey and Burnett’s Answered Prayers” by Sharon Lauricella, and Katherine Madden’s chapter “This is just an incredible God thing: monetized domesticity in bottom-up media,” all explore how the structures and ritualized narratives of reality TV both transform the religious “content” of their subjects but also give their subjects structures to affirm and re-perform the values and rituals of self that come directly from capitalist demands to self-invent through consumption and transformation.  

As is always the case when addressing a media form that is quickly evolving, the particular content of these essays may age rather quickly. I already wished for more extensive reflection on the reality genre as it migrates from production studios to user-generated platforms like Instagram and YouTube. But this volume both marks a particular moment in the evolution of our late capitalist selves and provides the theoretical grounding for the conversations we will continue to have in the years to come.

The essays are uniformly strong and compelling, reflecting a range of methodological commitments and disciplinary training. They are all written in a manner to engage non-specialists. The volume as a whole will prove a valuable resource for teachers and scholars in the fields of religion and media, religion and pop culture, and religion and visual culture. For scholars and students new to these fields or looking for a way to engage this undeniable substratum of our shared reality, I commend reading and assigning individual essays in this volume as a way to join the conversation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kathryn Reklis is Associate Professor of Modern Protestant Theology at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mara Einstein is Professor of Media Studies at Queens College, CUNY, and Director of the Masters program in Media and Social Justice.

Katherine Madden teaches media studies at Jesuit High School in Sacramento, California. 

Diane Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.


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