Reality TV’s Most Groundbreaking Pop Culture Moments

It's not all nonsense, people!

Contrary to popular belief, reality television isn’t just about drunken hookups and catty fights. In fact, if you break through the soapy, trashy fare that dominates reality entertainment, you will find the genre has actually shattered many cultural barriers. Whether that’s giving transgender people a voice or showing us that you can fall in love on screen, we can’t deny reality TV’s place in the pop conversation. So listen up.

  • 1 Caitlyn Jenner transitions in the public eye.
    Transgender people have been a part of pop culture for a solid decade. However, Caitlyn’s coming out during a primetime interview with Diane Sawyer, plus her E! docuseries I Am Cait, have put trans identities in the public eye more than ever before. Now, issues like homeless trans youth and violence against gender queer individuals are discussed daily. And thank goodness for that.

  • 2 Pedro Zamora struggles with AIDS, commits to his partner.
    This Real World: San Francisco cast member was one of the first openly gay men with AIDS on TV. Pedro’s transparency about his illness was unprecedented, and it certainly helped decrease the disease’s stigma. Also, Pedro exchanged vows with his partner, Sean Sasser, on the show, making it the first-ever televised same-sex commitment ceremony.

  • 3 16 & Pregnant reduces the amount of teen pregnancy in the United States.
    This MTV program is more than just adolescent fuzz. The amount of teen births in America dropped 5.7 percent 18 months after the show’s premiere. See—reality TV does good sometimes!

  • 4 Kelly Clarkson becomes an international pop star.
    American Idol was the first audience-led talent show on TV, a game-changing feat in itself. The singing competition’s first winner, Kelly went on to achieve Britney Spears-level success, marking a shift in television’s relationship with music.

  • 5 Queer Eye for the Straight Guy puts gay men front and center.
    Carson Kressley’s Bravo show about five fabulous gay men making over schlumpy straight dudes placed gay voices in our daily discourse. While its stereotypes are a bit problematic in hindsight, Queer Eye was groundbreaking for LGBTQ visibility.

  • 6 The Real World: Las Vegas airs a threesome on television.
    Trishelle Cannatella, Steven Hill, and Brynn Smith’s boozy encounter was the first ménage à trois featured on the tube. And it actually broke some sexual taboos, believe it or not. Seeing Trishelle, Steven, and Brynn’s exchange in our living rooms helped normalize “unconventional” sexual acts. In other words, it made you feel less like a weirdo for wanting to do it, too.

  • 7 RuPaul’s Drag Race exposes mainstream viewers to drag queens.
    1970s icon Divine was our first taste of drag culture, but Logo’s hit show truly introduced Average Joes to this art form. Most important, though, RuPaul’s Drag Race has been great at highlighting different types of gay men outside pop culture’s white, cisgender archetype.

  • 8 The Real Housewives of Orange County triggers a cultural phenomenon.
    Bravo’s first Real Housewives offering featured the women of Orange County, and we’re sure the network wasn’t prepared for the mania that transpired from it. Now, there’s a Real Housewives cast in virtually every city (New York City, Atlanta, Beverly Hills, etc.), proving #RichPrettyPeopleProblems are universal.

  • 9 The Bachelor brings the dating show back in a big way.
    Who says you can’t find love on television? The Bachelor paved the way for, erm, romantically “vulnerable” reality programming. (In human speak? Sobbing over unrequited baes boosts ratings.) You can thank The Bachelor for Flavor of Love and A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, among other life-giving shows. And some of those couples actually last!

  • 10 Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey blur the line between celebrity and reality.
    A star doing a reality show is nothing new in 2015, but it was a totally different game 12 years ago. MTV’s Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica alleviated celebrities’ weariness about doing TV shows. Hell, it’s even free music promo for singers! (Just ask Jessica, whose 2003 album In This Skin spiked in sales after Newlyweds premiered.)

  • 11 Check out our formula for making an amazing reality TV show in this video.