While flipping through the channels to find something to watch on TV the other day, I almost judged myself for settling on an episode of "Keeping Up With The Kardashians."
It was the one where the kids took an expensive vacation to a ski lodge in Big Sky, Montana to keep up family traditions after their parents' divorce had been finalized.
Khloe and Kylie were bonding after flying in a helicopter to the highest peak of a mountain; Jonathan and Malika, Kim and Khloe's BFFs who'd tagged along on the trip, were fighting about who got to sleep in the penthouse; and Scott Disick wasn't a cheating piece of sh*t
After 30 minutes had passed -- and just as I was about to ask myself why on earth I was still watching it -- I realized how much I was actually enjoying myself.
My mind was wonderfully numb. I felt that perfect balance of apathy and engagement.
It was the kind of irrelevant television that I needed to unwind after a long day of work, emails and commuting.
I took comfort in the fact that the only place any of the drama mattered was on the screen in front of me, on the most micro of micro levels, and that the show wasn't trying to make any grand statements about the world around it that needed further analyzing.
For the longest time, I fell for the idea that people who use their free time to indulge in this kind of television were as mindless and vapid as the media they consumed.
I thought if you genuinely enjoyed anything from "Dance Moms" to "Teen Mom" to "Real Housewives" to pretty much whatever else is on E!, TLC or Lifetime, you probably weren't intelligent enough for media that capital-M Mattered, whatever that includes.
But there are actually some real benefits to watching trashy, exploitative, mind-numbing television -- and those of us who reap these benefits are definitely way smarter than those who don't.
The most famous study about the effects of mindless media was conducted in 1983 by Janice Radway.
She studied the lives of housewives who read "trashy" romance novels and examined how those women interacted with the text.
Up until Radway's study, it had been widely assumed that these novels perpetuated existing oppressive ideas about women -- that they were subservient, passive and irrational -- and women who read the novels just accepted and replicated these ideological messages in their lives.
Radway, however, found women actually used these stories to envision a life that wasn't like the one they had been forced into by patriarchy and capitalism.
These romance novels allowed everyday women to imagine a more complicated, active and pleasurable existence -- one they weren't getting in real life.
Dr. Brett Ingram, a communications professor at Boston College, said this study relates to why we indulge in trashy media.
He told Elite Daily,
Watching devalued genres allows us to 'experience,' in a way, different modes of being without having to actually do the things about which we fantasize, things that might bring about damaging consequences for us or the ones we love if we ACTUALLY did them... 'Trashy' TV allows the imagination to wander into extremes of experience and return safely.
Dr. Ingram called this experience "vacationing." When you vacation via trashy television, you relax, indulge and let your mind wander into those "extremes" of reality -- but then, you go back to your normal life.
If, for example, those housewives from Radway's study broke free from the shackles of patriarchy and capitalism in real life, they'd probably face real social consequences, since actually doing so in order to live the complicated, active and pleasurable life about which they fantasized was so impossibly taboo.
Temporarily indulging in the idea, though, was harmless.
Similarly, when we watch something like "Rich Kids of Beverly Hills," we vacation by imagining what life would be like if we got everything we wanted and were really, really greedy about it.
And then, when we're done, we resume our boring nine-to-five desk jobs and two-for-one shopping deals at Target.
This kind of thing also happens when we read our very own modern-day version of a trashy romance novel: "Fifty Shades of Grey."
Dr. Ingram told Elite Daily,
Millions of 'everyday' women want sexual adventure, but cultural codes such as those that result in slut-shaming prevent them from expressing or acting on this the way men can. The element of BDSM gives them an 'out' of sort and allows them to indulge without being 'slutty.'
Chains and whips, complete submission to a man and deep, obsessive lust -- these are all culturally taboo despite the fact that they might exist in the fantasies of millions of women around the world.
So, reading "Fifty Shades of Grey" allows women to temporarily embody a totally different, fantasy-driven persona -- without those added stigmas -- and then return to their normal, vanilla sex lives.
On the contrary, what's sometimes pleasurable about trashy media is the way we compare ourselves against the people starring in it.
Dr. Marilyn Matelski, another communications professor at Boston College, said when we watch others engage in bad behavior on television, it affirms that we are not like them, so it makes us feel better about ourselves.
While I might wish I could take luxurious trips to Montana like the Kardashians, I'm grateful I don't have to deal with their excessive family drama or nosy paparazzi, and my aversion to those things makes me want to watch them happen to someone else.
However, too much of any good thing, even relaxing, mind-numbing television, can be harmful.
Dr. Matelski told Elite Daily,
When the virtual reality of 'Big Brother' or 'Hell's Kitchen' becomes our own reality, [it distracts] from dealing with our own relationships and understanding of events in today's world."
If you find yourself using reality television to avoid confronting your life and to cloud your perception of the world around you, then maybe that's a problem.
But, hey, if you're just using it to unwind, to vacation and to make yourself feel a better about your own shenanigans -- go right ahead.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go find out who gets the penthouse. My bets are on Jonathan.