A lot has changed since MTV’s The Challenge (formerly Real World/Road Rules) first premiered 22 years ago.
In recent years alone, we’ve seen major movements like #MeToo and the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team’s fight for equal pay enter the mainstream conversation, leading to major changes in the way we talk about gender politics.
And yet, while we watch the world slowly change around us, The Challenge remains the same. Watching it feels like getting sucked back into the early 2000s when rampant slut-shaming and toxic masculinity weren’t even questioned by the vast majority of the public. It feels like being in a terrible time capsule except for worse because everything happening onscreen has only happened recently. It’s a painful reminder of how much progress in society still hasn’t been made. And, as much as I love the show, it’s getting harder and harder to watch.
This season isn’t even over yet and it’s already featured major plotlines of extreme toxic masculinity, emotional abuse, and slut-shaming.
First, we have the disturbing dynamic between engaged vets Tori and Jordan. Jordan is constantly belittling and condescending Tori (as well as most everyone else on the show) with snide remarks about her performances in the challenges. But things really hit a low point during Tori’s elimination challenge, which features the constant background noise of Jordan furiously swearing at Tori for not doing things his way. Even after she loses he continues to scream, “Why didn’t you f*cking listen?” before reminding her that this was her elimination to win. He eventually hugs her and tells her he loves her.
Maybe a few years ago this edit would’ve worked to create the sense of a loving farewell. Now it screams emotional abuse and toxic codependency.
Next up we have Nelson, who I’d like to introduce to anyone who thinks society has come a long way from our slut-shaming days. At one point, Nelson decides to turn on Kailah, calling her the “foulest woman here” and a “slut” because she had the audacity to question him in front of the group.
The men have to sit Nelson down in a later scene to explain why slut-shaming is wrong. Production tries and fails to chalk it up to “boys being boys” while we watch Nelson’s halfhearted apology to Kailah in which he blames the bunker for his actions.
Rounding things out, we get anxiety-inducing calls between Jenna and her longtime boyfriend Zach, a former vet and card-carrying member of the toxic masculinity club. In each episode, Zach makes emotionally abusive and manipulative demands that she quit the game because of a vague cheating accusation (which he bases off of years-old DMs and texts he has read after hacking her phone and accounts, but I digress.) He emotionally blackmails Jenna after dismissing her, threatening her, and gaslighting her.
Zach’s overt misogyny shouldn’t be as jarring as it is considering he was the originator of the “swamp donkey” term back in 2015. But in the post-#MeToo era, it hits home in a way that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. The “will she or won’t she quit for her abusive boyfriend” narrative comes to a head when Jenna sends herself in for elimination but comes out with a red skull.
I’d be lying if I said that The Challenge hadn’t always been problematic. It’s an inevitable side effect of the reality TV equation of free alcohol + celebrity wannabes living together in a confined space.
But now, the extreme toxic masculinity, emotional abuse, and slut-shaming that has always run unchecked are unacceptable at best and painful to watch at worst.
It’s triggering and exhausting having to continue to root for the underdog when the underdog always seems to be a strong woman surviving a toxic masculinity-fueled environment. The Challenge hasn’t changed since 1998, but fans’ intolerance for the blatant sexism and misogyny may finally force it to.